Will the Delhi gang-rape case actually change women's lives in India?

Translating "watershed" moments into action is almost impossible in a misogynist society with an under-equipped police force.

 

By now, you will know the basic facts of the Delhi gang rape case. On 16 December, a woman and her male companion were lured onto a private bus. On board, she was brutally gang-raped and beaten by six men as the bus drove around the city. After a sustained ordeal, the two victims were thrown onto the street. She died of her injuries a fortnight later.

You will also be aware of the response. Delhi and other major Indian cities were overcome with protests, while politicians, after initially misjudging the public mood, have promised change. The case and its implications have been exhaustively debated in the international media. Some British journalists have denounced India’s misogynistic culture (the case should “shatter our Bollywood fantasies”, said Libby Purves in the Times) while others condemned this neo-colonial attitude, noting that rape is hardly a problem unique to the subcontinent - “let us Brits not get all high and mighty,” said Owen Jones in the Independent. Particularly dishearteningly, sections of the Pakistani and Indian press have been engaged in a “your misogyny is worse than our misogyny” tit-for-tat.

As commentators run out of new things to say, what of the response that really matters – that taking place in Indian halls of power, and across society? Legal reforms under discussion include harsher penalties for sexual assault and fast-tracked court cases to improve woeful conviction rates. Yet, as many have pointed out, the problem runs deeper than legal changes.

This is not the first time that a brutal rape has prompted outrage in India, although the outpouring of grief and anger has arguably reached a new level this time. In July last year, a 17 year old girl in the north-eastern city of Guwahati was sexually assaulted by around 20 men.  A passing TV crew filmed the incident, rather than intervening to stop it. National outrage ensued after the clip was shown on television. 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.

Translating a high profile “watershed moment” into lasting change is a serious challenge in any country in the world. The major difficulty of overcoming regressive attitudes is evident in statements made in recent days – from the guru who said that the woman was partly to blame, to the defence lawyer for the case, who said this week: “I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady”.

This goes beyond offensive statements. Laws to protect women already exist – but are not enforced at ground-level due to a chronically under-funded, under-trained, and misogynistic police force. This is true across the sub-continent. Across the border in Pakistan, a law was introduced in 2011 to combat acid violence – yet a year later, campaigners say it has made little difference, with just 10 per cent of cases making it to court due to poor enforcement. The story is the same for a raft of pro-women legislation on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.

This lack of enforcement is at its worst in impoverished rural areas. The increasingly educated, urban India, which has been deeply disturbed by this event, is a marked contrast to the rural expanse of villages where it has barely made an impact. In villages, tribal justice and feudal practices continue unabated, with gang rapes routinely meted out as punishment. Living in Pakistan, I was shocked by the frequency with which these horrifying stories are reported. And those are just the ones that make the newspapers. The story is not dissimilar in India (despite the cross-border sniping about which country is worse for women). A BBC article last week listed some recent cases:

“A 10-month-old raped by a neighbour in Delhi; an 18-month-old raped and abandoned on the streets in Calcutta; a 14-year-old raped and murdered in a police station in Uttar Pradesh; a husband facilitating his own wife's gang rape in Howrah; a 65-year-old grandmother raped in Kharagpur.”

A serious and sustained discussion of rape and the myriad factors which allow it to happen can only be welcomed. But as the media storm dies down, the true test comes: will this really mean anything for India’s women?

"Designated rape zone": graffiti in New Delhi. Photo: Getty

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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder