I’ve got some qualms with a piece that was posted a week ago on The Aerogram. In it, Preeti Aroon argues that India has passed a crucial turning point in its history. She argues that a critical mass of Indians have actively begun to turn against rape and sexual assault, and that a national conversation about rape culture has started due to the events of December 16th, 2012, when a medical student was viciously raped by six men on a Delhi bus.
I’m having a hard time with this argument. I can’t deny that India today is not like India of a year ago — December 16th changed a lot of things. But the question remains; how deep are these changes? Are they merely rhetorical, or are they substantive? Do they represent a fundamental change in how we think of and treat women, or is it mere window dressing, meant to hide a larger problem? Unfortunately, I believe that the changes have been minimal. Furthermore, I believe that the expanded discourse that surrounds India’s rape culture does not reflect a change in how Indians think about women at all — I think it is a masculinist, patriarchal response to a problem that is fundamentally a product of the patriarchy. I believe that we, as Indian (or Indian-American) feminists, have a responsibility to critique patriarchal rape culture in all its guises — even if it is masquerading as feminism.
First: the good. It can’t be denied that incidents of reported rapes have increased, since Delhi 16th. This is a very positive development. It means that women are less scared to tell the authorities about their assaults, that they have an increased confidence that the police will take their words seriously. If you open up any paper in India, rape will be on every page. This too, is a good thing. It means that the media is finally paying attention to sexual violence, and is devoting considerable resources to bringing these stories to light.
Now for the more controversial aspects of India’s new rape-consciousness. The furor in the anti-rape movement has a decidedly violent edge to it. Anti-rape activists are out for blood. From this sector came celebration at the news that the four remaining rapists in the Delhi 16th case were sentenced to death. It is, unfortunately, a response to rape culture that does very little to support rape victims, as it refocuses the attention away from the victim and onto the perpetrator. There is also a danger that fighting for harsher punishment will be seen as the sum total of all that is needed to be done. While punitive justice is important to any anti-rape movement, it pales in comparison to the importance of preventing rape from occurring in the first place. While supporters of capital punishment argue that harsh sentences will scare off future offenders, the only thing that will truly reduce incidents of sexual assault is a fundamental change in the way we see women.
And that is exactly what’s not happening in India. The media’s response to December 16th has been to deify the young victim, assigning to her an almost mythic level of purity and innocence. A new ad campaign intended to combat domestic violence has appeared, controversially depicting Hindu goddesses as battered women — literally deifying women who are victims of India’s rape culture.
Any feminist movement that reinforces the virgin/whore dynamic is not a proper feminist movement. It is patriarchy. If we deify some women, we necessarily villainize others. Poor women, dark women, dalit and low caste women — are they more or less abuseable than the women we call goddesses? This is a kind of calculus we should never be forced to make.
India’s new anti-rape movement has fundamentally misinterpreted what rape looks like. It perpetuates the stereotype that rape occurs in dark alleyways and yes, public buses — that the crime of rape is only committed by those who are complete strangers to the victims. Additionally, the fact that the six rapists in the Delhi bus case were from a working class background has not been missed by the media — their background has been used to explain why they did what they did. The largely middle class anti-rape movement has eagerly swallowed this propaganda. In reality, most violent crimes against women are perpetuated by men whom the victim knows. Female infanticide and child sexual abuse are common, as are domestic assault and dowry deaths. Most sexual assault looks nothing like what happened on December 16th — it is less violent, and more insidious. Just as there is no one ideal victim, there is no ideal perpetrator. The Indian rapist isn’t exclusively low caste or high caste, rich or poor. Men from all sectors of society rape. Any anti-rape movement that fails to recognize this is not truly committed to helping women.
Lastly, we have to ask if everyday life has improved for Indian women, since December 16th. If Indian misogyny is really in it’s “death throes”, we’d see an improvement in how women are treated on the street. Preeti Aroon and myself are both Indian-American; we rely on hearsay and our own incomplete observations to understand the climate in India — but from this desi girl’s perspective, I don’t think the Indian woman’s experience has changed at all. All eyes are on you, every time you leave the house. You are still followed, you are still groped. Men (and women!) will watch this happen to you and they won’t intervene. You are still seen as “asking for it” if you dare to leave your house with an unrelated male, or if you seem westernized.
The furor that has been aroused by violent rape tackles a very small slice of the problem — it is merely the tip of the iceberg that is Indian misogyny. We’re going to need something much more substantive if we’re to seriously tackle India’s rape culture.