Friday, 11 January 2013

A reflection we don't want to see

It's taken me a while to write this post. I admit it, I have been putting it off. This is a blog about life in Delhi, and in the past few weeks there has been one thing, and one thing only, that everyone has been associating with the city I currently live in. That thing is rape.

I hesitated for a lot of reasons. Because a young woman is dead. Because a family has lost a daughter, in horrific circumstances. Because a young man has lost a friend and been viciously beaten. Because I am a man. Because I am a foreigner. Because the depth of pain and outrage in this city makes this a scary place for any blogger to tread. But I couldn't in good conscience avoid writing about it, since of all the events that have happened in this city in my short time here, this is the most dreadful and perhaps the one that speaks loudest about the conflicts within today's India. And not just India. The assault and its aftermath shed light on disturbing aspects not just of Indian society, but of human nature and of attitudes to women that can be found pretty much anywhere.

In the days after the attack, when the victim was still fighting for her life, Delhi went pretty crazy. Massive demonstrations called for the death penalty. Young women who have lived with fear their whole lives took to the streets to protest; men accompanied them, often speaking of their concern for their wives, sisters, and daughters. The government's repressive response was shameful and is something that I anticipate they will greatly regret.

One of my colleagues attended several demos. She told me about this one day, not long after the attack occurred, before things got really out of hand. She would be marching, she told me, to demand that the rapists be hanged. She was quite surprised, I think, when I told her flatly that I disagreed with her standpoint.

I'm not going to use this post to argue about the death penalty. I am opposed to it - in all circumstances - but that's not the point. The point is that the people marching with placards demanding death to the rapists were spectacularly off the mark - not only that, they actively obscured the real issues. Hanging the rapists may bring a brief sense of satisfaction; a catharsis that perhaps only violent revenge can achieve. But it would do nothing to address the underlying reasons why sexual violence is so prevalent here. Nothing to help tackle the reasons why India has been ranked as the worst place to be a woman in the G20 - a group of countries that includes Saudi Arabia.

As the initial outrage died down into disgust and weariness, more reasoned voices began to emerge. There are, after all, people who are prepared to look deeper and ask: why did this happen? Why has it happened before? Why, in many cases, have those previous instances now been forgotten? Why does it happen so much? And why, above all, are so many women raped who never even manage to attract the attention of a police officer, let alone the world's media? (For a much deeper analysis of all these issues than I'm capable of producing, I recommend the recent blogs at The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker).

It's not simply a case of the existence of mediaeval attitudes towards women in India, though they certainly exist. A few months ago, a former state governor argued that women should be married off younger in order to prevent rape. A few days later, a local politician said that eating Chow Mein was to blame for the rising number of rapes in his state. And, notoriously, a religious leader went on record saying that the victim in the latest case shared the blame equally, arguing that she should have begged her attackers to have mercy on her. Another said that rape was a problem in "India" but not in "Bharat" - that is, it occurs in the "Westernised" cities (essentially, code for "places where women wear more revealing clothes"). It's not just the men, either: before the news broke about the death in Singapore, the female leader of the BJP party expressed the view that the victim's life was "now worse than death" because of her lost "honour" - a staggering insult to rape survivors and a horrifying statement about the value of female life.

Where people of influence have such noxious views, it should not surprise us that misogynistic attitudes prevail. I think it's fair to say that these views tend to be particularly characteristic of certain parts of rural north India (such as Haryana, the source of both the "Chow Mein" and "teenage bride" views mentioned above). At least part of the problem is that these are the parts of the country from where a great deal of migration to the cities has occurred in the past decade or so. The clash of cultures should not be underestimated - in terms of education, culture and background, new arrivals in Delhi are often as far removed from the city's elite as a refugee in London is from a Sloane Square socialite. When the two come together, the lines of conflict will be many.

I am not saying that migrants are the problem. Migration creates many challenges, but migrants are also driving this city's growth; the right to live, work and settle where one wishes is also an important one. Besides, as this article forcefully argues, rape occurs where there is social support for it - and that means all of society, not just a sub-set. But we seem to be in collective denial about this. The protestors' denigration of the rapists, the demand for them to be removed from society in the most absolute way possible, reflects the desire to characterise them as something alien from society, an aberration, not a product of the milieu in which they live. But this is patently untrue. There were six men on that bus, who came together by chance. By the law of averages, these were not "aberrations", but fairly ordinary members of society. Acknowledge that, and you have to acknowledge that something is wrong with a society that produces instances like this not just once, but over and over again; and where, in the majority of cases, very little or nothing is done about it.

What particularly comes out of this - and this is where I think we should all take a hard look at our own societies - is how rape is simply the most extreme and vicious expression of the ways in which men seek to control women (I'm aware that men are also raped, and that hijras in particular are vulnerable to it in India, but I'm in danger of writing a dissertation with this post already). This captures it for me:

"We need to stress the continuum between people who rape, people who judge those who get raped, and people who try to protect the women in their lives from getting raped by imposing structures of control. The portrayals of the rape of women allow for those men who want to understand themselves as protectors or avengers to do so, they allow for patriarchal structures of control to strengthen themselves and, crucially, they create women as the ‘legitimate’ subjects of rape."

Quite. Demanding that women change or limit their behaviour to prevent rape simply perpetuates the idea that rape is a norm to which women must adapt by accepting male control. Those men who demand death to the rapists because "we too have sisters, wives and daughters" are really just participating in this structure of control. It shouldn't matter if a raped woman is your sister, your wife, or your neighbour's cousin's physiotherapist. You are not what's important. She is.

And maybe this is why so many rapes are ignored, both in India and elsewhere: because in so many instances, the woman is seen as legitimately subject to the man. Because she is his wife; because she is a sex worker; because she is of low caste; because she had consumed alcohol. For lesser sex crimes, the range of categories is even wider. A woman can be groped on public transport in Delhi without any real fear of retribution: it is seen as a natural part of life and trivialised with the awful moniker "eve teasing". All of this contributes to a culture that produces the horrific kind of incident that happened on that bus. To scream for vengeance against the perpetrators forgets this.

Some Indian commentators have discussed this as a uniquely Indian problem. Our mythology is misogynist, some have pointed out (and certainly the story of Ram and Sita is pretty squeamish in parts). The practice of dowry payment and tales of associated violence reflect deep-rooted hostility to women. We are deeply patriarchal. There is some truth to all of this, though as a foreign blogger it's difficult for me to say it. It's equally true to say that these are global issues as well as Indian ones, as this article points out. Sometimes it seems that Western commentary on the matter divides between those who rush to condemn India's misogyny, and those who equally rush to point out the plank in our own eyes.

It seems to me that, while it's completely wrong to speak as though the UK and other countries don't have huge problems with misogyny, sexism and violence against women (because we absolutely do), it serves no-one if we pretend that there are not some deeply ingrained problems that are particularly prevalent in India. What I think is needed, though, is the courage to look honestly at those factors that enable rape in any culture. In India, that means acknowledging the relationship with other lines of social divide. Caste and poverty are two. Another is the social stratification prevalent in the cities, with privileged elites living insulated from public spaces, and the consequent erosion of trust. And an ongoing social dialogue that characterises women as objects of control, even in benign ways, is another. (I found this award-winning ad against "eve-teasing" a real eye-opener. Notice how the woman doesn't even get to say anything - she has to be defended by a man. This really speaks volumes about how even messages against sexual violence can feed into a patriarchal approach). In the UK, similar discourses manifest themselves in different ways, particularly along the lines of social class, sexuality and race.

Let the courts decide what happens to the alleged rapists. Let women decide, as men do, what to wear and what (if any) self defence measures to take. What deserves our collective attention, in every country, is how everyday attitudes, everyday language, everyday occurrences towards which we turn a blind eye, contribute to a culture that culminates in horrific acts like the one that took place on that bus; and how a rainbow of prejudices - not just sexism - determine who is seen as a "victim" and who is dismissed. It's not a pretty picture. But we all have to look in the mirror.


Supriya Prathapan said...

I must admit that I was waiting for you to write about this issue. Without a doubt,this is your best post so far.
I have been reading a lot of articles abt this issue off late but you r probably the first person who has addressed the issue of migration.
Initially even I thought that capital punishment was the only solution but now I think that will not prevent men from raping, they would instead start killing the women after raping them. We need a cultural renaissance. The last paragraph of your post sums it all. Brilliant piece. I am going to share it on both twitter n facebook.

Chris said...

Thank you Supriya. It was a very difficult topic for me to write about and I wanted time to work out my own thinking (which has been greatly influence by a lot of the commentary I linked to in the post).

I do feel that as time has gone by the debate has grown more reasoned, which is encouraging. The fact that the alleged culprits have been arrested hopefully means that this case won't be allowed to slide into obscurity like previous ones, so maybe the public outcry can galvanise some real change. Let's hope so.

Anna Jo Kap said...

I have to say that I agree with the death penalty in that case. I am a woman and sometimes I am afraid to go out here in Delhi alone. I was so furious was I read that some people were saying that the girl was rapped because of her clothes. I cannot believe that such people exist. I am really sorry but the people who had done that are not human beings. They are monsters. They have to get the punishment they deserve

Chris said...

Hi Anna,

I completely understand why you favour capital punishment in this case, and I'm not going to argue with it here although as I said in the post I disagree. But I think these are decisions that need to be left to the courts now (and, if the penal code needs to be tightened up, that is something the government should address).

My point in this post is that yes, the perpetrators WERE human beings, and therefore products of the society they came from. To call them "monsters" may be to express our rage and disgust at their actions, but it is also to put them outside the realm of "normal" society and therefore to deny the links between what they did and the attitudes and behaviours prevalent in (in this case Indian) society.

It's a natural reaction - we are horrified so we try to make the people who do these things "other"; "not human"; essentially, "nothing to do with us". But it gets us nowhere because it doesn't address why these things happen in the first place. And they keep happening.

Recover_Indias_Wealth said...

>To call them "monsters" may be to express our rage and disgust at their actions, but it is also to put them outside the realm of "normal" society and therefore to deny the links between what they did and the attitudes and behaviours prevalent in (in this case Indian) society.

Very well said.

I hope, historians also see the same when it comes to the brutalities and greed of British/French/Spain in killing and looting non-white people and their countries.

Instead all I see, is demonization of Hitler, as if he is not coming from the prevailing European culture.

Instead they make him a monster so that their sins are washed away.

Where are the Nuremberg trials for all British/French for colonial atrocities ?

Sups_edu_del said...

There is a show on NDTV called We The People. Since you have done so much research on this topic, I think you will like this particular episode. The Justice Verma Comm Report is the focus. Issues like stalking, marital rape, homosexuality, acid attacks etc. have been addressed. Hope every recommendation is accepted.This is the link:

Anonymous said...

Well said Chris, but I'm still in support of the death sentence in this case, Maybe it's because I choose to believe that when people do hideous things (especially with this degree of hate and wickedness)there's no need to keep them alive.