In the streets against rape
, recently returned from India, reports on protests against rape and sexism that are shaking the country--and why the left should welcome them.
IN A crime that sparked sustained and angry protests in several cities in India and around the world, a 23-year-old student was gang raped and beaten in Delhi, India, on December 16. She died from her injuries 13 days later.
The outrage caused by the case has helped to spark a larger discussion about rape, sexism and women's rights--in India and elsewhere.
Even how to refer to the slain woman has become a subject of vigorous debate. Since the media, under Indian law, cannot reveal the name of a rape victim, she has been given a variety of pseudonyms--including "Jagruti" (Awakening), "Amanat" (Entrusted), "Nirbhaya" (Fearless) and "Damini" (Lightning)--by the media and protesters alike. People have come out in the thousands to rally in her defense and against sexual assault more broadly.
Recently, for the first time, the victim's family released the young woman's real name to the public. In an interview with a British newspaper, her father defiantly asserted that he was "proud" of his deceased daughter and that "[r]evealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks."
"They" he said, "will find strength from my daughter."
These are powerful and important words to start any discussion of this terrible event. After all, rapes are not uncommon in India. In 2010 alone, there were 22,000 cases of rape recorded nationally. In Delhi, the national capital, 660 cases were reported in 2012. It is also widely acknowledged that the ratio of the actual number of rapes to reported cases is at least 5 to 1 and probably often higher, thus making the above figures far more alarming.
So did the recent protests erupt because this was an unusually violent case of rape? Were the demonstrations, as some leading activists, including Arundhati Roy, have claimed, largely composed of middle-class men and women who had come out to rally for one of their own? Lastly, as some Western journalists argued, is this brutal sexual violence an indication of the particular backwardness of India as a country?
Sexual violence in India
"In India, there is a woman raped every 20 minutes," a young female student at Delhi University told me at the massive protest near India Gate in New Delhi on New Year's Day.
"This was the last straw," said Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association, who has been leading various sections of the protests in the weeks following the attack. "We must understand that there has been a long build up to this moment."
According to Krishnan, women from Adivasi (indigenous people) and Dalit (lower caste) communities, women working in non-unionized workplaces, sex workers and transgendered people have been particular targets of such violence.
Rape in such cases is used as a terrifying method of social control, and the authorities frequently turn a blind eye to it. In 2006, for instance, a Dalit mother and her daughter were brutally raped and then lynched to death over a land dispute in Kherlanji--a village in the state of Maharashtra. The rapists were powerful local men from a socially dominant caste. The police, in league with the rapists, denied any incidence of rape, and the men were never tried.
Similarly in 2010, Delhi police refused to respond to a phone call from an eyewitness who saw her friend being kidnapped and gang raped on their way back from their night jobs at the local call center in Dhaula Kuan.
The rot goes deeper than the police. It is a long tradition of the Indian ruling class to both support rapists and use rape as a disciplinary tool against politically vulnerable communities.
In 2009, Indian army personnel in Shopian, Kashmir, allegedly raped and murdered two Muslim women, Neelofar and Asiya. While this particular case became well known mainly due to what many believe to be a cover-up by the Indian state, Neelofar and Asiya remain two among several women who have been raped and killed by the Indian army in Kashmir.
In these matters, British colonial history has proved to be a great teacher for the postcolonial Indian ruling class. Draconian laws that the British crafted to target freedom fighters have now been revamped to attack dissidents. One such law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), modeled after an old British law, allows non-commissioned army officers to search and arrest citizens without a warrant and even shoot to kill.
In 2004, in one of the worst cases of extrajudicial killings, army officers stationed in the North Eastern state of Manipur raped and killed the 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi for her alleged involvement with the Peoples Liberation Army. Her killers remain free since the law gives the armed forces virtual impunity.
Riots and pogroms against minorities serve as virtual laboratories of misogyny. In the now-infamous anti-Muslim pogrom by Hindu nationalists in Gujrat in 2002, rape and sexual violence were routinely used against Muslim women as a way to "dishonor" the community. Further, in a sickening institutionalization of rape culture by the state, several men who have rape charges pending against them remain important public figures and leaders of right-wing parties, while some even serve in the Indian parliament.
While these horrors of recent memory may serve as the immediate background from which these most recent protests sprang, the global context is just as important. People who gathered in various Indian cities to protest over the past several weeks could not but be influenced by the rise in gender violence on an international scale. From the defense of rape by Republican senators in the U.S. to the attack on reproductive rights by the Tory government in Britain, women's bodies are increasingly becoming a global battlefield.
It is precisely the international scale of these attacks that explains the international scope of these protests--from Delhi to Dhaka and from Chennai to Chicago.
The origin of the protests
One only needs to look at some of the contours of neoliberal India to understand the deep structural connection between the crisis of capitalism and the assault on women's rights. Rape apologists in India have repeatedly blamed women for being out "late at night," claiming that they deserved their violent fate.
In court, a defense attorney for three of the five men accused in the case of the women raped and beaten on December 16 stated that "respectable" women are not raped. "I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady," Manohar Lal Sharma told the court, instead blaming the victim for being out at night with a male friend to whom she was not married.
The woman attacked in Dhaula Kuan and the woman attacked on December 16 both worked at call centers providing cheap labor for Western outsourcing firms. The integrated nature of the market meant that the women's working hours had to keep pace with business hours in the West, thus imposing a regimen of very late night shifts for them and forcing them to navigate nighttime streets and cafes with minimal support from their employer or the government. To then blame them for being out late is viciously hypocritical from a system that provides so little support for women.
At the other end of the spectrum, the opening up of the Indian market for global capitalism has meant a glutting of public imagination by the worst kinds of sexist representations of women from leading capitalist brand names, where female sexuality is used to sell everything from saris to cell phones. Hence, when we look for the origin of the recent protests, we need to look wider than just within India.
While it is true that we have not seen protests of such ferocity and scope in recent times in India, it would be wrong to call them entirely new and without any legacy. That would be discounting several decades of political activism by Indian women's groups and the Indian left.
Protests led by women have a long and proud history in the subcontinent. According Kunal Chattopadhyay, a leading historian and activist from Kolkata, the massive public protests led by women's groups in the 1970s against the case of custodial rape of a 16-year-old girl named Mathura by two police officers inspired and "heightened" for the first time "the political consciousness of many of us male activists."
The sheer size of the protests in the Mathura rape case forced the Indian Supreme Court to overturn its initial decision that found the police not guilty and instead convict them. Since then, there have been similar examples of robust organizing by women's groups for demands such as changes in rape laws, against dowry deaths and for more representation in local and national government, to name a few.
The recent protests are tied to the wave of fightbacks against the system on an international scale. The women and men who have been filling the streets of various Indian cities have seen, in the last few years, dictators fall and public spaces be occupied. We need to see these protests as not just standing in the tradition of past women's movements in India, but also as echoes of Tahrir, Tunisia and Zuccotti Park--and inspiring, in their turn, a new cycle of protests for women's rights.
Is India backward?
Despite the tremendous display of solidarity and strength by Indian women and men in these protests, the tragedy of December 16 has created a disgusting response from the mainstream Western press.
A New York Times editorial singled out India as a country that "must work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued." Similarly, London Times columnist Libby Purves demanded that India change itself forthwith if it wanted to be "allowed to hold its head up in the civilized world."
It is particularly ironic that such imperial dictums are coming from the U.S. and Britain, two countries that, despite their vast material resources, have an abysmal record of gender injustices and victim-blaming within their own national borders.
This racist rhetoric, thinly cloaked in the discourse of "women's rights," has not gone unchallenged. In a letter published in the London Times, several academics and activists called Purves' essay an exercise in "chauvinist finger-wagging" that presented "the West as an advanced culture in relation to a backward and savage India."
Such selective feminism of the global ruling class--which allows them to bomb Afghanistan for the "sake" of Afghan women or institute Islamophobic laws in France in the name of "freedom" for Muslim women--should be resisted in all its forms.
Any real change in gender justice in India can only come from a strong popular movement from below. For that movement to be able to sustain itself long enough to withstand state repression and wrest change will require intense international solidarity, not racist moralism.
Who is protesting?
For the above reasons, it should be clear that the protests in India against rape and sexism are about rejecting the culture of misogyny and moralism imposed by the Indian state and the global free market alike. They are not about the narrow interests of any particular class of women.
It would be wrong to condemn these protests as "middle class." Unfortunately, that is what Indian author and radical activist Arundhuti Roy recently did, stating that the outrage and protests in India were a result, in large part, because the victim in the December 16 case belonged to the affluent "middle class."
First, Roy is factually wrong about the victim who, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, was the daughter of an airport worker on a monthly salary of 7,000 rupees (about $130). She was also "the first from her family, which hails from a caste of agricultural workers, to have a professional career. She was on the cusp of achieving it. She had enrolled in a year-long physiotherapy course in a city in the foothills of the Himalayas. To afford it, she worked nights at an outsourcing firm, helping Canadians with their mortgage issues."
Roy would be wrong, however, even if the woman did come from an affluent family. Mass movements need to be seen in their full course of development, in which numerous factors come together to produce confidence and mobilization. It is not a matter of checking whether these protesters were there to stand in support of Neelofar, Manorama or any other individual rape victim, but to see how these past cases were part of a slow build-up of anger that finally came to a head in the aftermath of December 16 in Delhi.
According to Kavita Krishnan, women at the protests were very open to arguments about the state and army in holding up structures of violence. "People here are not just talking about the rights of middle-class women," said Krishnan. Indeed, she said that "loads of young women spoke to me about the complicity of the police in cases of rape of Dalit and Muslim women."
Some activists have been horrified by the efforts of the Hindu right to co-opt the protests, others by the demands for death penalty made by some protesters. As with any movement rooted in largely spontaneous mobilizations, there will be different views on these and other questions, such as whether different laws would benefit the victims of sexual assault. While it is important to debate these issues within the struggle, we cannot afford to stand aside from it.
Soma Marik, a historian and long-time activist in the women's movement in Kolkata, put it excellently:
[The term] "middle class" and its association with "Westernized," dress-code-violating, "permissive" women has been part of the stock imagery used by right-wing forces in their attempt to trivialize and dilute rape cases. There is no reason for anyone on the left to join that chorus. What has been significant is the scale of protests, and their persistence. Lacking, in many cases, political experience, anger and emotion has led to demands for hanging...That has to be discussed, but only by participating in the struggles.
This is why it is an urgent task for the left to actively intervene and try to shape the movement--and the broader struggles for a future society free of rape and women's oppression.