The Delhi Student Gang-Rape and the Culture of Violence Against Women
India is currently in a state of disgust and shock over the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in the capital, New Delhi, on Sunday, Dec 16th 2012. This single event has galvanized the city of Delhi and has also made people across India sit up and take notice. In a country where violence against women is endemic - even the number of cases of sexual violence that do get reported are disturbingly large - one incident triggering such a mass reaction is quite rare. Delhi has earned the reputation as the "rape capital" of India and even assaults of women in moving vehicles, such as this one, are not without precedent - women have been forced into vehicles and gang-raped before. Of course, the brutality of this particular incident, where the female victim was also assaulted with an iron rod has particularly touched people to the core.
There have been two main kinds of reactions to this incident. For many, this has to with security of women in the capital and also the impunity of the perpetrators of such incidents, which indicate a culture of brazenness – not in any rural heartland of India, but right in the showpiece capital of the country. It is not as though women citizens of Delhi and its surrounding areas (called the National Capital Region) are unaware of continual harassment and a culture of fear that exists in the capital, with incidents of sexual violence occurring almost routinely.
Among metropolitan cities in India, Delhi has by far the highest number of rape cases reported. It also is notorious for various incidents of molestation and harassment directed towards women – and a particularly regressive kind of conservatism in sexual attitudes. Protests against such incidents have been uncoordinated and most people have almost taken it as an assumed risk of living in Delhi. But is seems as if this particular incident, especially with its gruesomeness, seems to have functioned like the straw that broke the camel's back as immediate protests against it broke out, first in Delhi and slowly in other parts of the country.
For many others, however, this is just one incident among many of the most egregious kinds of abuse directed towards women in India and they wonder if this is only a bourgeois reaction to the assault of an evidently relatively upper-class woman. “Why do such people not take to the streets when such a fate is met with time and again by poorer and more marginalized women across India, who are often beaten, stripped and gang-raped by those who wield power,” is the question that is also being asked. It is also pointed out that rape is often used as a tool of domination and control by no other than the state as has been evident in the regions of Kashmir, Manipur and Chattisgarh in India.
So how does one justify the intense anger against this particular incident while forgetting or being ignorant of the fate of countless sisters not in urban settings, often having no one to hear their plight even months or years after they are submitted to sexual violence? It is being pointed out in this relation that the anger being expressed today, mostly in urban centers of India, is one which is arising out of an ability to “identify” with the incident – the geographical space itself, the activity (of returning from watching a movie and boarding a bus) etc – whereas the other scenarios are too distant from the common experiences of most middle-class Indians, who seem to be constituting a large number of protestors.
In this connection, it is worth mentioning that recently the country was also horrified by a cluster of rape cases, especially against women from the lowest castes in India (Dalits), in the north Indian state of Haryana (which forms the northern boundary of Delhi) - more than 350 rape cases were reported in the first six months of 2012 (and about 20 as recently as in November 2012). Haryana is a state where patriarchal institutions remain strong and many characterize it as beset with a feudal mentality. On Dec 5, 2012, the South Asia Center of Cambridge, MA, to which I belong, organized a panel titled "Caste, Class and Sexual Violence in India," in which we sought to focus particularly on the high incidence of rape cases against the Dalits in Haryana. Our discussion, however, also sought to zoom out of Haryana to understand the larger issues of violence against women in India and even the role of the state, when it actually employs sexual abuse as a tool and when it chooses to look the other way in cases of sexual violence against women from marginalized communities.
Most of the cases in Haryana have been almost equally brutal and heinous and while there was a certain outrage in the country, it was not one of such urgency and power as witnessed on the occasion of the current incident in Delhi. Of course, the fact that Delhi is the capital of a country jostling for space as a super-power, the fact that it is the seat of national political power and is home to a variety of progressive organizations, including women's organizations – and this incident happened right in their backyard – could have something to do with the reaction.
Be that as it may, one cannot engage in the lurid act of comparing traumas. If this is the incident that leads to a conversation and action on the state of women in India, then so be it. It is long overdue and no country can hope to build a fair and just society if its women are oppressed. So if among the demands being voiced after this incident are those more obviously urban, city-and-town-based, measures like better street-lighting and police patrolling to forestall such events, then each such measure has to be looked into. Other demands for a review of the existing laws on rape and as importantly, an overhaul of the process of legal redress starting from getting a complaint registered with the police to an eventual conviction are also valid issues that should be pursued. As report after report has shown, attitudes of the law enforcement bodies is weighted heavily against the survivors ("the they-are-to-blame or they-were-asking-for-it mentality").
However, as is evident, this is not merely an issue of law-and-order and the protests and thinking generated by this event cannot limit themselves to such. A society as undeniably, viciously and adamantly unequal as most of India, in which women have, in a majority of instances, traditionally never been accorded a status equal to men, where subservience to men is inscribed in several law codes and other codes of conduct, it is hardly surprising that the treatment of women is often despicable. Though this is the same nation that prides itself on the concept of Shakti as divine feminine energy, its many goddesses who, ironically, triumph over fearsome male opponents, its many female poet-saints who defied convention and chose to reject male authority and societal norms - none of this seems to have stopped the nation's male population from abusing women as and when they have seen fit. Instead a contrary message seems to have registered loud and clear with the men - this is a society in which the male matters, in which the girl-child is sought to be done away with before birth, one in which a daughter is a burden to her family - and men can have their way with women.
Violence against women is also an all-India phenomena; while it might be more preponderant in the northern Indian states, it occurs with sickening regularity throughout India and therefore regional finger-pointing can achieve nothing. However, this is also not just about a social aberration or a defect in social order– this is not just about patriarchal institutions giving a license to runaway passions and a freedom to transgress the rights of women as a natural, god-given right. Certainly, social and religious sanctions play a big role in the perception of the role and place of women in Indian society. But one cannot lose sight of where the state, with its monopoly on violence, fits in all of this by perpetrating, sanctioning or condoning sexual violence. Hence we have to remember that it is this state that we are forced to turn to in seeking for justice, a system whose own hands are not clean.
Any thinking about solutions has to be comprehensive and must include short-term and long-term measures. Therefore it must include ways of deterrence, education and social reform. We have to recognize the deeply prejudiced social attitudes we hold and have to fight in a concerted manner to shatter those myths about gender inequality. This is a fight in which men have to participate and show the way. This has to be in the form of a social revolution. Nothing short of a change in attitudes can bring about the changes we want to see.
However, the desired social changes towards gender equality cannot be decoupled from attitudes towards equality in general. With deeply entrenched caste-biases, the task is monumental. However, without basic changes in attitudes towards human dignity and worth, there is no way talk about gender equality can be espoused without hypocrisy. Next only is the need to reign in the role of the state, in whatever guise, in violating the rights of citizens, especially women citizens in the most abhorrent manner, for whatever reason – security, neo-liberal development or even in the most basic transactions of justice, as when the police themselves become rapists when women approach them for justice.
Yes, the need for action is obvious and urgent. While not losing sight of bigger goals of a more equal and egalitarian society, we must engage in all steps that will ensure that all forms of injustices towards women are countered and remedied. As is plain, this is not the task of any one group or one personality who must lead the revolution. But a revolutionary change it must be and that change has to be constituted of a sustained effort and struggle at every small step to dismantle every edifice and every assumption of privilege, every sanction at superiority and every exercise of power to oppress women.
Umang Kumar is a member of the South Asia Center in Cambridge, Mass.