In New Delhi the trial of five men accused of gang raping and murdering a 23 year old physiotherapy student on a private bus opened last week amidst protests and a fierce public debate over the failure of the Indian police to stem what has been described in the press as ‘rampant violence’ against women in India. The protests by angry, young anti-rape protesters met with water cannons, tear gas and long sticks used by the police to brutally disperse what the Indian finance minister called a ‘flash mob’ – a term used to describe internet age crowds which in this case were spontaneous and inspired by social media and a sense of common purpose.
According to the Financial Times, the protests were not simply against the brutal rape and the lack of safety for women in India’s capital. The rape, says New Delhi-based sociologist Dipankar Gupta, was just the tipping point, and the protests stemmed from a feeling ‘that this government doesn’t deliver on anything, including the safety of women.’
The case occasioned hundreds of international media articles on rape in India. The Economist claimed that rape was called by the UN’s human-rights chief a ‘national problem’. Rapes and the ensuing deaths (often from suicide) are routinely described in India’s press—though many more attacks go unreported to the public or police. Delhi has a ‘miserable but deserved reputation’ for being unsafe, especially for poor and low-caste women. Sexual violence in villages, though little reported, keeps girls and women indoors after dark. And sexual violence, according to Indian feminists and anti rape campaigners, is on the increase: rape cases in India more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, and national crime records show that 228,650 of the 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year had women as victims, with a conviction rate for rape cases at 26 per cent.
All this led the international media to describe India as almost synonymous with rape. One example is British journalist Libby Purves who described Indian men as possessed of ‘murderous, hyena-like male contempt’. Such description vilifies half the population of a vast, diverse country and is unhelpful to what should be a global discussion about patriarchy, misogyny and sexual violence. Such descriptions are extremely ethnocentric – by using western culture to measure other cultures we pretend that the west is ‘civilized’ by comparison, and that ‘Indian men’ are culturally prone to rape.
The reality, however, is much more complex. According to The Economist, there is no reason to think that India is destined to abuse women. Its biggest religion, Hinduism, is relatively tolerant towards them. India already has a liberal constitution and a host of progressive laws, for example against sex-selective abortion and dowries.
Many other non-western countries also boast high incidence of rape. Take for instance the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as the ‘rape capital of the world’, where as many as 200,000 surviving rape victims live today. Or South Africa, which has some of the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world. In a survey conducted among 1,500 schoolchildren in Soweto, a quarter of the boys interviewed said that ‘jackrolling’, a term for gang rape, was fun.
And are western women really safer? In the US, 5 per cent of college students experienced rape or attempted rape in a single academic year, and 80,000 American school children are sexually abused each year. Sweden, that bastion of democracy and welfare, has the highest incidence of rape in Western Europe with 46 women per 100,000 population (compared with 23 in the UK).
We should discuss patriarchy and gender based violence calmly and rationally without vilifying or assuming that ‘we’ in the west are any better; people in glass houses, remember, should not throw stones.