Demonstrators shout slogans and raise their hands during a protest for a gang rape victim in New Delhi January 16, 2013. Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Portions of this article originally appeared at Firstpost.com, where the author is a senior editor.
In the days following the tragedy, the young physiotherapy student who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus in mid-December quickly became a woman of many names. Required by law to protect her anonymity, Indian publications jumped on the opportunity to rechristen her. The stirring pseudonyms were selected to reflect her newfound status as an icon of feminine power: Nirbhaya (Fearless), Damini (Lightning), Jagruti (Awakening).
The death of “Jagruti” was a rude awakening for the urban middle class, the most shocking in a series of wake-up calls over a year that witnessed a number of sensational sexual assault cases. Rich small-town boys from Rohtak who kidnapped and gang-raped a young woman in a suburb outside Delhi after following her out of a nightclub. The office shuttle driver in Kolkata who raped a housewife. A mob attack on a young girl outside a bar in full view of a television camera crew in Guwahati. The security guard at an apartment complex who killed a twentysomething lawyer in the course of trying to rape her. Each incident was followed by the now predictable cycle of media outrage and misogynistic blustering on the part of politicians. Some leaders offered child marriage as an antidote so that young girls and boys “do not stray,” while others blamed it on the effects of fast food—specifically chow mein—on the male libido. Still others preferred to deny the reality of rape entirely, claiming that more than 90 percent of rape complaints stemmed from a consensual sexual relationship gone awry.
For the upwardly mobile classes who spend their lives shuttling between multinational offices, call centers, bars and malls, who prefer jeans and leggings to saris, watch MTV and eat at McDonald’s, each incident served as an unwelcome reminder of the other, not-quite-new India, of that slower, more dangerous twin that stubbornly refuses to grow or change. For over two decades of liberalization, the glaringly messy contradictions that sully the rising, shining, aspiring “growth story” have been explained away by the “two Indias” theory of everything. Western and Indian media alike have clung to the notion that there are two distinct worlds, one shiny and progressive, hurtling into the twenty-first century, leaving the backward, conservative one behind.
The sheer viciousness of the latest attack—the men ripped apart Jagruti’s insides with a metal rod—finally broke through the high wall of denial. The angry street protests that followed her death were a belated acknowledgment of a more unpleasant reality: there is only one India, a social Darwinian nation where there is no rule of law; where might always makes right, whether your power derives from your gender, money, caste or sheer numbers, as in the case of a gang rape. And that single India is right there beside you, sitting at the next bar stool, hanging around on the street corner, opening the gate to your apartment building or driving your taxi, sidling up to you on the commuter train. The young girl who paid an astronomically steep price for an evening out at the movies proved that the so-called “new India” exists in a bubble built on the delusion of safety. A bubble that can be breached at will by the other India that we try so hard to insulate ourselves from. All you need to do is jump on the wrong bus.
Those liberalization-happy politicians acknowledge the fragility of the “new India” bubble—albeit unwittingly—when they blame women for getting raped: for being out after dark, wearing skirts or tight jeans, drinking in a bar, wandering into the wrong part of town. For all the claims of progress, what they’re really saying is that the other India—the medieval one—is everywhere, and can strike at any moment. That the bubble is a mirage, and so is the comforting hypothesis of “two Indias.” The very phrase is misleading, suggesting a separation, a reassuring distance and insulation of one from the other.
This is why the standard establishment response to rape is simple: shove the “new India” genie back into the bottle and herd its women back to the nunnery, chaste, covered up and behind high walls. “You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes. They are prevalent in some urban belts. Besides new legislations, Indian ethos and attitude towards women should be revisited in the context of ancient Indian values,” declared the Hindu leader Mohan Bhagwat in the wake of the Delhi gang rape.
In fact, rape is no less common in the bucolic hinterlands, where lower-caste and tribal women are routinely assaulted by upper-caste men. National statistics record a spike in sexual violence over the past two decades: “8,864 18-30 men were arrested for rape in 1991; 16,528 in 2011. Molestation and sexual harassment arrests from this cohort have also almost doubled, from 23,075 in 1992, the first year for which data is available, to 32,581 in 2011,” notes columnist Praveen Swami, who ascribes the trend to a neoliberal “reordering of India’s social fabric”:
India’s transforming urban economy has, firstly, produced a mass of young, prospectless men. The parents of these children, many first-generation migrants to cities, worked on the land or were artisans. Though this generation’s position in the economy may have been inequitable, its agency as workers was not. The young, though, find themselves fighting for space in an economy that offers mainly casual work. This casualisation has come about even as hard-pressed parents are spending ever more on education. Even the pressures on middle-class and lower middle-class men are enormous. Frequently coddled [by] son-worshipping parents, young men are only rarely able to realise the investment and hopes vested in them.
This enraged disappointment finds a convenient target in the bodies of women, which—though Swami doesn’t address it—are more present and vulnerable than ever, thanks to the same process of liberalization. The driving engine of social change in India is the increased presence of urban women in the workplace, be it as call center workers, sales clerks, midlevel managers or high-ranking executives. Urban women’s average income has doubled over the past decade. A recent report by the private equity fund Everstone Capital estimates that Indian women entering the workforce will raise the nation’s GDP by 12 percent by 2015. “Improved employment access, education, fall in fertility rates and delayed fertility are all feeding into the structural change and increasing the number of women entering the workforce,” managing director Roopa Purushothaman told The National. “There is also a big push amongst urban families to have two incomes, and cultural changes are reflecting this because there is now more acceptance towards women working.”
Despite its glaring flaws, free market capitalism has created a dramatic shift in the lives of young women like Jagruti, also the child of a rural migrant who earns 7,000 rupees ($128) a month, an airport worker who sold his land to educate a daughter and taught her to want more—a smart overcoat, a Samsung smartphone. She died trying to get home after catching a movie with a male friend, a software engineer. A decade ago, a girl like her would likely have been married by 16 to a fellow class and caste suitor and spent her life raising children and, at best, working as a maid.
Besides, whether she works or not, the urban Indian woman is no longer confined to the home. Having fully embraced the aspirational lifestyle, she is out and about, in the malls and movie theaters. This bid for emancipation enrages a great many Indian men and makes rape a more universal threat. Urban families, traditional or otherwise, cannot pretend that rape is something that happens to “other people.” Its specter looms large across the nation—in chawls, government flats and luxury condos—each time a sister is late getting back from college, a wife has to work late or a daughter decides to head out to the mall with friends.
When a 2011 Thomson Reuters survey rated India as the fourth-most-dangerous country in the world for women—worse than Somalia—it was greeted with shock and consternation in the Indian media. In reality, life is dangerous for women in all Indias—past and present, rural and urban, old and new. But Indian women long ago decided that they’re not going to let that little fact hold them back. Despite the diktats issued by the guardians of cultural values and the ever-present, ubiquitous threat of sexual violence, this genie has no intention of going quietly back into the bottle.
Yes, things are bad for women in India, but our blogger Jessica Valenti recently looked at “America’s Rape Problem: We Refuse to Admit That There Is One.”