India on trial: Why is sexual violence so prevalent in the country?

Baldev/POLARIS

On the evening of Dec. 16, 2012, a young man named Ram Singh set out on a bus with five others from his slum on the edge of the posh South Delhi district. The bus was used for hire by a school by day; Ram Singh was usually the driver. But on this night, he and his brother, Mukesh, were out for a joyride, and they had persuaded Vinay Sharma, a handyman at a gym, and Pawan Gupta, a fruit seller, to come along, as well as Akshay Thakur, who had just arrived in Delhi to look for a job. By the end of the night the men’s stories had changed forever; they now stand accused of gang raping, assaulting and murdering a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a moving bus—a brutal story that made headlines around the world, launching a global debate about rape and violence against women.

The doctors at Safdarjung Hospital, where the woman was first taken, were horrified. “It’s more than rape,” one was quoted as saying in the papers next morning. The woman’s intestines had to be removed and she battled for life on a ventilator. As another day passed and Delhi’s citizenry realized she was unlikely to survive, anger spread. It wasn’t the first such case, nor was it the last—there were even cases subsequently reported in India’s capital, taking the total number of rapes in 2012 to more than 700. Yet this case angered and saddened Indians as no other had done.

Among those shattered by the news were the women of the Ravidas Camp slum. They still can’t believe what their boys allegedly did on that fateful day. “At least my son had the shame to admit it and say that he should be hanged,” said Vinay Sharma’s mother last week, sobbing. She spoke on condition she wouldn’t be named. In addition to working at a gym, her son waited tables at parties to supplement the income of his father, a construction worker. “He was a really nice, respectful boy,” said a neighbour, “and so were the others.” There was a sixth man, the most violent of them, according to the victim’s mother, who says she was told this by her daughter before she died. But he cannot be named; he was a minor who left home six years ago when he was 11.

The five adults may indeed be hanged if they are found guilty. The hearing began in Delhi last week in-camera to keep out the media. The men’s lawyers have said the media and public outrage have prejudiced the case against their clients.

The repercussions of the incident, though, go far beyond the trial’s outcome. Every day for two weeks, people protested en masse in the capital and across India against what has come to be known as “the Delhi gang rape.” Regular protest sites became memorials when the girl died in a Singapore hospital. The protests, many of them spontaneous and leaderless, repeatedly used the word azadi, or freedom. In one vigil held on New Year’s Eve outside the cinema where the woman and a male friend had gone before the attack, the protesters chanted, to the sound of cymbals: “We want freedom: freedom in the night, in the day, in the mall, in the bus, in the train, in pubs and offices and in the Parliament too; freedom to love and marry, and to not marry, from moral policing, to choose our partners, to dance, to not follow dress codes, to not be raped . . . ”

The events of the past month have shone a spotlight on the issues of rape and violence against women in India, and inspired similar protests in neighbouring countries. It’s a long-overdue discussion. “Every 22 minutes a rape takes place in India,” says activist Kamla Bhasin, who runs the South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers (SANGAT). According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the conviction rate in rape cases in 2011 was a dismal 26 per cent. “It is going to be a long battle,” Bhasin says.

It already is. The national debate has resulted in a number of controversial, victim-blaming statements from public figures. Abhijit Mukherjee, a ruling-party lawmaker who is also the son of India’s president, said in a speech that women faced such a fate because they “dented and painted” themselves, by which he meant they wore makeup. A minister in the state of Madhya Pradesh said women should not cross a certain line in asserting themselves and a spiritual leader, Asaram Bapu, said the Delhi woman would not have been raped had she addressed the perpetrators as brothers.

The back and forth highlights something of a cultural war that has sprung up. On the one side are socially conservative traditionalists who believe Western dress, going out at night and even eating Chinese food are to blame for women being assaulted. On the other is a changing guard of men and women of all ages who are agitating for progress.

For many in the West, this tension has come as a surprise. India, after all, is the largest democracy in the world, with the world’s largest number of English speakers, an economic powerhouse where women work in IT centres, hospitals, universities, and every other field. India has several leading women politicians, including the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party. The country also has laws in place to give them equality, at least on paper, and to protect them from domestic violence, rape, and so on.

And yet there is a deep undercurrent of sexism that’s reflected in a sign recently carried by a female protester: “Proud to be Indian, terrified to be an Indian woman.” At issue are not only the serious problems in the way that India’s rape laws are enforced and prosecuted, but also a broader paternalistic and often restrictive approach to women’s rights that is often framed as concern for their safety. Women, along with men, pack into Mumbai and Delhi’s busy bars, and increasingly they dress like any Westerner. But they travel by private car or taxi; they know not to take public transit at night, or to walk alone. Most hard-wire themselves to the challenges of modern life in India.

The tension is seen most in the booming metropolises of the new India, which are fed by migrants from smaller cities, towns and villages. Among other things, the big city gives women economic independence and a new-found right to work, go out, drink freely, and choose their partners. But such freedom also produces a backlash from men clinging to the old order. “As women enter workplaces and the public arena, their boldness and confidence seem to trigger a sense of insecurity in a society where men are used to being in charge,” says sociologist Ratna Kapur.

Nine years ago, Bangalore-based artist Jasmeen Patheja wondered why it was so difficult for women to assert their freedom. She switched on her tape recorder and went out, asking men why they sexually harassed women on the streets and in public transport, passing lewd comments, touching, groping and in extreme cases, raping. She was surprised to see how many men answered her question by blaming women. “They said they targeted women who walked in a certain way or wore clothes such as jeans,” she says. She soon realized many Indian men felt they had the licence to behave that way with women outside the family and their neighbourhood. “Such a sense of entitlement to define women’s role and freedom in society is given to men by Indian culture, by how parents bring them up, saying boys will be boys, or by what they see their role models in films do,” she says.

Patheja felt, back in 2004, an urgent need to break the silence around street sexual harassment—what Indian newspapers even today refer to as “Eve teasing.” Thus was born the Blank Noise Project, a series of public interventions across many cities. The project challenged the false justification of sexual harassment and rape that “provocative dressing” by women amounted to their “asking for it.” Patheja asked women to donate their clothes for an exhibition—clothes they were wearing when they were molested. Another intervention involved asking women to blog about their most scarring memory of sexual harassment; hundreds of such accounts came pouring out in a kind of mass catharsis. Many of the respondents got together and participated in events late in the night outside cinema halls and shopping complexes, making the point they had the right to the night as much as men did. “I think Blank Noise started many conversations,” says Patheja.

What would it take for women to assert such freedom in the city? Three women in Mumbai, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, researched the question for three years and came up with the book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. The book maps “exclusions and negotiations that women from different classes and communities encounter in the nation’s urban public spaces.” It argues that loitering or walking aimlessly—something that can invite the word “slut” and worse from men on the street—can be a radical action for Indian women, and the country needs to take equally radical action to make India a truly modern country.

“We argue that the discourse of safety is restrictive and finally dependent on women demonstrating respectability and purpose in public space,” says Phadke, one of the authors.

The debate over the Delhi rape still continues to be dominated by the competing ideas of protecting women and letting them be. But many also argue that what is needed, in fact, is a revamp of India’s archaic rape laws, as well as major reforms to policing. A hidden-camera sting operation last year showed officials of the Delhi Police blaming women for rape, and calling women who had come forward to report sexual assaults “prostitutes.” The corruption at the police station is, for rape survivors, compounded by the misogyny of the police force. Rape survivors often have to go through a humiliating two-finger test, administered by a doctor to determine if the woman has previously engaged in sexual activity; Human Rights Watch has asked India to abolish the test, which it says is often used to acquit rape suspects. Lawyers of accused rapists invariably accuse rape survivors of not being “respectable” women.

Women’s-rights activists will watch the case with interest: the history of the Indian women’s movement has been propelled by landmark rape cases that inspired similar outrage and protest in the 1970s and ’80s. The cases became turning points in the women’s movement, winning legislative challenges and getting the parliament and the courts to make and implement better laws. In Rajasthan in 1992, the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, for instance—punishment for intervening in a professional capacity to stop the marriage of a young girl—resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that mandated all organizations to form committees that urge women to report sexual harassment in the office.

Among the more successful ideas was a law that prohibits the media from naming a rape survivor, and obliges them to seek her family’s written permission to name her even after she has died. This has helped more women come out to register police cases and pursue justice.

“We told women that they don’t lose everything when they are raped; they should shun the idea that it is the end of their life. It is the rapist who should feel shame and social stigma,” says SANGAT’s Kamla Bhasin, a veteran activist who has been with the Indian women’s movement for 40 years. This time around, she feels hopeful.

“When we began speaking against rape, it used to be said that feminists hate men. I feel that something is changing,” she says, echoing the views of others.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. As a government committee reviews thousands of suggestions from the public on how the government can prevent rape, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), said such rapes were taking place in urban India and not Bharat, the latter being India’s traditional Hindi name. He blamed an old bogeyman, Westernization, for corrupting Indian society.

For Asha Kowtal of the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, that couldn’t be further than the truth. She argues that oppression and ancient class and caste tensions have done far more to perpetuate the current culture. The word dalit refers to the former untouchables—former, because the Indian constitution outlaws untouchability, even though the community still faces very poor treatment from the upper castes, especially in villages. Kowtal says four dalit women are raped every day, according to government statistics, which she says understate the problem. “Dalit women are raped to silence them and their families, and often to silence an entire neighbourhood of them. The idea is to maintain the dominance and hegemony of the upper castes,” she says. She points to the 2006 Khairlanji massacre, in which an entire village in the state of Maharashtra lynched to death a dalit family. “Before the dalit women were gang-raped, the upper-caste women beat them up.”

Rape has also become shockingly common in conflict zones within India. In Kashmir in 1991, all the women of the village of Kunan Poshpora were allegedly raped by soldiers of the Indian Army. In Manipur in 2004, the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, allegedly by the 17 Assam Rifles paramilitary soldiers who barged into her home and eventually riddled her body with bullets, resulted in a protest in which women marched naked in the street with a banner that read, “Indian army rape us.” In mass riots against Muslims, rape by Hindu nationalist groups has also been widely reported.

Filmmaker Rahul Roy, author of A Little Book on Men, about Indian masculinity, sees this culture of rape as “a war declared on women . . . an assault with the intention of marking bodies with a set of messages that can speak not just through the personal trauma of what the woman will go through but by what will be visible.”

There are indicators that something fundamental may be changing. Two stories illustrate the intensity of the moment. In Delhi on Dec. 25, a 19-year-old man, Chandrakant Singh, committed suicide because of the shame and social stigma after he was charged with harassing two women at a bus stop, an act he had allegedly been committing along with a friend since October. He hanged himself from a ceiling fan to avoid going to the police.

The case was under-reported, but was a symptom of a violent crisis in Indian masculinity. In other spheres that perpetuate such violent masculinity, the Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh raised public ire for his songs, the title of the most objectionable one translating to “I’m a rapist.” An online petition asking a five-star hotel to cancel his performance on New Year’s Eve met with success. Honey Singh subsequently claimed he had never written or sung the song; it was a conspiracy against him.

Incidents like these reflect a subtly changing climate in India. One interesting observation on that shift came from Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of the One Billion Rising campaign, which addresses violence against women. Ensler told a press conference in Delhi recently, “I can’t think of any country or any time when people have protested in such a manner against crime against women. Why are not people in the U.S. doing what people in Delhi are doing?” Ensler called the recent changes “a breakthrough in consciousness,” adding, “With the discussion on sexual violence, the window to women’s equality is open wider here than I’ve ever seen it.”

India on trial: Why is sexual violence so prevalent in the country?

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • Christians also rape m’dear…..women and children. Ask the pope.

      • Matthew 13:30
        Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

        • All religions are anti-women….and christianity is noted for rape and pillage.

          • Such a foolish statement. God will exalt any man or woman who humbles themselves under His mighty hand. They will rule the world with Christ…..and be like the angels……

            ……Matthew 5:5…..
            Blessed are the meek,For they shall inherit the earth.

          • There is no God.

          • Not for you Emily, that’s for sure.

            We’ve known for a long time that you Emily are Rosemary’s baby, a nasty kettle of fish indeed..

          • Emily is a totally confused individual on many things. But recently, aside from that, a writer brought up the matter of Ephesians Chapter 5 as evidence that Christianity advocates the oppression of women.

            Another writer responded and I recorded it because I think it’s important and refutes absolutely any attempt by anyone to promote the absurd idea that our great religion is oppressive of women.The refuting writer wrote as follows:

            —————————————————————————

            “I believe you have a confused interpretation of Ephesians Chapter 5 that deals with Christian relationships generally but with additional guidance for married people. There’s nothing here whatever about oppression of
            women. Quite to the contrary.

            In Ephesians 5:20 the writer wants us all to “give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And in verse 21 the writer asks each of us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

            In other words in all relationships, husband and wife, parent and child, whatever, a third party is involved, Christ himself, and we are advised to conduct all relationships in light of Christ’s own spirit.

            In dealing specifically with married couples in verse 21 husband and wife have each been asked to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. Verse 24 is as you stated, it’s a repetition of guidance for wives asking them once again to submit to the person now their husband, but in verse 25 husbands are asked to love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.

            And it all relates back to Genesis 2:24 where a man shall be joined to his wife and they shall become one flesh. And in Proverbs 18:22 we learn “He who finds a wife finds a good thing.”

            There is no oppression. The Bible is telling us how to find a spouse that we can submit to, each one to the other, and how man and wife through love and respect can achieve the blessing of an ideal marriage in which
            they can stand before God as one flesh.”

          • Well spoken……..God Bless…..

        • “30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. 31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

          32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. 33 Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.”

          No one should take seriously someone who believes they should get their morals from a guy who casts demons into farm animals. When’s the last time you’ve seen an exorcist?

          • The devil still loves to inhabit the swine of the earth who wollow in filth………not pigs either……

          • There is no devil either.

            Lay off the drugs.

          • Where then do evil thoughts come from, that lead to evil actions??

          • From inside the human mind, same as everything else. Everyone has ‘evil’ thoughts….but most people don’t act on them. We also all have good thoughts…more and more people are acting on them.

            Some people hear voices, some have hallucinations, most people don’t, but it varies with the individual…..why on earth anyone would want to attribute this to demons or devils I don’t know. They too are products of the imagination.

        • Plumb, please come back in here and see a response to Emily with a book reference that you will enjoy reading..

      • Those people, the ones you refer to as raping women and children, are not following the teaching of “Christianity” and you know it.

        • The Bible is full of genocide, infanticide, fratricide, rape, murder, slavery, invasion, incest, stoning and a God who’s a homicidal maniac.

          Just pick your verses.

          • Well you pick a verse, any Bible verse, that you believe advocates any of those things and tell me which one it is..

          • LOL Sorry ChuckyCheese, I’m not posting the entire Old Testament for ya.

            Of course you could google chapters and verses yourself…..but then you’re not really interested ….it’s just more nonsense.

            I thought you’d at least be fun, but you can’t even manage that. Ciao.

          • Well Emily you’re pathetic. Once again you make asinine statements that you can’t back up and everyone here knows you do it; I’ve seen them laughing at you.

            Emily old buddy, there’s nothing in the Bible advocating rape, murder incest …… dada dada dada. And if your old 300 pound bull kindergarten teacher from the NDP told you there is, she’s full of it.

            The Bible Emily, in addition to being a great piece of literature is a history. And I know you’re fully aware of what history is Emily because your political idol, Joseph Stalin, was big on history. In fact Joe talked constantly about history and when he did he always made his famous remark, “История принадлежит тем, кто напишите его” ….. “ History belongs to those who write it.”

            In the case of the Bible, history is presented from the perspective of a specific group, the Israelites, and the perspective it offers is theirs alone. If your pet god Stalin or your fat NDP kindergarten teacher had written the Bible we would expect such a history to be slanted to the point of propaganda, but the history in the Bible is designed to give us both the highs and the lows of the Israelites and the progress of their journey. It’s a story that tells us about ourselves as human beings and points to the direction we need to go to make life for everyone work out for the best.

            No advocacy for anything in your list Emily. You’re as confused about the Bible as you are about everything else. Sorry.

            ———–
            Edit – Attribution to Professor Bruce Meyer – “The Golden Thread”

            http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2852967-the-golden-thread

          • Well now that you’ve proved you’ve never even read the Bible….and are in fact as ignorant as Paddys pig on this and every other topic you’ve grappled with….that’s an end to your rubbish.

            SMOOCH!

            Edit: Oh sorry, I forgot…..Ciao.

          • Smooch?
            I think not Emily. I’d (he he he) wed a bulldog first.

            Oh Emily, I keep forgetting to re-ask. What happened when you gave the air smoochies to Barry along the parade route at the inauguration.

          • Nah…that’s how your parents got you.

            Nighty-night.

          • Sorry Emily, can’t help you, it was before my time.
            I can give you one thing though, I don’t look like any of the Rolling Stones.

    • Are you actually suggesting that Christianity is the solution? Really?!!! When the Catholic Church has been proven in courts of law to have RAPED children, and to have obstructed justice in the rapes, in Canada, the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Italy, and England????

      The solution is secular civil law, equality, and human rights.

      • I am a simple believer in Jesus Christ, and do not speak for the Catholic Church. Christ revealed himself to me about 33 years ago. He is the Light of the world, and in him is no darkness at all. The Catholic Church has greatly errored in their theology by not allowing Priests to marry, which is not backed up anywhere in scripture. It is against the natural order of sexual desire of men, and has placed an inordinate burden upon them to obstain from normal husband wife relations. I make no excuse for abuse that has taken place by the Catholic Church. We must give an account for everything one day, and Judgement will begin with the Church. The world would be a totally different and cruel place without the message and presense of Christ in the World. Still, you are free to choose and excuse yourself from your responsibility towards Jesus Christ if you want. But to your loss…….God Bless…….

        ……1 Peter 4:17-18…..17 For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 Now “If the righteous one is scarcely saved,
        Where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?”

  2. religion has nothing to do with it, be a human beeing.

  3. After reading many story’s about catholic priests boning alter boys and students at schools they have run I question how different we are.

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