The gang rape
of a photojournalist in Mumbai last week has rekindled public memories of a similar assault on a student in Delhi
last December. The Delhi incident sparked an intense debate on the question of women’s safety, and the responses warranted, especially in the domains of jurisprudence, public security and the general social attitude to the presence of women in public spaces.
Sadly, a disheartening aspect of the latest chorus of collective anger, particularly on television, is the attempt to define the problem of rape solely in terms of law and order, and the increasing focus on deterrence or fear of punishment as the only solution. Such an approach that seeks a security or technological solution to every social problem betrays impatience with any kind of sustained engagement with the ground realities in which crimes against women are embedded. The most obvious symptom of this impatience is the selective nature of the national focus on crimes against women.
In the seven-month period between the Delhi gang rape and the Mumbai one, hundreds of rape cases were reported all across the country (assuming an average of 66 cases a day reported by National Crime Records Bureau
figures for 2011). Just picking at random: A woman constable was brutally gang raped
the same week as the photojournalist in Mumbai; a tribal woman and her five-year-old daughter were gang raped in Maharashtra
in July; four minor girls were abducted and gang raped in Jharkhand
last month. None of these crimes provoked a public debate on women’s safety, or on how India
treats its women. There is no comparing one heinous crime with another, and this is not to belittle the unspeakable trauma inflicted on the victims of the Mumbai and Delhi assaults. Nevertheless, an obvious question needs to be asked: Are there some special criteria that make a given case of gang rape eligible for national attention, and not others?
In fact, the above are a sample only of the reported rape cases. It is well-known that the majority of sex crimes in India go unreported. Child sexual abuse
—inside homes, in schools, in orphanages, on the streets—is a widespread phenomenon. And we barely ever get around to talking about marital rape, which is still not recognized as a crime in India
Unfortunately, the mainstream public discourse on rape has been largely stuck in the slipstream of tired clichés that every high-profile case seems to generate in its wake. These consist, for the most part, of blaming the attitude of Indian men, blaming the cops, blaming a judicial system on the verge of collapse, or blaming the politicians for failing to deliver a government that can guarantee women’s safety. While all of these do have their place, they do not strike at the root of the malaise.
On the odd occasions when the discussion ventures beyond the superficial and seeks the social root causes of such violence, the blame game halts at the door of patriarchy. Thus far, and no further, seems to be the general understanding. After all, what else but patriarchy can possibly be behind the violence and oppression women suffer at the hands of men? This is the point where liberal feminists plant their flags and set up camp. For this where feminism has carved its niche in the rights market: women’s rights.
But patriarchy did not drop from heaven. It has its roots in history, and it has a material cause: the concentration of economic power in the hands of men. It is the sum total of social customs and cultural traditions that, among other things, guarantee the permanent vesting of economic power among men that we call patriarchy.
Sexual violence of the kind seen in the Delhi and Mumbai incidents is one manifestation—a violent one—of the disjunction between the economic equality fostered by the influx of women into the modern workforce, and the social inequality of the sexes mandated by traditions rooted in feudal, pre-modern patriarchy. This is well-known. But what has not received adequate attention is the disjunction between the economically empowered (and thus upwardly mobile) woman, and the economically disempowered (but in a patriarchal framework, socially superior) man. This finds aggravated expression, particularly when such women foray into public spaces that have hitherto been the preserve of men acting as economic agents.
Hence the repeated, and innumerable, injunctions from the status quo to independent women frequenting public spaces—regarding the lateness of the hour, the dress they ought to wear, the presence or absence of a male companion, etc. A common element in the Delhi and the Mumbai gang rapes is that both involved an educated young woman on the cusp of economic independence, being assaulted by men who were her inferiors in terms of both education and class background (they were uneducated, made a living from odd jobs and petty crime).
There are a number of complex social and economic dynamics at work here. At the risk of gross simplification, we can summarize them. Firstly, it is important to recognize that rape is one kind of violent crime among others. Second, there is a direct correlation between income inequality and violent crime. Third, in an unequal society, the social benefit of security provided by the law enforcement machinery is also distributed unevenly. Fourth, any call for legislative re-engineering or more punitive or stringent law enforcement will thus translate merely into a demand for a greater share—for the demand-making class—of the security benefits of public law enforcement.
Is it a coincidence that in the Delhi as well as the Mumbai incidents, the perpetrators are slumdwellers? The Mumbai accused are even reported to have committed such crimes before and gotten away with it. What then are we to assume about the safety and security of the girls who live in the very slums these alleged rapists hail from, girls who are effectively their neighbours in the sense that their victims were not? Will a call for more stringent laws make any difference to the safety of women whose privation and social exclusion makes them more vulnerable to such attacks? Will it curb the widespread but frequently unreported cases in rural India of lower caste girls being sexually assaulted
by upper caste men?
The social milieu and living conditions of the slumdwellers are marked by such deprivation that a turn to criminality is often a matter of survival. Usually, it is the other poor who are at the receiving end of this criminality. And those crimes are far too common for the precious resources of national outrage to be expended on them. It is when such criminal brutality strays beyond its native territory—the slums and forests of urban and rural India, respectively—and on to the spaces (a bus in one case, and an abandoned mill in the heart of the city in the other) and persons supposed to be beyond its purview that outrage goes national.
An enlightened middle class might consider channelling this outrage toward organizing society in a manner where such breeding grounds of criminality do not exist. It is, after all, in its own long-term self-interest to do so. But such a project would necessarily entail fighting for a more equitable society. And that, clearly, cannot be on the agenda. Far easier to look for quick fixes, such as death penalty for the rapist, panic buttons in auto rickshaws, and more CCTV cameras.