An estimated 48.46% of India’s current population is female and every individual comprising this 48.46% lives in fear of targeted, brutal violence every day of her life.
- This makes 586,469,174 people in the world’s largest democracy living in constant fear of being beaten, burnt, or mutilated; a constant apprehension of domestic abuse or sexual violence.
If this happened to both men and women, if another country - say Pakistan - were involved, or if a single Naxalite was identified as an attacker, the government would shout itself hoarse over a 'terror regime' or a ‘threat to national security’.
- So what do women in India have to do in order for this “women’s issue” to become an issue that threatens the nation as a whole? An all night party with Molotov cocktails?
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Here's a quick personal story that illustrates a point I discuss later. I was 20, junior year at Yale, and I got a summer fellowship to study forestry projects run by rural cooperatives in Himachal Pradesh, India. My guides (two guys and a girl) were local members of this cooperative and I spent every day trekking with them across what seemed entire mountain ranges, just to get from one remote village to the next.
My guides wanted to show me the real cultural scene in these mountain communities. So we went to a village that was hosting a festival for all its neighbouring villages. Every household was hosting guests from other villages, hordes of men were starting to get drunk early in the evening, the village was full of food, fire and music.
My female guide and I had struck up a friendship and we decided to stay at an old guesthouse a little bit further from the village. There were two big rooms, one light bulb, a half broken door in the back and a single bolt door in the front. It was around 1 or maybe 2 am when both of us woke up to the sound of what seemed like a mob trying to break down the doors. Seriously. My friend peeked outside through the window and freaked out. There were about 6-8 men, drunk and excited, talking about how they had seen two girls - one from the city - come to this guesthouse they were sure.... etc. etc. you get the picture. It was kind of nightmarish. A few more men joined the first set, and they surrounded the house, trying to get in by breaking the windows and beating down the front door.
What saved us was that these guys were utterly and completely sloshed. No doubt an amusing adventure if you are a drunk guy. They seemed to be falling all over themselves; some were found slumped by the front door the next morning. All of them had completely missed the fact that the back door was broken.... All this went on intermittently until 4 am, a couple of hours. We'd hear a window break, some crazy shouting, loud banging on the front door... then nothing for fifteen minutes. The other two guides that had accompanied me - both lean, young men - were apparently lying drunk at the other end of the village. So we were basically on our own.
My friend and I sat on the bed, hugging ourselves. She grabbed an umbrella she could use for a weapon, which was laughable. I grabbed a box of matches. We lit a candle and waited. She prayed. I remember clearly thinking this: "I can't tell my parents, no matter what happens. They'll never let me go out travelling on my own again, dammit. Why did this have to happen? Oh my god, I'm so sleepy. Are we done yet? Can I sleep now?". That was a very inappropriate reaction, but I didn't know what to expect so I just waited, preparing myself to be raped by half a dozen drunkards.
- My friend on the other hand was crying, wailing actually. And she said something I'll never forget. She said (translated from Hindi), "If those men do something to me tonight and I survive, I will throw myself into the river".
- So, get this. She would be raped by a group of men, miraculously survive.... then trek down the mountain to the river we had passed on the way and drown herself. She would kill herself if the men didn't kill her first.
- That was literally the only thing she said during those two hours. But I didn't understand her at all, so I continued trying to figure out how I could use matches to defend ourselves
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Here are my thoughts on some of the debates that have arisen in response to the atrocity in Delhi and the excessive levels of sexual violence in India:
- Misogyny and women’s role in society
Women's safety is a first mile problem, and can be successfully solved despite the persistent sexism and deep conservatism that beleaguers Indian society. While broader institutional measures that try to effect societal change are required for a sustainable solution to the problem, it is critical to implement immediate measures for providing basic physical protection to Indian women. Let’s solve the first mile problem first shall we?
- Bollywood soft porn and rape “deservedness”
Here are some problems with tackling sexual violence in India by censoring highly sexual images of women in Hindi film or other media:
- Male bestiality: It assumes that Indian men cannot distinguish between the norms that govern real life and the norms that govern sexual fantasies on film. It also assumes that male bestiality is completely acceptable, just don’t let the media goad it into violence.
- Sexual taboos: It assumes that further sexual puritanism is the solution in a country where the majority already have a disordered relationship with sex and where shame mandatorily accompanies sex.
- Female provocation: It furthers the morally repugnant idea that a woman who makes herself sexually attractive, ala an “item girl” in Bollywood dance numbers, provokes men and thus deserves to be raped. Replace these images with those of a nurse, a housewife or other images of female virtue, and all sexual abuse shall cease.
- Sexual virtue and shame of reporting rape
Family silencing: But the pressure of sexual virtue faced by Indian women and women in the more conservative parts of the world goes far beyond this. The shame that Indian rape victims in India feel is not personally inflicted, society inflicts it upon the victim. All of us Indians know how families of rape victims ask the victims to shut up and stay quiet because of how it reflects on the family and its social standing. This reaction cuts across social class, I know we can think of a few “highly educated” families that have done this.
Police abuse: What is to be expected from law and order officials in a country where sexual virtue is the single most important thing for a woman? I cannot enumerate cases of policemen raping rape victims that have come in to report a rape; there are too many such cases, just pick up an Indian newspaper.
But what disincentive does a male police official have in a society where female sexual virtue is critical, where a raped female is “used goods” so you might as well rape her again anyway, where corruption of the legal and judicial system is rampant, and where the victim may not want to shut up but society will make sure she does?
- Education, Urbanity, and Economic Mobility:
A few have critiqued the public and political response to the rape. They feel that the current case has been given so much attention because the victim belonged to the upper class. Incidences of violence as heinous occur routinely in every part of India but are largely ignored by the media, by political leaders and by the public. Doesn't the daily barrage of sexual abuse faced by women from the lower socioeconomic classes warrant equal attention and outrage?
I believe that their observation is completely valid, but their criticism is not. The current furore comes not as much from class-related feelings as from uncontrollable fear.
Sexual abuse in India is routine and class doesn't protect you from it. But most of choose to believe otherwise. Most of us from the middle, upper middle and upper class feel we can barricade ourselves against the “uncivilized others”.
- Most of us seek refuge in fantasies of how education and economic upward mobility will have a cultural trickle down effect, whereby society becomes more educated, richer, more civilized, and finally, more just.
Then along comes something like this and it’s a resounding slap. You could participate in global Facebook conversations, watch “Life of Pi”, debate classics at a university, be in a gender equal relationship, work at a consulting company…..and then one day you are raped by a gang of men in a bus in the middle of a global capital, iron rods stuck inside you till your intestines explode, and all that intellectual class, all that upward mobility, all that protective distance between you and the brutal reality you live in, shatters.
It just feels so impossible, so unreal, at a time when the entire world is talking about India's economic boom, its presence on the geopolitical stage, its technological growth, its exploding arts scene, its brilliant scientists. It feels unreal that such savagery could still be a part of daily reality in the same India. It seems so much more feasible in some village where "those low class uneducateds" live. But in the seat of government, India's capital city? How much more law and order - literally - could you be surrounded by?
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What is true for individuals is also true for societies and nation states - they are judged not as much by the crises they face as by their response to it. This is a crisis.
- India could choose to respond with lynch mobs, with Sharia law of an eye for an eye, sexual mutilation for sexual mutilation. It could choose to make its men the aggressors, its men the keepers of law and order, its men the judges, its men the jury and its men the hangmen. As for women, it could silence them, lock them away, re-create the walled-in zenana.
Or India could choose to draw upon the remarkable sexual progressiveness that marked its early history, have a social discourse upon the subject, and emerge from its dark social age into its new phase of economic and geopolitical power as a mature, culturally sophisticated nation state.
- Whatever happens though, we are the decision makers. There is no nebulous entity called "India" anymore. That India be us, folks. The decision making demographic be my generation.
- Young people constitute India's largest demographic. My own generation is coming to the age where we will start becoming decision makers in the public and private sector, and within our own households. After today it would be hypocrisy to complain, "India needs to do this".
- We can't blame our parents anymore because we are becoming parents ourselves.
- We can't blame political leaders because we are old enough to enter the public sector and reform it if we choose.
- We can't blame "society" anymore because we are "society". We are the adults now, we are the decision makers in our households.
- Our collective decisions shape contemporary Indian culture, law and politics. There's no more "they" that need to do something. It's just us, folks. It's our responsibility now.
- India belongs to us now, and in 20 years we'll be heading it. Are we prepared? Twenty years from today, if we play things right, the Delhi case should never repeat itself.
- Are we ready for that responsibility? Because if this happens twenty years from today, it will be our fault. Not those old, corrupt politicians we blame for everything. It will be our fault.