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The rape and subsequent death of an unnamed 23-year-old Delhi woman has sparked an important conversation in India about patriarchy, sexual politics, and the rights of women to live without fear of sexual assault or violence, on the streets and in the home. Many of the editorials that are flooding national (The Times of India, The Hindu) and international (The Guardian, the New York Times) media outlets note that this is a conversation that has been ignored for decades, despite a visible and audible desire, especially amongst the young people of India, to address these issues. Following news reports of the violent rape that took place on December 16, tens of thousands of people, men and women, young and old, took to the streets carrying signs with messages such as “Delhi Police Allows Rape,” “Ashamed to be an Indian,” “Delhi is in Rape Crisis,” and “Justice for Women NOW.”
Amongst a sea of protest signs that call for justice for women and punishment for the perpetrators, a woman holds a sign that reads, in big red letters “You Can Get Raped But Not Protest Against Rape” with “#World’sLargestDemocracy” written underneath. As government officials, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President of the ruling Congress Party coalition, Sonia Gandhi, expressed their sympathies for the woman who was raped and killed, police were sent out to shut down the protests, using tear gas, water canons, and physical force to disperse the crowds. Metro Stations across Delhi were closed, protests banned and protestors threatened, and attacked, by the police. Overnight, fighting for the right to protest became part of the struggle to address sexual violence in India.
Women are gang-raped in India every day. Understanding why this behavior is so prevalent, not only in India, but in many parts of the world, including the United States, necessitates a discussion of the relationship between patriarchy and the state. The state exercises power through patriarchal relations: by maintaining the superior position of men over women through laws and institutions that promote heterosexual norms, the rights of husbands to control their wives, and by controlling women’s bodies through health care legislation and access to family planning, for the purpose of perpetuating gender inequality. The politics of patriarchy and gender inequality come as no surprise to the millions of young Indian women who have been told that to avoid being sexually assaulted they should dress modestly, not travel outside at night, not go to pubs with their friends, and carry chili pepper to throw in the face of an attacker. The politics of the patriarchal state will also come as no surprise to American women who have been told, for example, by (then) U.S. Senator Todd Aiken, that victims of “legitimate rape” will not get pregnant because “if it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down,” or that in the words of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Murdock, if a child is conceived through rape, “that is something that God intended to happen.”
What did, however, come as a surprise to many in India was the quick and violent reaction the state had to peaceful protests in defense of the woman who was raped in Delhi, as well as all women in India. Horrified by the nature of this crime, but also by countless other accounts of rape and sexual abuse throughout the subcontinent, people took to the same streets that had been labeled too dangerous for women to travel on at night, to speak out for their rights as citizens and as humans. For the people standing in the streets of Delhi, left with bloody heads, stinging eyes, and freezing bodies as a result of police tactics, the right to speak out against government policies and actions had been swiftly repressed.
The protestors were not allowed to speak out on behalf of themselves and of their friends, sisters, nieces, mothers, and daughters. Instead, Prime Minister Singh assured the public that the state could take care of the problem without the voice of the people. In reaction to the massive demonstrations that followed the rape, Singh said,
I also feel deeply sad at the turn of events leading to clashes between protesters and police forces. Anger at this crime is justified but violence will serve no purpose. I appeal to all concerned citizens to maintain peace and calm. I assure you that we will make all possible efforts to ensure security and safety of women in this country.
According to Singh, the only violence that would be considered justified would be that of the state: the violence used to repress protests, and the violence used to enforce patriarchal laws and structures fundamental to the success of the state and the control of the people.
The Colonial Roots of Indian Patriarchy
Indian women’s bodies have been the subject of Western scrutiny for centuries. During the period of British rule in India, British imperialists, many of them women and self-proclaimed feminists, railed against the treatment of Indian women, calling for the end of child marriage and sati (so-called “widow burning”). The legality and morality of sati was intensely debated amongst British imperialists, in both England and in India, as well as Indian intellectuals and public figures during the 19th-century. Generally speaking, the English public was horrified by the practice, while Indian (“nativist”) reactions stated that it was essential to the practice of Hinduism and British law should take no part in altering it. There were Hindu men, perhaps most notably Rammohun Roy, the first leader of the Hindu reform sect, the Brahmo Samaj, who publicly opposed sati and called for the outlaw of the practice. Roy is just one figure of many who took part in the Indian debate about sati, yet, once sati was outlawed in 1829, the credit went to the British Raj, which presented itself as the savior of Indian women.
The outlawing of sati led to what Columbia University Professor and cultural theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called “white men saving brown women from brown men.” This formulation continued well into the 20th-century in India, spreading beyond England and into the United States, illustrated by the publication in 1927 of a book by the American journalist Katherine Mayo, titled Mother India. Mayo’s book is polemical – it argues against the independence movement, suggesting that India was not ready for self-rule because of, amongst other things, the treatment of women. Mayo wrote that India was socially degenerate and obsessed with sex, which could be seen through the practice of child marriage, as well as rampant masturbation and homosexuality. Mayo’s argument, while a mirror of colonial beliefs and policies, rested on the idea that India had a social problem, unrelated to colonial politics, instead inherent to Hindu practices.
While there was an immediate backlash to Mayo’s Mother India, in India as well as abroad, many of the assertions that Mayo made in 1927 still find their way into contemporary discourse about women in India. Earlier this year, the UK newspaper The Guardian ran an article “Why is India so Bad for Women?” The author, Helen Pidd, begins by noting that of “all the rich G20 nations, India has been labeled the worst place to be a woman. But how is this possible in a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy?” The article goes into graphic, and often horrific detail, running down a laundry list of sexual abuses that have occurred in India. She provides statistics that show just how debased Indian society is, based on the horrors that some women have faced at the hands of their abusers. And while she notes that “India might not be the worst place to be a woman on the planet,” when compared to Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo, she concludes that it is much worse than it should be, as a rapidly developing country.
Writers like Pidd and the humanitarian groups that she cites, such as Save the Children UK, publish statistics and stories in Western newspapers in the hope of publicly, and globally, shaming governments into creating new laws that will protect women, children, and often homosexuals. As the current situation in India shows, and the persistence of sexual violence in countries that do have strict laws against rape and incest, it is not laws alone that prevent rape and sexual violence. Patriarchy and sexual violence lay at the heart of the colonial, and now, the neo-colonial state: in order to change attitudes towards sexual violence, the state itself must be challenged.
Violence Against Women is a Global Concern
The Western Press has responded to the violence and the protests in India with a plea to act more like a civilized country. A New York Times editorial, titled “Rape in the World’s Largest Democracy,” published on December 28, 2012 reads,
Many victims, shamed into silence and callously disregarded by a male-dominated power structure, never go to the authorities to seek justice.
Women are routinely blamed for inciting violence against them.
Are we really meant to believe that this is particular to India? According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 54% of all sexual assaults in the United States are not reported to the police, 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail, and one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, the overwhelming number of whom are women of color.
The New York Times, in line with other major international publications, are calling on India to address violence against women, because, “India, a rising economic power and the world’s largest democracy, can never reach its full potential if half its population lives in fear of unspeakable violence.” This sentence, written during the same month that witnessed the second-largest mass school shooting in American history, and during an election year that saw the GOP challenging the rights of women to access health care, birth control, and abortion services, indicates a lack of self-awareness of superpowers like the United States to issues facing all people, not just those in “less developed” nations such as India. While it is certainly true that the Indian people are currently faced with an urgent need to come together and work for the improvement of gender relations and the rights of women, this situation is not unique to India. The rape and murder of the unnamed 23-year-old woman in Delhi should serve as a wake-up call to people around the world that gender inequalities, sexual violence, and the repression of minority voices are built into the structures of the nation-states that claim to protect us. While historians do not always have access to the silenced voices of women from the past, the women and men of India are currently out in the streets screaming for the whole world to hear. The only hope there is in eliminating the rampant sexual violence that exists, not just in India but globally, is in challenging those who repress these voices, and who continue to perpetuate the neo-colonial patriarchal state.
Jessica Namakkal just completed her PhD in History at the University of Minnesota.