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Shattering the stereotypes: the Delhi gang rape and the need for nuance March 13, 2013

Posted by nishankmotwani in : By contributor, Guest authors, India , trackback

Elen Turner

In December and January I spent a few weeks in Delhi, a city I love and in which I have never felt unsafe. My only experiences of “Eve-teasing” (that horrible Indian euphemism for sexual harassment) in India did not happen in Delhi, and did not happen when I was alone, but with my male partner. Despite my positive experiences, I take seriously the city’s terrible reputation for the safety of women, and take precautions, as I do at home, in Australia, too. I refuse to be afraid, as this is the most crippling thing a woman can do, but I avoid going too far alone after dark, dress in a way that local people consider modest, and am generally on my guard against over-friendly men. The gang-rape of a twenty-three year old student in December, the injuries from which she later died, confirmed that Delhi’s reputation is not unjustified. A rape is reported every seventeen minutes in India, with more unreported, but this event caught national, and international, attention. Perhaps it was the brutality, or the fact that it happened in a “nice” part of South Delhi, or that the victim was middle-class, that caught peoples’ attention.

Chatting to a flight attendant on my way back to Australia, telling him I’d been in India, the first thing he said was “You know how they call Bangkok the City of Smiles? Our girls call Mumbai the City of Leers.” I smiled weakly at what he thought was funny, feeling embarrassed and affronted, (Mumbai!? Of all places!?) but, if this is many women’s experience, how could I argue with that? This is not another opinion piece from a western woman expressing her experience of sexual harassment in India. There have been too many of them. Any woman who has been to India and has experienced sexual harassment now seems qualified to write about gender issues in India. But neither can I bring myself to write in complete defence of the country, and the city, that I love, because my own good experiences, I realise, are not reflective of everyone’s. What I want to argue is that western understandings of the issue of violence against women in India need to be far more nuanced, and informed. Western reporting on the issue has bothered me immensely, particularly a spate of “this was my experience” articles published by western women that are perpetrating the image of the Indian male—and I generalise here because this is the language with which we are dealing—as aggressive and predatory. Georgia Arlott, a voice of authority, apparently, because she holidayed in India once, proclaims that “For most Western women, sexual assault -casual or otherwise- is a blessed rarity. In India, it is all too common”. It is simply not true that most western women are rarely sexually assaulted: some statistics suggest that one in three women in Australia is sexually assaulted at some point in her life. This western/ non-western binary needs to be vociferously challenged.

Even more troubling to me is the attendant promotion of the idea of the Indian woman as passive, as not having stood up for herself before. That it was this rape that made Indian women realise that there was a societal problem. Emma Campbell, who lived in India as a young woman, states “at last, the plight of women in North India is finally being addressed.” Indian feminists have been fighting for women’s rights, equality, education, legislation, and so on for many, many years! There should be no “at last” about it. In many cases—the lower castes and the lower classes, especially—women are physically, economically, psychologically dominated by men and have no choice but to put up with it. Indian feminists, and others fighting for social justice, have been campaigning and writing against this for years. The fact that the government appear to be taking some action now has more to do with politics than it does reflect any more significant concern for the common woman, or a sudden realisation that things aren’t good enough. The steps that the government are putting in place are being deeply questioned by Indian feminists anyway, so we cannot celebrate these just yet. Increasing police powers and presence, as was suggested in Delhi, when the police themselves are part of the problem, can hardly be a positive step for women. When members of the family and the police are amongst the most common perpetrators of rape, mandatory death sentences for cases of aggravated rape, as have been suggested, could just mean a reduction in willingness to report the crime, and thus even lower conviction rates than the terribly low ones we already have (see Urvashi Butalia, Nivedita Menon or Shoma Chaudhury, all of whom have written articles available online, for some of the feminist critiques.) The patriarchal imbalances that put women in the weaker position are still visible on the surface in India, but this is certainly not because there haven’t been people trying to eradicate them. Enormous gains have been made in law and in general society, particularly since the 1970s. This is not something that many western media commentators seem to want to research, address or engage in, as it is much more comfortable to fall back on comfortable and self-affirming stereotypes.

I attended the protests at the Jantar Mantar the day after the woman died. A variety of perspectives were displayed: hang the rapists; a gun for every girl; cut off their raping tools; elite women are safe, working women are in danger; in India girls are safe neither inside nor outside the womb; world’s biggest democracy, world’s largest fraud. The rapist-murderers were vilified, but so were the Indian and Delhi governments. Changes in law and increased policing have been suggested, but Indian feminists have rightly pointed out that these will mean little if not accompanied by changes in attitudes towards women. On entering the protests I joked with my partner that we should stick close together as it would be ironic to be sexually harassed here. Later I read that there had in fact been dozens of reports of sexual harassment made to the police, with one officer saying that “sexual harassment” was too strong a term, what occurred had been more like “eve teasing.” The only leering I experienced came from a police officer. Urvashi Butalia writes that “rape is not something that occurs by itself. It is part of the continuing and embedded violence in society that targets women on a daily basis.”

There is no greater reminder of the fact that societal attitudes need to change before violent crimes will diminish than what I witnessed on my last night in Delhi. On my way home, a heated argument erupted between two women in the metro, about whether it was alright for a man to be travelling in the almost empty ladies compartment. Every metro train has such a reserved car, always more spacious than the men’s. The younger woman argued that the man had himself been at the protests (he was wearing a shirt displaying some slogans); the older woman demanded that it was a zero-exceptions rule made for the psychological, as well as physical, comfort of women. Despite the presence of three female police officers, a young man leaning in from the general compartment was making rape “jokes” to provoke the women. Enough men were visibly discomfited by his actions, but could not, or did not, intervene. This, you could say, was the nasty side of hegemonic Indian masculinity. Yet, some Indian perspectives have highlighted that an encouraging aspect of the nationwide protests was the large involvement of men. I had several conversations at the Jantar Mantar with men who were disgusted by not just the single incident, but by India’s dominant patriarchal culture, and they wanted to change it. This is the side of the story that the west needs to remember, to avoid wilfully falling into a smug, self-righteous, western-centric telling-off of the third-world other.

Elen Turner recently completed her PhD at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University (ANU) and is now teaching Gender Studies and English at the ANU.


1. Huw - March 13, 2013

very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

2. Rahul Singh - March 17, 2013

Delhi Men Say Sorry