In India, women have been held captive behind screens like this one for a thousand years.
India is, for a number of reasons, one of the worst countries in the world for women. We are seeing those reasons being played out in the news right now.
First, the basics for those who haven’t heard the recent news. A 23-year-old medical student boarded an unlicensed bus in Delhi, accompanied by her male companion. They had been to see a movie in a prosperous neighborhood; it was still early evening by Indian standards (about 9.30PM). On the bus, six men allegedly beat both of them, raped her, then threw them out of the bus, leaving them in the road nearly naked. The bus driver apparently handed the wheel over to one of the other men so he wouldn’t miss his turn.
The girl, whose parents had sold their only land to pay for her medical training, has been clinging to life for the past five days. After multiple surgeries, it appears she will live. What the conditions of her life will be remains to be seen. She has lost much of her intestines and is still on a respirator. Her doctors report that she has shown an unusual “spirit to live.”
The last of the six suspects was arrested a few hours ago. They have been caught with aid from CCT cameras. Concurrently, thousands, mostly women, took to the streets to protest (as has happened for a few days now) and the police have turned water hoses and tear gas on the crowds.
This bizarre incident comes on the heels of what has been called a “rape spree“–a phrase that, in itself, is blood-chilling, especially since the rape rate in India is already staggering. The recent outbreak involved rapes of at least 20 girls within the space of a week, including a six-year-old and a ten-year-old. One girl killed herself by self-immolation after her attack; a father committed suicide after seeing a video of his daughter’s rape. Her doctors report that she has shown an unusual “spirit to live.”
But the bigger picture is one is which rape, especially gang rape, is common and tolerated. The numbers being reported in the world press (now expressing outrage from Australia to the Middle East to Europe to the United States) emphasize that Delhi has about 600 rapes on record already this year and that India as a whole has a woman raped every 22 minutes. And the rate of rape has more than doubled since 1990. But these figures are hard to assess when you consider how big the population is and how fast it has grown.
Perhaps more informative is the fact that, of the 256,329 violent crimes reported in India last year, fully 89% (that is, 228,650) were aimed at women. One horrific story gives another indicator of just how common sexual violence is in India. As reported by journalist Vivek Kaul,
. . . a 13-year-old girl was gang-raped by four boys. After they left her by the side of the road to die, she crawled into a brick kiln, where she was found and raped by two other men. Later, she was found and raped by a rickshaw driver, only to be abducted and raped for another nine days by a truck driver and his accomplice.
The very fact that gang rape, in most countries still thankfully seen as a horrible and infrequent crime, could happen to a single girl in a rapid succession of individual incidents–and that the men who happened to find her, frightened and suffering, would each choose to rape her again rather than help her–speaks volumes about the way Indians see women.
The rate of rape is increasing at a very steep rate: 22,000 rape cases were reported in India during 2008, up nearly 20% in only four years. Further, the difficulty in holding rapists accountable indicates the pervasive and growing tolerance of this crime: in 1973, 44% of rape cases resulted in conviction; today, that number has plummeted to 26%. Men think they can get away with it. They can.
And, of course, the crimes themselves are vastly underreported because families consider them a matter of shame and because the justice system, which can take 15 years to hear a case, offers little hope.
Officials are, predictably, promising quick action and strict punishment for this particular incident, in light of the massive protests and outpourings of shock from the rest of the world. But some of their comments and explanations only provide further proof and context for India’s misogyny. For instance, one official opined that the recent rapes were actually a conspiracy to undermine his government (another official agreed). Another tried to excuse the acts, saying that 90% of rapes are consensual.
One council of tribal elders (all male) opined that the reason for the uptick in rape is that there isn’t enough child marriage! They suggested that the way to protect girls from rape is to lower the legal age of marriage, which has recently been raised. The reasoning? If they were married, the boys wouldn’t feel the need to take out their sexual frustration on the girls. (They were slapped down for this by the United Nations, which points out that India already tops the global shit list for child marriage. The last thing they need is more of that.)
Another leader called for boys to eat less Chinese food, saying the spices cause rape. Many others have blamed the media, of course, and conspicuous consumption, and Western influence–all the usual culprits when you don’t want to own up to your own culture’s deeds. Then there is that ever-popular idea that the women are causing the rapes for transgressions ranging from dressing provocatively to demanding freedom. “Female empowerment is totally unsettling to many men. It has shaken up their sense of entitlement and their response is violent and volatile,” observed Hindol Sengupta, a Delhi-based social activist.
This photo was taken by focusing through one of the screens behind which women lived in the palaces where tourists go today.
The truth is that India’s attitudes toward women have a very long, sad history. This is not about globalization: the global moment has only “outed” what has existed for thousands of years. Some of the proposals to solve the problem, such as separate buses and rail compartments, echo centuries of Indian practice, still visible in the palaces now mostly inhabited by tourists. The separate quarters for women that you see everywhere you go in the architectural record of India’s history, as well as the lingering practice of purdah and the pathetic reminders of suttee, show how long that country has held its women captive by a combination of violence and imprisonment.
The ancient Indian caste system also plays a part in this problem: most of these rapes have been of lower caste women by upper caste men.
The future for this issue looks bleak. India’s famous propensity to kill their female infants has caused its male-to-female gender ratio to be as high as 125 in places like Maharastra (where dogs were seen feeding on aborted female foetuses in 20110). The sex ratio has been skewing further as ultrasound has made it easier to detect sex in utero. Even middle class parents continue to destroy unborn girls. Extremely skewed sex ratios lead to extremely high levels of violence for a society. So, the coming years are not likely to offer any respite.
No, this is one India has to own. And India has to solve.