Why another high profile rape case in India will fail to tackle the causes of sexual violence

“The trial in the Mumbai gang-rape case has opened to a drowsy and ill-attended courtroom, without the crush of reporters who documented every twist in a similar case in New Delhi in which a woman died after being gang-raped on a private bus.”

When a student was gang-raped in Delhi in December 2012, there was a national and international outcry. The girl subsequently died of her injuries. There were major protests in India’s cities. This year, four of the five attackers were sentenced to death. There was a sudden flood of stories in domestic and international media about other instances of gang-rape in India, and soul-searching articles about why this brutal crime was so prominent.

Around the time that the Delhi gang rapists were being sentenced, a 22 year old photojournalist was gang-raped in the southern city of Mumbai. She was carrying out an assignment with a male colleague. Her attackers had allegedly previously raped four other women, who had not gone to the police after the assailants threatened to put a video of the attack on the internet. But this girl was undeterred. She immediately reported the crime. Given the timing – with the public outrage around the Delhi trial at full tilt – the authorities acted swiftly, with a level of efficiency usually reserved for terrorism cases. The five men were arrested. The trial began this month. They have all pleaded not guilty.

A shocking, detailed article in the New York Times describes the terrible events of that evening and the arrest of the attackers. Interestingly, it also notes: “The trial in the Mumbai gang-rape case has opened to a drowsy and ill-attended courtroom, without the crush of reporters who documented every twist in a similar case in New Delhi in which a woman died after being gang-raped on a private bus.” This demonstrates how popular outcries can be short, if intense. Since the Delhi case, sexual violence in India has been obsessively discussed within the country and outside it. But is it a solution any closer?

The first thing to note is that there are very few reliable statistics to gauge the real scale of the problem. Gruesome news stories abound. Last week it was reported that a 13 year old girl in Utter Pradesh was raped by three men and then set on fire. Official statistics show that 24,000 instances of sexual assault were reported last year, but given that few people report these crimes, the real figure will be much, much higher. The incentive to report crimes is not high. On top of the social stigma, conviction rates are woeful, standing at around 26 per cent.

The defendants in the Delhi rape case were sentenced to death – a highly unusual move in a rape case, but one that satisfied a public that was baying for blood. Perhaps the defendants in the Mumbai case will meet the same fate; perhaps not. While some may argue that this will act as a deterrent to those who casually commit such crimes, this is a rather short-term view. What stands out from the NYT report on the Mumbai attacks and an equally distressing report in the Guardian about the Delhi case is the casualness with which these crimes were carried out. This is indicative not just of a deeply embedded disdain for women, but of the way in which slum-dwelling urban youth have been brutalised. None of the defendants are exonerated by their poverty, but it may be difficult to address sexual violence without taking social exclusion and structural violence into account.

Gender-based violence in India starts at birth: gender-selective abortions and female infanticide means that the male-to-female population ratio is now 0.93 (worse than in 1970). There are extremely high rates of child marriage, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence. Worryingly, this is seen by many as the natural order of things. A 2012 report by UNICEF found that 57 percent of Indian boys and 53 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified.

In the aftermath of the Delhi rape case, lawmakers significantly tightened up laws on rape, increasing penalties and broadening the criteria of sexual assault crimes. This is to be welcomed – although, as I have written before, enforcing such laws in the face of wildly misogynistic social norms and hugely underfunded and understaffed police forces is another matter altogether.

In the aftermath of the Mumbai attack, Member of Parliament and leader of the Samajwadi Party, Naresh Agarwal, said that women should pay attention to what they wear and that “western culture” may be to blame. In April, a 10 year old girl in Bulandshahr was briefly arrested after she went to police to say she had been raped. In a recent rape case in Dwarka, the judge said that "girls are morally and socially bound not to indulge in sexual intercourse before a proper marriage, and if they do so, it would be to their peril and they cannot be heard crying later that it was rape."

Such attitudes and incidents are commonplace and mainstream. The legal changes are an important first step towards tackling the scourge of sexual violence in India, but they are just that: a first step. Sentencing the accused in high profile cases to death – as happened in Delhi, and may well happen in Mumbai – does not tackle the root cause of the problem, and does not mean justice for the many women whose cases stay under the radar. As the public and the press start to move on, one must hope that all the soul-searching has not been for nothing.

Indian photojournalists and journalists stage a protest against the gang-rape of their female colleague in Mumbai. Image: Getty

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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