The brutal gang rape of a young woman, Jyoti Singh Pandey, in India’s capital of Delhi, has captured the nation’s attention and incited worldwide outrage. The horrendous description of what this woman endured has galvanised thousands of Indian women to march on the streets of Delhi, demanding justice. They are protesting for legal reforms to increase punishment for rapists and prevent cases from languishing. They are calling for an expansion of the definition of rape to include crimes varying from physical dehumanisation to penetrative assault.
While substantive reform of the whole investigative mechanism – the judiciary, the police force, and the law – is indeed necessary, there is a second focus to these demonstrations: instigating a change in social attitudes. It is curious that this particular case has caused such outrage. The crime is not unusual: in India a woman is raped every 20 minutes.
It is not just the anger at her fatal injuries, inflicted with an iron bar by the six men facing court. The outcry was due to a cumulative rage over the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of sexual violence and at the imposed insecurity of the growing middle class of educated women.
There is vital progress to be made. In India, rape is inextricably linked by men – and women – to shame: it is seen as the ultimate desecration. This much is evident in the telling last words of Jyoti, ‘Mummy, I’m sorry’, as she felt at fault in her own violation.
Sexual violence has always been greeted with a chorus of victim blaming, from society and authority. Delhi police officers blamed fashionable clothing, having boyfriends, drinking alcohol and working alongside men. With this attitude from law enforcement, conviction rates are abysmal. In Delhi last year, there were over 635 rape cases reported, but only one conviction.
This is a result of a ‘cult of masculinity’. It is about violence, and proving masculine superiority. It is the systematic propagation of fear among women. And disappointingly, the epidemic of sexual hatred has been accepted as a cultural norm. The UK and US media have been quick to morally critique and demonise the Indian culture, as if sexual violence against women is pervasive only in certain parts of the world and as though it must be reflective of entrenched cultural traditions.
However, it is not unique to societies which have been described as ‘emerging from colonial practices’. Rape and domestic violence are issues prevalent in the UK, where the ‘rape culture’ is perhaps more subtly apparent. A BBC survey in 2012 revealed that more than half of those questioned – both men and women – said there were some circumstances when a rape victim should accept responsibility for an attack. Women, it turned out less forgiving than men.
Until attitudes change and women are respected, the gains from the protests will sadly be short-lived. The question that remains is how many more events such as this it will take to force society to look deeply and scathingly in on itself and change its outlook towards women.