India has to make the fight against rape something that cannot be ignored

Every time a high-profile rape case occurs in India, there is shock, outrage and protests, but nothing actually changes.

Rape. Shock. Outrage. Protests.

Now let’s wait for a few months to pass.

Another rape. Shock. Outrage. Protests.

Lo and behold, here we are again. Barely nine months have passed since the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi which caused global horror and outrage and prompted calls for India to take a long, hard look at itself. Thousands took to the streets in protest, Twitter went into overdrive, and the government vowed to take action, passing the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill in March – a move that saw token changes in laws related to sexual offences incorporated into the antiquated Indian Penal Code.

And then it all went quiet for a bit, until last week when a 22-year-old photojournalist was gang-raped by five men while on assignment in Mumbai. Commentators have reared up, politicians are “aghast” and a number of Indians are baying for blood: “Hang the bastards!”, “Death penalty to rapists!”, “Castration is the only deterrent!”

First and foremost: to fight brutality with brutality is not the answer. To date, there is no conclusive study that proves hanging, capital punishment or castration will act as a deterrent to further crimes. Conversely, if rapists know that they are likely to be identified by their victim in a court of law and sentenced to death, they are more likely to murder the victim, than to leave them injured.

Back in December, any female Western journo who could claim more than a week’s stay in India scrabbled to pen stories of her horrific ordeal: the groping; the staring eyes; the horrible Indian men constantly after her flesh. Perhaps I was just fortunate, but in 2010 I spent five months traveling into the nooks and crannies of India on 80 trains and felt completely safe – even when I didn’t have a male companion as a bodyguard. Now papers are citing figures from tour operators to India who have noted a 35% drop in female clients, and reporting on women hiring bodyguards for business trips. But how does India’s endemic sexual violence problem compare on a global scale? Is it really the worst place for women?

Police in Delhi say they have filed 463 cases of reported rape in the first four months of 2013 – more than double the number received in the first four months of 2012. While some recoil in horror, the surge reflects an increase in the reporting of rapes, and a healthy shift in attitudes – more women are coming forward and shedding their fear of stigma. No longer worried that their reputation will be tarnished, their chances of marriage will diminish or their families will be shamed, women are becoming braver. Sadly this is still unique to urban India, and it will take much longer to chip away at the mentality in rural India where victims are shamed, often subjected to further rape by police, and prohibited by village councils from approaching authorities.

The most recent figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime state that India has 1.8 incidents of reported rape per 100,000 people, compared with 63.5 in Sweden, 29.1 in Belgium and 26.6 in the US. However statisticians are quick to trounce such figures: comparing crime rates across countries is impossible. Factor in police procedures, legal definitions and discrepancies in data collection and they are almost meaningless. For instance, marital rape in India is not a crime, and rural rape is rarely reported, while in Sweden a woman can report 300 occasions of sexual violence from her partner as individual cases.

Over the last week, what has struck me most is India’s attitude towards rape and the hierarchy of rape reporting. The five accused in last week’s case have allegedly raped four rag pickers in the same area of Mumbai on previous occasions. Would the rape of rag pickers make front-page news? Would candlelit vigils take place? Would Twitter be flooded with calls for castration and hanging? Would the women be renamed Nirbhaya, Amanat, Jagruti and Dhamini? No. Of course not. The rag pickers, and the 19-year-old mother of two who was gang-raped by six men in Mehrauli in South Delhi earlier this week, aren’t of interest. But the photojournalist on assignment at 6pm with a male colleague could have been one of us.

If reported at all, the seemingly peripheral cases are lucky to get a small paragraph in the corner of one newspaper, as did that of the 19-year-old from Mehrauli, along with a final line that states: “Both of the woman’s former husbands had abandoned her, after which she married Rakesh.” Why? A rape victim’s relationship history is irrelevant. As is the outfit she wore, the time of night she was out, what she drank and who she was with. Rape is rape and while the power to punish lies in the hands of politicians and police, India’s collective consciousness needs to change. And it has to start at the root level. Education about gender equality needs to begin at home with parents, and extend into primary schools. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, goes into schools to educate boys about the inequalities women face every day. When she sits in front of fifteen-to-eighteen-year-old boys she gets wolf whistles and comments about her tits – the misogyny is already entrenched in the boys’ psyche. But when she speaks to boys as young as eleven or twelve, their eyes widen as they hear of the injustice of the number of women in parliament. “Get them early,” she says, “before they’re conditioned.” And adopt a multi-layered approach. Bollywood stars have so much heft in India, invite them to front Don’t Rape campaigns: play them on TV and in cinemas, paste them on billboards. Make the fight against rape something that cannot be ignored.

In India fingers are often pointed negatively towards “the West” and the “western lifestyles” that young Indians are trying to “ape” when in reality it’s a shame that a western lifestyle isn’t encouraged. Men and women in the West grow up with each other as classmates and friends and live in shared accommodation at university together where, for the most part, they can experience healthy sexual relationships – something that would no doubt alleviate the frustrations of a number of young Indian men for whom pre-marital sex is forbidden.

Finally there is the issue of the attitude towards the rapists themselves.

Just one of many Facebook groups started in protest is named: Rapists are Not Human Beings: Either They are Demon or Monsters (who should be ‘hung or chopped publically’). Wrong. They are neither demons nor monsters. The majority of rapists are known to their victims and reported cases frequently cite relatives, co-workers and family friends – and as marital rape is not recognised under Indian law – husbands, too. So imposing curfews on women and keeping them indoors isn’t going to work. Separate ladies’ train carriages might protect women for now, but why should we have to use one? Segregation perpetuates the problem of men not knowing how to interact with women on a daily basis.

Eight months ago Samira Shackle wrote in the NS: “Yet despite the protests, international news coverage, and introspection about rape culture, nothing changed. This was not the first high-profile rape case; it will not be the last.”

Until a seismic shift takes place in attitudes towards rape, I fear she may be right.

An Indian activist prays as she takes part in a candlelight vigil in Kolkata on 30 December, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution