To stop the rapists, root out misogyny in Indian society

Priya Virmani believes the shocking violence inflicted on Indian women - including rape - will continue for as long as society condones misogyny

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 3:12am

Last week's gang rape of a 22-year-old photojournalist in Mumbai comes nine months after the gang rape of a 23-year-old student aboard a bus in Delhi that led to her death. Delhi had tragically earned itself the title of India's rape capital but Mumbai, a more liberal city, was widely regarded as safe for women. Not any more.

The latest victim was on assignment at a textile mill and was accompanied by a male colleague. He was tied up and beaten as the woman was taken into the abandoned mill to be repeatedly raped. This happened in the Lower Parel neighbourhood - a swanky part of Mumbai.

In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, a new law was passed that accords more punitive measures for sexual offences. Yet sex crimes against women continue unabated. Why? The answers lie in the prevailing mindset of Indian society, one predicated on misogyny and patriarchy that percolates every strata.

The dark side of this abhorrent gender bias can be seen in the statistic that 98 per cent of rapes reported last year were perpetrated by people known to the victim, including fathers, relatives and neighbours. This is shocking. Yet only the gang-rape cases grab media attention and generate national fury.

However, such fury can only have teeth when the light is also shone on these other rapes and their causes. For such rape cases are more revealing of the long-standing culture that condones crimes against women in myriad guises, of which rape is among the most ghastly. Other crimes include acid attacks, abuse and harassment.

It had been thought that India's urban youth would be the ones to finally address the gender bias. But a poll conducted this month by a leading Indian newspaper reveals different attitudes. According to the survey, 42 per cent of young Indian males condone eve-teasing (public sexual harassment), and moral standards for men and women were starkly different. Thus, the liberal attitudes of India's youth towards gender equality are but a veneer.

For change to occur, there must be a shift in the dominant discourse that seeks empowerment for men at the expense of women. Too often, women are blamed for rape, even by officials. Commenting on the Mumbai gang rape, Indian lawmaker Naresh Agarwal said: "Women needed to pay attention to their clothes to avoid being raped." What is the rationale behind such an argument? And how can such thinking explain "feudal" rapes in rural India, where women cover themselves fully and often even hide their face?

Rape is about aggression; it's about perpetrators who are weak and hollow to the core; and it's about prevailing mindsets that fuel such behaviour. Public discourse must reflect this. Until that happens, it is pointless to question why police reform is failing and why politicians are not adequately addressing women's rights issues: are the police and politicians not from the same social fabric that nurtures male entitlement?

Without social reform, there can be no meaningful institutional changes. And for such changes to happen, every Indian must take responsibility and challenge the lesser place of a woman in the practice of the everyday.

Priya Virmani is a political and economic analyst