Talking About Rape Culture In India

The rape of a two and a half year old girl by two seventeen-year-old boys in West Delhi is a disturbing incident to behold. She was found dumped and bleeding profusely in a park following her abduction on Friday. This is but another expression of the sexual violence endemic to Indian society. In a separate incident this week, three men were arrested over the gang rape of a five-year-old in the east of the Indian capital. Only one week earlier in a separate incident, a four-year-old was raped, brutally slashed with a sharp object and dumped near a railway track. In 2014, 36, 735 cases of rape were reported, with over 2, 000 of these in Delhi. According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, a rape in India takes place every 22 minutes. Experts warn these figures are likely to underrepresent the true scale of these crimes.

Indian rape culture was brought to the forefront in 2012, following the rape and death of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey. Pandey, a physiotherapy intern, was walking home with her friend from a viewing of ‘The Life of Pi’ at the cinema. Pandey and her friend were tricked into boarding a bus commandeered by joyriders. Over the course of the following 2 hours, Pandey was beaten, gagged and rendered unconscious. The five men violated her with an iron rod and brutally beat her. Pandey and her companion were ultimately thrown from the moving vehicle. Following hospitalization, Pandey died from her injuries on December 29, 2012.

The attack broke the silence that surrounded incidences of rape in the country. Headlines sparked thousands of women and men to protest on the streets of the country’s major cities. Outrage was far more than a reaction to the nature of the brutal crime. It was a response to the ingrained treatment of women as second-class citizens and the inclusion of infanticide, violence, rape and prejudice in the social fabric of Indian society.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has previously condemned the high level of violence present in India. Leaders all over the world have called for amendments to be made to the Indian police force and judicial system, which has been accused of leniency and failures to file charges against offenders. Indian officials have agreed that women should be better protected in the public sphere. There are two immediate issues with this response. Firstly, the assumption that the public is an inherently dangerous place for women conceals much the depth of dangers present for women in society. By extension to this, is ignorance to the prevalence of violence and intimidation in the home. Attitudes condemn a judicial system that has failed, time and time again, to address the pervasiveness of sexual violence and gendered injustice in Indian society. The conviction that quelling gendered violence in India lies in the reformation of the criminal justice system scratches only the surface of the issue. Whilst India’s legal framework has improved for women over the past 20 years, those implementing and enforcing it remained entrenched in a deeply patriarchal society. It enforces an out-dated set of ideas about how women should behave, stemming from very real misogynist attitudes prevalent in India. In order to address sexual violence against women in India, the culture of rape and masculine primacy needs to be torn from the social fabric. At the core of this is the necessary reformation of discourse used to talk about sexual violence.

Traditional Indian culture cannot be accused of not valuing women. In fact, women are often placed on a pedestal. The earth itself is “mother Earth”, the land “mother India”. Hindu mythology is composed of tales of kings moving Heaven and earth to come to the assistance of their damsels in distress. But this does not detract from the endemic violence ingrained in Indian society. Women are groomed to be goods wives, to produce children and preserve culture. Women are so revered and valued that families stress that they remain pure and controlled. This mentality underlies traditional values like arranged marriages and a split between female and male freedoms.

We can see these ideas constructed in Pandey’s public identity disseminated across media outlets everywhere. The Indian Penal Code forbids the revealing of the identities of rape victims, a crime punishable by imprisonment. Pandey was an unidentifiable victim until her father gave permission for her name to be known on January 5, 2013. In the absence of a name, newspapers and magazines titled her Jagruti (‘Awakening’), Nirbhaya (‘Fearless’) and Amanat (‘Treasure’). These names give Pandey’s narrative an essence of struggle and hope, rather than brutality, pain and violence. This language is sensitized to audiences everywhere. It disguises the crime and violation that she endured, reinforcing an identity of victimisation and fragility.

This discourse disguises the real roots of Indian rape culture and the treatment of Indian women as second-class citizens. In the advent of the attack, the Hindu Right used the incident to condemn the Westernisation of women. Mamata Yadav, a senior official of the ABVP argued “we must save our culture, not just embrace another. These kind of incidents never happened in India 200 or 300 years ago… back then there was pride in the soil of our country.” This valorisation of ancient Indian tradition as a safe haven for women is a common response to the epidemic. It is a convenient façade that disguises the intimidation and fear women are brought up to acknowledge.

Disentangling misogyny from Indian culture sounds like an ambitious objective. The first step in doing this is a change of the way sexual violence is talked about, in person, in legislation and in the media. Indian women don’t need people to defend them; they need to be heard. Women today are being better equipped with education. Women are courageously taking their place in society as doctors, bankers, politicians, teachers and journalists. They are participants in social justice movements and are agents in ending global inequities. The founder of Jagori, a women’s NGO based in Delhi, told the Indian times that although there was a growing awareness and reporting of sexual violence, men are “not able to accept” the increasing assertiveness of women and are using “heinous ways to punish them”. This mentality of female inferiority needs to be challenged before we can expect alterations in the judicial system to address incidences of rape.

The need to empower women is central to India becoming a greater, more equal nation. Just as importantly, however, is the education of men. Sons need to be taught to value women as people, not as fragile subjects requiring protection. This is the first step to eliminating sexual violence and instigating any real change in sexual attacks that are far to common in India.