Will the protests against the Delhi gang rape reach rural India?

In the backwaters of India, in rural areas still governed by feudal mindsets, rapes and gang rapes continue with impunity. The candle flame wave being carried through Delhi’s foggy, winter nights is not reaching this India.

 

On 29 December, I woke up to the news that the ‘survivor’ of a brutal gangrape on a moving bus in Delhi 13 days earlier died. As a woman of Indian origin, who has been in Delhi throughout this period, I felt saddened and ashamed. During the day, as I travelled through the city, I was moved by much of the public response. However, the politicisation of this entire event has been appalling.

On Saturday as India too awoke to the news that the ‘survivor’ had succumbed to the unspeakably macabre injuries inflicted on her by her six rapists, the government promptly began fortifying itself against a backlash. The centre of Delhi became a ghost town. The iconic areas of India Gate, which had seen much of the public protests since the gang rape, and the entire area surrounding India’s Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan (the Presidential palace), where the week’s protests had spilled into, were all cordoned off. Officers from Delhi’s police force, on their festive breaks, were recalled to duty. All to contain the public outcry.

The Indian government had previously responded to the public outrage by way of a two minute and 13 second speech by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, eight days after the gruesome incident.  It was too little, too late.

But following the demise of the unnamed victim, the government - in an attempt to correct their tardy and high-handed approach, sprang into damage limitation mode. Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician, made a televised address to the nation referring to the victim as India’s “own beloved daughter, their cherished sister, a young woman of 23 whose life full of hope, dream and promise was ahead of her”.

Other politicians followed suit in their messages of condolence and condemnation. But in a country where 31% of the polity - 1148 politicians, including Members of Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies - have criminal cases pending against them, their calls to action are nothing short of hypocrisy. Worse, some 641 lawmakers face serious charges like rape, and in the last five years, more than 30 men charged with rape have stood in Indian elections. For the politicians’ promises to have any teeth they must swiftly begin to cleanse their own fraternity. Otherwise, their promises of action are nothing but hollow.

Western media reports have claimed that this incident has "shaken India" and "left a country in a crisis". But which India are they talking about? It is the urban, educated, mostly middle class India that is revealing a visibly scarred conscience. Away from there, in the backwaters of the country, in rural areas still governed by feudal mindsets, off the nation’s radar, rapes and gang rapes continue with impunity. The candle flame wave being carried through Delhi’s foggy, winter nights is not reaching this India. 

Long unaddressed social, cultural and economic issues are the cause of this disconnect. The alleged perpetrators of the Delhi gang rape come from the underbelly of Indian society; from India’s slums - notorious for their poverty and squalor. Their questioning by police has revealed dysfunctional and apathetic childhoods.

Despite the ‘India rising’ story of the last few years, the country retains an entrenched patriarchal mindset, which extends from the home to institutional settings. From the very outset, the socialisation of women in the domestic space is redolent of unabashedly misogynistic practices. Akin to the submissive role Indian Goddesses play to their husbands in popular Hindu mythology, Indian women remain subaltern to their husbands. A city domestic worker’s comments, justifying her husband’s violence towards her, are telling: ‘My husband is good. But if I don’t obey, ofcourse he’ll beat me up. That is nothing unusual."

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s data for 2011, in 94.2% cases the perpetrator of a rape is known to the victim. This abhorrent statistic evidences reprehensible, familial patriarchal attitudes. Disconcertingly, women themselves sometimes encourage the notion of the inherent superiority of men. This plays out in the importance they ascribe to the raising of their sons as compared to that of their daughters. Mothers giving their sons preferential treatment is common practice.

Sons are viewed as a blessing, daughters a scourge. So the birth of a son is celebrated. He is viewed as an asset: on marriage, he will add to the family’s finances by way of his bride’s dowry. (Dowry, the material wealth gifted to the bride, groom and the groom’s family by the bride’s family– a social practice unarguably demeaning to women, is still widely practiced. This abhorrent practice reduces a woman to a liability to be transferred from father to husband.) Dowry related deaths and female foeticides remain rampant in India.

There is also institutional collusion in the abasement of women. India’s unequivocally sexist rape laws are a case in point. When a rape happens the victim is viewed as a repository of shame, when really the moniker ought to be accorded to the perpetrators. When rape cases come to the fore, the laws are framed so that it is routinely the behaviour of the woman which is scrutinised and pilloried not that of the assailant. Consequently, rather than the laws being a deterrent for the perpetrators, they become a deterrent for the victim to report the case. Unsurprisingly, an FIR (a first hand report made to the police) is filed in only 12% of the cases.

To tackle India’s disgraceful record of crimes against women, we must address these systemic issues. The recent events have provided a rallying call to those who want the country's malfunctioning and indolent judicial system reformed. The public are demanding fast track courts to try those accused of rape. But in a country where there are 12 judges for a million people, any gains in speed of rape cases would come at the cost of other trials. What is needed is a comprehensive reform of the judicial system that sees it being better financed. Currently, a very miniscule percentage of the GDP is spent on the judiciary.

Better and fairer legislation, judicial reform, more female police officers (a dismal 7% of India’s police officers are women) are more immediate measures to tackle the rise in crimes against women. But simultaneously and most crucially, the prevailing medieval attitudes towards women have to be challenged, contested and transformed.

It will be a protracted battle - but it must begin now. A placard at a candlelight vigil in memory of the departed rape victim read: ‘She is not dead, just taken to a place where rapes don’t happen’. But she leaves behind many women in a place where they can, and do, all too often.

A candlelight vigil in Kolkata. Photo: Getty
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.