Illustration by Shenuka Corea
One evening in December 2012 in Delhi, India, Jyoti Singh, a 23 year old medical student, was gang raped by six drunk men at the back of a bus. As she fought back, one of the attackers penetrated her with a rusted, L-shaped rod, pulling and ripping her intestines apart. The attackers then threw her out of the moving bus and even tried to run the vehicle over her blood-soaked body. Although she managed to survive the attack, she died from internal injuries thirteen days later.
This incident sparked a massive uproar and elicited a series of nationwide protests and civil unrest. In March 2013, India’s rape laws were changed through The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, which, among other things, expanded the definition of rape, improved the standard for consent and increased the punishment for rape.
As with most expressions of public outrage in India, this cause lost the social momentum that, for a moment, elevated it above all other headlines. Rapes continued to happen — people just did not care enough.
Six years later, in January 2018, Asifa Bano, an eight year old girl, was abducted while grazing her horses in a meadow in Kashmir. She was sedated, raped multiple times, strangled with her own scarf and bashed in the skull with a rock. Her body was thrown into the forest, where it lay for three days until it was found. At the time, the crime passed without much media attention. Outrage finally exploded nearly three months later, when the gruesome details from the police report were revealed and the communal overtones of the issue were recognized.
An uproar similar to that of 2012 followed. As a result, India's Cabinet approved the introduction of the death penalty for those who rape children under the age of 12. A politician accused of raping a 16-year-old girl last year was finally detained.
A clear cyclical pattern is emerging: one out of thousands of rape cases gains widespread media coverage, usually because it reflects other (unrelated but equally problematic) issues like communal tensions, state impunity and corruption. The government takes certain steps against sexual violence in response to the public outcries that follow. Then, the issue dies down, at least until the next brutal rape gains popular attention.
This will go on endlessly, as long as we do not put an end to this cycle perpetuated by deep-seated misogyny.
While the public outcries, legislative changes and increased concern about sexual violence are certainly good things, they are painfully inadequate. Despite these developments, there has been no significant reduction in sexual violence against women. In 2016, there were 38,947 reported cases of rape, which translates to more than 100 rapes per day. Furthermore, rape accounted for just 11.5% of the whopping 338,954 annual “crimes against women.” Even this number belies reality. Marital rape is not criminalized, and most cases of sexual assault are left unreported. These statistics represent merely the tip of the iceberg.
It is futile that public outcries only happen sporadically and only in response to the most explicit and cruel manifestations of violence against women. Everyone feels strongly about Asifa and Jyoti’s stories, but what about the rest of rape victims? How is it that when a rape case gains public attention, everyone suddenly wants to “Save Our Girls,” but people otherwise remain shockingly apathetic towards the ubiquitous misogyny that plagues India, and often perpetuate it themselves?
Social scientist Deepa Narayan claims that “India is at war with its girls and women.” Its skewed sex ratio of 940 females per 1000 males reflects the widespread female feticide that, according to Women & Child Development minister Maneka Gandhi, claims "2000 lives of girls daily." A woman is killed every hour for not bringing enough dowry. 48 sitting legislators in the Indian government have cases related to crimes against women pending against them. Three of them have unresolved rape charges.
Males are brought up with a sense of entitlement and females with a sense of obligation. According to data from the National Family Health Survey (2015-16), 52 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men think it is reasonable for a husband to beat his wife for any of the following reasons: she goes out without informing him, she argues, she refuses to have sexual intercourse, she does not cook properly, he suspects she’s being unfaithful — the list goes on.
This system of norms creates a culture that silences women, treats them like objects, property and economic liabilities, and expects them to be obedient, passive and subordinate. It creates a system that that condones widespread violence against women and allows rape to be used as a political tool and an instrument to attack a family or social group’s honor. Everyone participates in upholding these values and perpetuating this system. Every time someone tries to control how a girl dresses and denies her autonomy when it comes to relationships and sexual preferences, every time someone enforces archaic gender norms and toxic ideas of masculinity, they are perpetuating this vicious cycle.
It is crucial to address rape not as a problem in and of itself, but as an abhorrent yet inevitable outcome of several deep-seated ideological issues that create the larger system of patriarchy that governs India. Dismantling this system is the only way to end this rape epidemic and create a safer, better India for women; such an undertaking is as daunting as it is imperative.
Kaashif Hajee is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email him at [email protected]