Revisiting the Delhi gangrape six months on


I was recently asked to comment on the events surrounding the Delhi gang rape six months on. While I had commented on this in January 2013 right after the mass demonstrations against the apathy of the Delhi government and its politicians in responding to the violent rape of a young woman, I felt less sure of commenting on societal changes since then. After all six months is a short time in the life of revolutions and if radical social change is expected, it was not evident in the reports of continued rapes in the media. However BBC Radio was keen that I do this interview particularly since I had reported on this incident when it first happened. So here are my short responses to the four questions BBC posed to me.

What are the changes in societal attitudes in India since the Delhi gang rape in December 2012

There has been a huge change in public debates in India around rape. This change is largely because of the incessant work done by NGOs, charity organizations and activists who have continually debated the endemic ideological and institutionalized problems around rape and justice to rape victims. This is also due to the mass protests that shaped the urban landscapes of Indian metropolises like Delhi, Mumbai Chennai and Kolkata. There is certainly a different ‘air’ around the topic of rape – it produces passion, anger, frustration, despair and (ironically) hope. Talk to anyone in Delhi now, and they will use all these emotions (and more) to describe the apathy of the government, police corruption, moral policing by the judiciary and the failures of society in preventing rape and punishing its perpetrators. It is not that rape did not exist earlier, but the horror of it existing in the ‘new’ India, the emerging economic superpower, the India of the 21st century seems to evoke much more emotion than it did in the Delhi I remember.

It was not so charged in the years that I remember growing up in Delhi. Sure, the newspapers were filled even then with news of rape, domestic abuse, dowry deaths or violence of some form or the other everyday. Such news struck a chord with parents with young daughters who went about on their own in the city, families with married daughters facing dowry harassment, or even parents with young children who were cared for by others while they were away at work. I remember my parents’ anxieties when I began to take public transport in the city to go to university, their shock when I used to come home accompanied by police because I reported my molesters, or their horror when I confronted a junior police officer for making passes at me. Those who live or have grown up in Delhi, will recognize these incidents as only too common and understand my parents cause for worry. For there were a few unwritten rules of these everyday rituals of harassment –

a) This is common (hence nothing surprising) in public places
b) Women should not protest since if they protest the harassment will be worse and might lead to revenge attacks
c) No bystander will come to support them even if women protest so it is better to walk away and not raise a ‘fuss’

These unwritten rules drew rape and a range of other forms of gendered violence within a normalized cartography of virile North Indian masculinity. These rules also made violence itself normal, mundane, blase and an ‘ordinary’ aspect of women’s everyday life in the city. More insidiously, these unwritten rules constructed rape and violence a ‘women’s issue’, a woman’s problem that needed to be resolved for and by women if things had to improve. No surprise then that each time I encountered any form of verbal or bodily violation in public places, I also encountered a group of passive bystanders, waiting to see what would happen next, just as one would wait outside the cinemas to catch the first screening of a Bollywood latest release.

So have attitudes really changed now that we have Nirbhaya and a number of other women and young children who have been tortured, maimed and terrorized and even given their lives to rape? Have things changed since the mass protests exposed the government, law enforcement and judiciary in all their failings and incompetence?

What has the government done since then?

The primary contribution of the government in the past 6 months has been to move from indifference, aggression, inertia to reactiveness.This was seen in the passing of the new Anti-Rape law. The anti-rape law for the first time recognizes rape as forced penetration rather than as vaginal intercourse. This is a big shift from the earlier patriarchal description of rape, which meant that oral/anal sex was not considered rape. Crucially it also includes a number of other crimes such as stalking, disrobing, acid attacks, that are directed as ‘violating the modesty of women’. And in terms of structural violence, the law also prescribes disciplinary procedures for police officers or public servants who refuse to register a case of rape. Most important and responding to the demands of the mass protests, the law prescribes stricter punishments for the perpetrators of rape.

There are various shortcomings of this new anti-rape law, which have been highlighted and discussed by a number of activists and feminist organizations  as well as lawyers and civil society groups in India. The main critique is that the law does not go far enough in broadening the definition of rape – thus it is treating the symptoms rather than the causes. In fact the law does not deal with spousal rape (even if the ‘spouse’ is a minor), homosexual rape, or deal with the problematic determination of age of consent. It is more focused on increasing the terms of punitive justice, by conceptualizing justice through incarceration and death penalty, and thereby drawing the body into the cycle of crime and punishment. The intricacies of these shortcomings have been discussed in great detail and I do not wish to repeat them here.

Two issues however stand out in terms of their invisibility in the media coverage both in India and internationally. First that the law deals specifically with rape, thus dissociating it with a range of other forms of gendered and sexualized violence that includes rape but is not limited to it. This is a missed opportunity since rape is part of a spectrum of violence that ranges from emotional and mental harassment to violence against homosexuals and transgendered people, to spousal rape, to domestic violence and dowry deaths. Treating these in a piecemeal way reinforces the message that sexual violence is directed only at women by men and hence it is a ‘women’s issue’. This, instead of challenging the forms of symbolic, moral and material violence embedded in patriarchy plays straight into validating patriarchy as the only form of social contract through which men and women are related in a hierarchical and often violent relationship.

Second, and related to the above is the often accepted assumption that rape or other forms of sexual violence occur in public places. Yet, given the prevalence of domestic violence, we should know that this is not necessarily true, but indeed that rape is often more deeply experienced within private spaces of the home, from members of the family who claim to be protecting their women from the advances of other men in public places. This is the double bind of masculinity – while it claims to protect women and keep family honour by restricting women’s transgression of the boundaries between public and private, the same masculinity often turns against its women to take away this ‘honour’ within the home. In light of what feminists have been arguing for a long time, it is important that the anti-rape  law exposes and challenges the false constructs of home and outside and deals with sexual violence whether in public or private spaces.

These shortcomings are not surprising. The law almost did not get passed, and were it not for the continued struggles of young men and women refusing to ‘let go’ of this issue, campaigning by different organizations, and general uproar in the media, there would not even be a law that highlights the seriousness of rape as a crime. Let us also not forget that this law was passed by mostly male politicians, a number of whom are of a ‘misogynist bent’. Those following the passing of this law in the Indian Parliament will remember the much publicised words of the MP, Mulayam Singh Yadav who said jokingly during the debate ,”Who amongst us [men] have not followed women?” That an anti-rape law, any anti-rape law was passed by such men is evidence enough that there has been a radical shift in the Indian psyche, in that it is no longer just a women’s issue.

Is the media reporting more or are there more incidents?

This is harder to interpret. The media has always reported crime and rape and other forms of violence. One of the laments of the middle-classes in the city has always been about the rise in such incidents of violence, which were exacerbated by media reportage. However, since the violent gangrape in December 2012, news of rape has become more newsworthy. Thus earlier, while rape in smaller cities and towns used to occupy the middle or last pages of the newspaper, they now occupy front pages. The other reason behind the increased visibility of rape in the media is due to the presence of social media sites – twitter, facebook and so on. This, in the hands of the common public has made news travel faster, in soundbites, and in a hugely effective format. It also allows the emergence and public visibility of a number of emotions around rape and sexual violence – anger, disgust, call to action, and a number of other affects that were not possible when newspapers or television were the only routes to current news.

An article in the Guardian  that appeared (one of many) after the Delhi gangrape case, suggested that rape in India has increased over the years, and this is because of a bitter culture of violence against women that has not ceased despite India’s economic success. The author suggests that successful women in India reach their position despite and not because of cultural norms. These opinions are worth considering yet they seem to put the blame on ‘culture’ too easily and without reflection. When the blaming of state and police is exhausted, culture often becomes the scapegoat for a number of symbolic and material violence inflicted over women. Yet, it is not one homogenous Indian ‘culture’ as the West constructs it but the wider geopolitics of gender, class, religion and even urban or rural locations that determine attitudes towards women within the home and outside. These attitudes are not singular, rather they are diverse – varying between middle- and working class households, between cities and villages, between ethnic and religious differences and so on. To call it a problem of ‘culture’ is overlooking the huge diversity in cultural attitudes towards gender that exists across India and therefore indicative of wider Western misunderstanding around the relationship between gender, space and law in Indian society.

There is another possibility behind the increase reporting of rape cases in India. We cannot discount the huge changes that are gripping Indian society in the face of negotiating the stark contrasts between violent crimes and India’s wider economic success. It is possible that as a result of the mass campaigning around violence against women, rape itself is being reported more to the police rather than there being an absolute increase in the number of rapes per se. Thus while the increase in rape reports are hugely upsetting, perhaps we should also consider some of these reports as stories that would not have been told had they occurred before December 2012.

What are the chances that things will change?

Indian is seeing sea changes in attitudes. Unfortunately much of these radical shifts are taking shape only amongst urban youths. This gives us hope and makes us despair simultaneously. Hope, because youth are the future of India and they can bring about changes through subtle and active means – through protests, through social media and through their work in civil society organizations. This form of involvement is crucial to change cultural attitudes towards shame and honour. Despair, because they do not seem to have much voice in politics or law-making, which can actually challenge gender norms through a rule of law. However, the mass protests in particular showed us that rape is not seen as a ‘women’s issue any more, at least within a section of Indian society. They suggest that both men and women are now challenging the definitions of shame, honour and taboo within society. They show that both men and women were abhorred not just by the gangrape, but also at the reaction of the politicians, police, and the Indian Prime Minister. They show that both men and women want to work towards bringing in changes to Indian society, bureaucracy, laws and policies to make public places safer for women and men. Will the same changes happen in their homes too? We need to wait and see.

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