I’ve seen a lot of blatant racism around anglocentric portions of the Internet in the wake of India’s horrific rape scandal (if you haven’t read about it already, there’s plenty of information on this Wikipedia page – trigger warning for graphic description of sexual violence).
There are those who attempt to thinly disguise their racism by expressing a generalised horror at things that happen in other parts of the world. There are those who are more honest in their bigotry, suggesting that countries such as India are necessarily savage and backward. I even came across one sickening comment from an individual who suggested that the human race would be better off if most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East were simply wiped off the world map.
This kind of blinkered claptrap suggests a divide between “us” and “them”, the civilized “developed” world and the barbaric “developing world” – a divide in which the so-called West sets the agenda for women’s rights.
Of course, the reality is far more complex. This is not India’s problem – it is an international problem.
Yes, rates of sexual violence are horrifically high in India, but things aren’t exactly rosy in the rest of the world either. For instance, in a study of 33 countries it was found that the United kingdom has the lowest rape conviction conviction rate: only 6.5% of reported rapists are convicted, with an estimated 95% of rapes going unreported. By contrast, in India around 25% of rape cases that go before a court result in a conviction.
(It’s worth noting, of course, that these statistics don’t exactly match up – e.g. the UK figure of 6.5% rape conviction is so small in part because it takes into account that many cases do not go to court. The Times of India reports that police file chargesheets in 94% of reported rapes, but of course this does not mean that all of these cases go to court. Moreover, there are no doubt many more rapes that are never reported, just like the UK. Nevertheless, the implication is that – once a case eventually gets to court – a rapist is somewhat more likely to be convicted in India than in the UK.)
In the aftermath of the latest high-profile rape victim’s tragic death, Indian newspapers are highlighting the intersectionality of rape: the way in which individuals from marginalised groups are more likely to experience rape and less likely to experience justice, the fact that perpetrators are most likely to be family members rather than mysterious men on the street, the idea that consumer culture and political indifference play a role in enabling rape. Campaigners and journalists alike are suggesting that rape can be best addressed through cultural change. It’s utterly tragic that this discussion is taking place in the wake of a horrific attack, but it’s difficult to imagine a similar level of introspection in the UK mainstream media. Instead, victim-blaming remains the norm here.
Of course, the wealth of thoughtful articles in the Indian media can’t simply be attributed to the individual initiative of journalists. The issue of rape came to mass attention and retained mass attention over the last few days because of ongoing protests for change. Thousands upon thousands of demonstrators have remained resolute in their demand for an India free of rape, a non-sexist police force that consistently supports women, and a political class who actually give a shit.
In the West we have so much to learn from the power and tenacity of this movement. The mass protests have continued as politicians promise change and police respond brutally. The sheer unyielding resolve of those involved is incredibly inspiring.
In spite of this, I’ve seen some discomfort amongst Western commentators in response to a demand for the death penalty for rapists from many protesters. To this I have two responses: firstly, it’s not our job to tell campaigners in India how to fight their battle. And secondly, the Indian anti-rape campaign speaks with a plurality of voices, not one voice – see, for instance, this argument against the death penalty from a number of women’s groups.
I’d like to finish this piece by quoting a powerful article from The Hindu. Urvashi Butalia argues that rape culture is all-pervasive, and that in order to destroy rape culture we need to make changes on every level of society.
It is important to raise our collective voice against rape. But rape is not something that occurs by itself. It is part of the continuing and embedded violence in society that targets women on a daily basis. Let’s raise our voices against such violence and let’s ask ourselves how we, in our daily actions, in our thoughts, contribute to this, rather than assume that the solution lies with someone else. Let’s ask ourselves how we, our society, we as people, create and sustain the mindset that leads to rape, how we make our men so violent, how we insult our women so regularly, let’s ask ourselves how privilege creates violence.
It is important we raise our collective voice for women, but let’s raise it for all women, let’s raise it so that no woman, no matter that she be poor, rich, urban, rural, Dalit, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, ever, in the future, has to face sexual violence, and no man assumes that because of the system and people’s mindsets, he can simply get away with it. And let’s raise it also for men, for transgenders, for the poor — all those who become targets of violence. Let’s not forget that the young rape survivor in Delhi was accompanied by a friend who too was subjected to violence and nearly killed. Let’s talk about him too.
Butalia’s approach reflects that of intersectional Western feminism: in particular, some of the ideas popularised through the Slutwalk and Reclaim The Night movements. This does not mean that Western ideals are the “best”. Instead, it suggests that rape is an international problem to which we must seek international solutions. We in the West would therefore do well to listen more to our sisters in India and beyond.