Is liberalisation one of the many culprits for the spiralling trend of sexual violence? In recent days, a number of op-eds have pointed the finger at the neoliberal economy and its effects, some more persuasive than others.
Sitaram Yechury in the Hindustan Times lays the blame on a twisted form of modernity — or “modernoxity”, as he dubs it. “Intoxication with the modern consumerist display of latest commodities and gadgets is currently being passed off as modernity,” he writes. In other words, modernity in India has been reduced to a pattern of consumption — buying branded jeans, visiting malls, owning a smart phone — without its accompanying essence, which he defines, in quoting Dipankar Gupta’s words, as “characterised by an attitude of equality with, and respect for, others.” Yechury goes on to argue:
India’s march towards modernity is being subverted not merely by the tenacity of past institutions – caste-based social oppression, patriarchic order that suppresses women, the khap panchayats, unequal treatment of religious minorities etc – alone. This is buttressed by the values of neo-liberal consumerism (modernoxity), treating women as objects of display and not as human beings etc.
Sudhir Kakar makes a similar point in his Times of India column:
The western concept of a woman being a person in her own right, an individual, with unalienable individual rights, is part of a modernity that is making inroads into India — and clashing with traditional ideas of when a woman may be deemed a person. But what is being more easily embraced, since it does not clash with the traditional markings of the male imagination, is a pernicious western idea… of the individual body being pre-eminently an arena of enjoyment.
We see the enthusiastic embrace of this idea in the imitation of western mores of fashion, beauty and sexual conduct that pervade the media, entertainment and advertising industries. For many men, the objectification of the woman’s body is, then, not something regressive but a part and parcel of being ‘modern’.
The idea that Westernisation is often sexism by other means is hardly new. Both Yechury and Kakar re-state an old leftist truism about consumer capitalism and patriarchy, albeit in erudite terms. Praveen Swami writing in The Hindu today, however, breaks interesting new ground when he posits five new “contexts” within which to understand rape in new India.
“India’s transforming urban economy has, firstly, produced a mass of young, prospectless men” who are “fighting for space in an economy that offers mainly casual work,” writes Swami, “This casualisation has come about even as hard-pressed parents are spending ever more on education. Even the pressures on middle-class and lower middle-class men are enormous. Frequently coddled in son-worshipping parents, young men are only rarely able to realise the investment and hopes vested in them.”
Rising expectations meet the glass ceiling of job insecurity, leads in turn to disappointment and self-esteem issues, more so amongst young men. Add to this the breakdown of community and traditional family ties in new urban slums where young boys “are being brought up by no-parent families — families that fathers have abandoned or are largely absent from, and where mothers work long hours.” Worse, they are raised in homes where violent abuse is routine. Swami points to a Ministry of Women and Child Development survey which shows that 68.99 percent of children, over half of them boys, reported suffering physical violence.”
Some pieces of Swami’s arguments are not quite as persuasive. It’s quite a leap to claim that due to “diminishing access to theatre, art, music and sport — for which he offers no evidence other than multiplex ticket prices — “the street becomes the stage for acting out adulthood, through substance abuse and violence.” But he rightly points to the rage evoked by a sexualised entertainment culture which valorises the kinds of sexual freedom and choices “that young men can watch on television and in public spaces, but never hope to participate in.”
What all three writers agree on is this: Rape is a symptom of a nation burdened with an imitation of modern democracy — the kind that fails to offer us, be it men or women, genuine freedom, opportunity or equality. In young men, this inspires a “hyper violent masculinity” which they act out on the bodies of women. But what about the women?
What’s missing, however, from any of this analyses is a frank assessment of how and why women participate in this perversion of modernity. None even begin to address the muddier issue of why women seek freedom in what may be deemed as self-objectifying behaviour — for example, wearing a mini skirt. Are they deluded fools? Or is there genuine liberatory potential in breaking traditional norms that require women to remain modest and asexual? After all, isn’t rape often construed as due punishment for women who embrace “modernoxity,” as Yechury would have it?