Women

08.28.13

In India, A Culture Where Rape is Routine

As Mumbai reels from news of another brutal rape, Dilip d'Souza examines dismissive cultural attitudes towards sexual assault.

In these days, as Mumbai is agog with news of another rape, a young journalist friend told me about a conversation on a suburban train. She was in the women's compartment, on her way to work not far from where this latest outrage happened. Naturally, several women around her were discussing the episode.

One woman zeroed in on—wait for it—the core of the issue. "You look at the clothes these girls are wearing these days," she said. "Why just one, she should have been raped by 10 men!"

Outraged by this remark, my friend tried to say something. The woman rounded on her: "You keep out of this, I wasn't talking to you!"

Rudeness apart, here's my opinion, whatever it's worth: Attitudes like this—and it's a delusion to think they are not widespread—will ensure that women keep getting raped. And this is why the lesson for me, to take from one more ghastly rape, is about attitudes.

Like the rickshaw driver's attitude: Not long ago, I took a rickshaw home from the airport. We passed a long stretch that is a favorite spot for young lovers seeking a modicum of privacy. In a city that affords them so little, they find it, ironically, on the side of a busy highway. On any given evening, that stretch is populated by dozens of young couples, embracing and chatting and kissing, as couples must do. All as cars and buses and taxis, sometimes with loads of gawkers, zip past.

As we drove by that day, my til-then-silent rickshaw driver began muttering. He was clearly irate about something and soon he couldn't keep his feelings to himself any longer. "All these people," he burst out, waving a hairy arm at the lovers so vigorously that our rickshaw careened across the lanes, "someone should bring a gun and shoot them all dead, one by one."

"Why?" I spluttered, confounded.

"Don't you see?" he said. "They are spoiling our Indian culture!"

Ah yes, that Indian culture that, no doubt, calls for the wholesale murder of cooing couples. That's the one my driver must have meant.

Like the collegiate moral brigade's attitude: One evening a few weeks ago, 70 city college students turned up at another favorite lovers' hangout spot, a 20-minute walk from the highway stretch. It was International Youth Day, August 12, and to observe it, these kids had come up with the perfect campaign.

What they did was they surrounded other young people they found there—more couples doing some cuddling—and "asked them to refrain from public displays of affection (PDA)." They held up placards that said (in Hindi, in which it rhymes better): "The crime you're committing with your girlfriend, go get a room", and "Have some shame, do all this in your home."

Note the "your girlfriend." As ever with moral champions, somehow it's the man corrupting the woman.

One of these moral policewomen—herself just 17—had this to say: "We would like to frequent places such as [this] but prefer not to because it is full of people indulging in embarrassing displays of affection. We are not against couples, but only against those indulging in PDA which makes others uncomfortable. They should instead get rooms and do it in privacy."

It embarrasses her and makes her uncomfortable, but she chooses nevertheless to close in on these couples and harass them. What we're seeing here is what Alexander Cockburn once saw as well, after the Monica Lewinsky episode: "What we're seeing here is one of the most disgusting of all spectacles: Puritans wringing their hands while clambering on one another's shoulders to peep in the bedroom window."

Like the god-man's attitude: soon after the horrifying rape of a young woman in Delhi last December, the famous "spiritual leader" Asaram Bapu announced that the girl was as much at fault for what happened to her as the rapists were. Mistakes, he said, are "not committed [only] from one side." What's more, he said, the woman "should have taken God's name and ... held the hand of one of the men and said 'I consider you as my brother', and should have said to the other two, 'Brother I am helpless, you are my brother, my religious brother.'"

Had she done this, said Asaram Bapu, "the misconduct wouldn't have happened."

Never mind the reference to a gang rape and murder—for the woman eventually died of her wounds—as mere "misconduct.” Never mind the nearly obscene advice that a woman about to be raped should call the murderous thugs "brothers" in the hope that this would save her. Never mind those things, and merely consider Asaram Bapu's most recent appearance in the public eye.

Just days ago, a 16 year-old girl accused the man himself of sexually assaulting her.

"Baseless allegations are leveled against me," said Asaram Bapu, "because I preach Indian culture."

Whatever.

In an angry, passionate outburst after this Mumbai rape, Lakshmi Chaudhry writes: "[Indian women] all live with a debilitating sense of being under constant siege, an ever-present anxiety that a lewd comment or casual grope may lead to a full-on assault; the nagging worry that this auto or cab or bus driver may turn out to be the wrong one; the paranoia triggered by a slowly circling car filled with men. This, this is the price of being a woman in India. And it is paid by all of us, irrespective of color, caste or class."

The price, indeed. Let's talk about attitude. Let's talk about culture. In fact, let's give Chaudhry the last word there: "The ugl[y] reality is that while rape may be considered a crime, we live in a culture where sexual harassment is so routine as to be unremarkable."