Last week, a New Delhi court sentenced four men to death for the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year old-woman. According to CNN, the ruling was met with elation and “cheering from hundreds of protesters outside the court”, some of whom holding banners with messages like “hang the rapists”.
Reading through the facts of the case easily invokes a range of personal feelings: disgust over the acts of torture and humiliation, hatred for the perpetrators, and sympathy for the injuries endured by the victim.
Even the court pronounced it to be a “gruesome crime” that “shocked the collective conscience of India”. In rationalising the sentence, the judge emphasised that sexual violence was increasing in India and thus it was important to condemn such violence in the strongest terms in order to prevent its recurrence.
While it’s tempting to join the collective chant of ‘justice has been served’, we must first ask ourselves: by turning this particular tragedy into an emotional public spectacle, are we actually furthering the broader pursuit to end violence against women?
Sadly, directing the outpouring of public outrage to the perpetrators does little to deter other violent crimes. The death penalty is an ineffective punishment in this regard. Many criminologists have argued that when crimes are perpetrated in the context of social marginalisation, poverty, intoxication, provocation, passion, or mental incapacity, the abstract possibility of being sentenced to death does not deter much.
The death penalty then becomes less about criminal deterrence or justice for the victim, and more of a political act aimed at satisfying the public’s sense of outrage or injustice. If anything, legally desiring the death of the perpetrators deters (or at least distracts) us from confronting the broader institutional and cultural violence.
What’s more, focusing all our emotional attention to public acts of sexual violence blinds us to how insidious it is in private life. For example, the Indian National Crime Records Bureau identified 22,406 cases of rape in 2011. Less than 6 percent of these cases were committed by “strangers.” Marital rape exemptions in the criminal law continue to prevent men from being prosecuted for sexually assaulting their spouses who are over the age of 15.
In India, sexual violence is also used as an instrument of institutional control. While the court in this case concluded by congratulating the police on their “professional acumen,” there remains little acknowledgment (let alone public outcry) for activist women in prison like Soni Sori, who continue to be subject to a number of sexual assaults by police while in custody.
In sentencing the rapists, the references to the victim’s “helplessness” betrays signs of a victim-blaming culture . In this sense, justice is seen as a ‘privilege’ bestowed upon women who are imagined as virtuous and vulnerable objects. Such women do not stay out late. They do not dress provocatively. They are not queer. They value marriage and domesticity. They do not shame their parents.
On the other hand, women who are sexually active or adventurous, lesbian women, sex workers, people living with HIV, single women, and divorced women are excluded from this legal fantasy.
Instead, lawyer Ratna Kapur explains that many of these women are stigmatised as diseased or contaminated. They become seen as threats to the political ideal of matrimonial and reproductive harmony.
It’s crucial to remember that whether in India or Australia, most instances of violence against women are perpetrated by friends, family or acquaintances in the home – not by some strangers on public transport.
And the key to end this lies not in capital punishment, but in a willingness to challenge the perception of women as objects in our cultural fantasies. We also have to confront our own complicity in perpetuating these narratives – whether it be in public policy, legal decisions, popular culture, or in our intimate lives.
Emotions can mobilise us politically. Blind sentimentality, however, is a dangerous thing. We cannot achieve sexual justice by resorting to emotionally-laced legal responses that quells public anger to sexual violence by confining women to a position of perpetual vulnerability or by ignoring the social context of that violence.
Ending sexual violence is much more difficult: it requires interrogating our hatred of the perpetrators – and the role we unwittingly play in a culture that condones rape.
Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow and PhD candidate at the Sydney Law School.” Follow Senthorun on Twitter: @senthorun