Breaking bad values
The recent rape case in India must draw attention to the need for change in a neopatriarchal society
About two weeks ago, a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi, India boarded a bus at night when she was raped by a group of men, beaten, and thrown onto the side of the road. After days of struggling to stay alive, the woman, accompanied by a male friend who tried to save her, finally passed away in a nearby hospital.
Since then, thousands have joined anti-rape protests across India and have voiced the often-stifled concern of the attitude towards rape in Indian society. And in addition to the protests themselves, official data has shown that rape cases in India have increased a shocking 800 percent over the past 40 years.
While it’s impossible to point to an exact cause of this jump, there’s no doubt that in 2013, more women walk the streets in India than ever before. In fact, in parting from the traditional customs of staying at home, one could even say that India’s urban, more “modern” women — the ones who dare to be out at 9 p.m. watching a movie with a male friend — have made themselves more vulnerable to public violence despite theoretically having the willpower and education to combat it.
So what’s stopping them? In 2013, these women are exactly the ones protesting not only the rape, but also the greater problem of India’s attitude towards rape. This attitude is not just an abstraction; it is a serious reflection of the traditional values that limit the sexual roles of Indian women. Even the phrase most commonly used for “rape” in Hindi translates to “to steal the honor of” — a concept that, regardless of GDP, educational levels, or general development, stays tactful within Indian society.
For this reason, the protests seldom come without criticism — even from the highest, most educated officials. Indian Congressional Parliament member Abhijit Mukherjee went so far as to call the rape protestors “dented and painted women” who “go to discos, have little connection with ground realities and are making candlelight vigils fashionable for the sake of being fashionable.” While Mukherjee has since apologized for the comment, his attitude is a reflection of how rape is a problem that is not only ignored, but also trivialized.
And it’s not just Parliament. The Indian police force has been accused of either ignoring rape cases or treating them with extreme insensitivity. Statistics have shown that over 70 percent of India’s rape perpetrators in 2011 are criminals at large, and that excludes the thousands of cases that go unreported. Women who do choose to report cases of rape are met with demeaning interrogation, as was the case with the teenager raped a few days after the Delhi incident, who as forced to answer questions like “Did they first open the jeans or the shirt?”
As seen with the police, while millions can attest to the fact that India is a progressive, modern nation, the idea that women “invite trouble on themselves by being careless,” whether it be through the way they dress or act, continues to permeate Indian society. Regardless of the level of education or formal “equality” they’ve been granted, Indian women — as in many Eastern societies — find themselves stuck in a neopatriarchy where formal crimes are trumped by a greater societal mindset that is not quite as simple as constitutional change. In such a neopatriarchy, rape and other violence against women could happen over and over with no way to stop it — culturally or otherwise.
And as much as we Westerners reprimand the neopatriarchy, it’s almost impossible to attack the logic behind it without attacking the fundamentals of Indian culture. We stress gender equality, yet in a nation where Indira Ghandi and countless other females have taken high positions, men and women already have the same rights on paper. We emphasize “education,” yet education presents itself without the slightest enforcement of societal equality. We encourage a secular government, yet India has a history of practicing this ever since its independence from Britain.
This is not to say that the West is in a position to offer remedies. The issue of rape is by no means specific to India, and is in fact just as relevant in the rest of the world — especially the United States. A report by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network suggests that 54 percent of sexual assaults in the United States are never reported to the police, and worse, 97 percent of rapists will not spend a day in prison. What differs, though, are not the statistics, but the local and regional attitudes towards them.
As we see in the case of the 23-year-old Indian woman, the legal prevention of sexual assault and the cultural condemnation of it are two different issues — the latter of which is lacking in a neopatriarchy. Because of this, what India really needs is not a formal reform, but rather an informal one. While such reform, of course, is one of the most difficult types of change to implement in any society, the protests of recognition are a step in the right direction. The mere hope of having men abandon their traditional perspectives is not enough, as the only real change would come if India’s youth, and specifically young women, further localize the concern towards attitudes of rape as well as the victims themselves. As Indian rape victim and activist Sohaila Abdulali said, it must be known that rape is neither shameful nor disgraceful for a woman, because while “[she] was wounded, [her] honor wasn’t.”
Denise Taylor’s column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.