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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt