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Feminspire | April 21, 2014

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Outcry in India: Fighting Back Against a Long, Painful History of Sexual Assault

Outcry in India: Fighting Back Against a Long, Painful History of Sexual Assault

Disclaimer: Out of a desire to keep with Feminspire’s goal of creating a welcoming space for people of all cultural backgrounds, I feel it appropriate to say that I am not an Indian woman and do not have first-hand knowledge of rape culture in India. I have been sure to restrict the information I put in this article to things that have been expressed by Indian men and women (through speech or essays) as much as possible and I hope that I have not misrepresented them. Rape culture is not at all unique to India — many of these problems are shared by all nations and cultures.

In the wake of the death of a brutally gang-raped Indian woman, protesters in the country are continuing to demand change from the government and from their fellow Indians. Horrifying rape stories are nothing new, both in India and elsewhere, but the international outcry that this case has caused suggests that India may be on the brink of serious change.

Image courtesy of CNN.

Creating a safe place for women requires two categories of change. First, policies need to address rape in a way that does not blame victims, but instead arrests more rapists and use punishments that will more effectively dissuade them from repeated attacks. And second, the rape culture that exists outside of the government must be dealt with as well. These two issues are incredibly interconnected: loose rape laws are partly responsible for the attitude that rape isn’t a serious crime, and the rape culture that already exists is responsible for allowing politicians to continue to ignore the topic and not face threat of losing their positions for doing so. Success in this area cannot be achieved without a change in policy and a change in the prevalence of rape culture.

The phrase ‘rape culture’ may use the word culture, but it by using it I do not intend to imply that the Indian culture is one that inherently promotes rape. Rather, rape culture is the attitude (which can be found in every country) that promotes “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” [x] Examples of this found in India (but by no means exclusive to India) are two six year-old boys who have learned to talk about rape as a way to dominate women, despite probably not knowing what it even was, or the police officers that told a young woman ”You’re a loose woman. That’s why he raped you,” when she reported a man known to have raped dozens, if not hundreds, of women, some as young as 12-years-old.

Because of this, more restrictive laws aren’t very effective if the police and legal system don’t enforce them. It’s a very real possibility that the victim-blaming attitude of some in the police force will undermine any legal progress made by the protestors. A senior Indian police officer recently cautioned women about avoiding rape, saying that they should carry chili powder and not go out at night. The assumption being made here is that women aren’t already being incredibly precautious (as a general rule, we are) and that the group of people in need of being reprimanded and redirected is the women. One woman says “women [in Delhi] routinely carry sharp objects like needles and drawing instruments to dissuade such attacks but there are too many incidents to deal with.” Suggesting that chili powder would make a difference is absurd. The chief is implying that the women themselves are more responsible for their unsolicited attacks than their rapists are. This is the reason that women who report rape are often criticized about any behavior that strays outside the lines of ‘turtleneck sweater, curfew at sundown and never drink in the presence of strangers.’

More alarmingly, the rape apologism among many policemen is so strong that rape in police custody is not at all uncommon. Police officers can be responsible for gang-rapes and murders of women in their custody (without cause) that are not much different from what happened to the young woman on the bus. How can we expect someone who has raped to hold other rapists accountable? The very prospect of approaching a police officer about being raped or assaulted is, as described by Misba Fathima, terrifying and shameful for many Indian women. This is especially true of lower class women: a group of people that a judge said in 1995 could not accuse men of a higher class of raping them. The caste-system may not have the formal recognition it once did, but the remnants of the strict hierarchy still remain and still cause oppression. As long as these entrenched rape-apologist beliefs remain in parts of India’s legal system, it is a sad truth that Indian women cannot expect to be treated with the dignity they deserve after surviving one of the most horrifying attacks imaginable. For this reason, many of them will be forced to stay silent.

Image courtesy of AFP.

That said, the protests that are currently happening in India are by no means a waste of time. These women and the men who ally with them deserve to have a voice and have the fundamental right to demand that their government treat them like human beings worthy of being protected and respected. It will be a long battle; but thankfully, there are many strong Indian women and men who have shown themselves willing to fight it. We are witnessing what could be the beginning of a dramatic, if slow, change in India and maybe even around the world.

Written by Sara Wofford

Header image courtesy of AFP.