Rape is not an anomaly in India, neither new nor rare as a phenomenon. The women who crossed the lakshman rekha to venture out in the world have long been vulnerable, be it the maid servant or farm worker who does so out of necessity or the urban memsaahib who exercises her upper class privilege. And we have long chosen to shrug away the high price of this transgression, ie rape. The poor women simply didn’t matter, and their wealthier peers were dismissed as either foolhardy or promiscuous. Hence the chiding discourse about what she was wearing, why she was at a bar or out working late at night.
So what explains this explosion of universal outrage in a culture where the gangrape scene in a movie has long been a source of sexual titillation? This unprecedented revolt that has flooded our streets with rich and poor, men and women alike?
Some commentators detect in the protests the first stirrings of a “feminist spring.” An uprising of once passive educated professional women and a feminine corollary to the Hazare protests which too were an assertion of middle class power. Madhuresh Kumar of the non-profit National Alliance of People’s Movement, told AFP, “the protesters represent a new kind of movement which is urban and rooted in globalised, aspirational India.” But to argue, as Neha Paliwal does on ForeignPolicy.com, that “the case of the English-speaking, well-educated medical student is a tragedy primarily because something like this shouldn’t have happened to a girl like her” is a misreading of both the victim — who did not come from an affluent or even middle class background —and the burgeoning and changing demographics of that “globalised, aspirational India.”
Employment and education have become portals for upward mobility — the doorway into new India 1 for all segments of Indian society, not just men or the middle class. Every day, Indian women step out the door to head out to school, college or to work, be it as a corporate executive, call centre employee, shop assistant. Keeping the ladies at home and out of harm’s way is no longer an option for any family that has invested in the great Indian dream of moving on up. More men than ever now have to worry about the safety of their wife, sister or daughter who are out on the mean streets.
These protests have been powerful precisely because they are not circumscribed by old divides or identities. These weren’t candlelight vigils assembled by urban professionals or a political rally led by the mahila morcha committees. These were men and women, cutting across caste and class, who came out to in a spontaneous and historic moment. And here’s why: Rape is no longer a ‘women’s issue’ but every family’s problem.
None of us can pretend that rape is something that happens to “other people.” It’s specter looms large across the nation —in chawls, government flats, and luxury condos — each time a sister is late getting back from college, a wife has to work late, or a daughter decides to head out to the mall with friends. We can no longer insist that it is only loose, adventurous, bold women who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rape is now a ghar, ghar ka mamala. And we can thank two decades of liberalisation for it. A poor airport worker’s daughter is no longer content to be married off at 16 to some bus conductor (perhaps the kind of man who in the end took her life). Both she and her parents want more: a college education, a career as a physiotherapist, an evening out to watch Life of Pi. Like the rape victim, with red and gold streaks in her hair, we are all painted, dented ladies now. And more Indian families than ever — traditional or not, poor, middle class or rich — now have one that they call their own. RSS honcho Mohan Bhagwat’s claim that women should stay within the chardiwari is absurdly quaint in both India and Bharat. (That the rape of rural women still remains invisible and unrepresented is fodder for a separate piece)
So it is that the expressions of support from the establishment have been couched not in feminist terms but in the language of family values. “We are ashamed. A nation must respect its mothers, sisters and daughters. If it can’t, the country is not civilised. This is a fundamental principle on which every civilisation is based,” declared Pranab Mukherjee.
In his Times of India op-ed, Sudhir Kakar notes the limits of this maa-behen discourse:
In a society that has traditionally defined a person through her relationships rather than her individuality, a woman is certainly a person when she is a mother, a daughter, a sister or a wife. Any woman who does not fit into these mental categories is a female, a ‘stree’, who, in the notorious public pronouncement of a former president of India, Zail Singh, ‘bhog ki cheez hai’ (is an object of enjoyment). Stripped of relational categories and just as an individual, a woman is not a person but an object, a body for male enjoyment.
Asaram Bapu’s claim that the victim should have begged for mercy from “her brothers” affirms a mindset where a woman cedes rights not just to her body but also her very personhood, if she steps out of these relational categories. Even our president cannot envision a woman worthy of our respect who isn’t defined by these terms.
Family values today have glued together a powerful and diverse anti-rape constituency. And that’s okay: the agents of change aren’t always politically correct. But we may never become a civilised society in any sense of the word until we respect a woman as a human being, an individual who is accorded her rights without appeals to paternal duty.