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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.