Why has it become normal to dehumanize women in India?
Two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, a girl was molested on the streets of Delhi in front of a crowd. The video went viral—as did the spectacle of a mob of men falling upon the woman and the police thrashing the rabid mob with lathis (batons) like a pack of dogs.
While anger against the molesters was rampant, what struck me was the idea that a group of men can act on a whim to sexually assault a woman on a busy road with no one, apparently, having a problem with it. The police fished the trembling girl out of the mass of bodies, sheltering her with their own bodies and swinging their batons to drive away the men circling around, still intent on her.
A December night in Delhi. She was wearing clothes that covered her whole body.
Schoolboys in Mumbai pose for a picture in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape. (Tash McCarroll)
A few months later, a similar incident played out in the northeastern city of Guwahati, in which a reporter actually called in a camera team to shoot the attack but did not intervene to save the girl. All the while he was recording the violence with his phone.
Another incident in Mangalore saw a birthday party in a private farmhouse encroached on by members of a right-wing group called the Hindu Jagaran Vedike, accompanied by local media (who alerted the police). The owners of the farmhouse had allegedly stopped paying money to the right-wing group and the attack was seen as retaliation. The assailants thrashed the boys, slapped a girl, and tried to force them to perform sexual acts on camera. A girl jumped from the first floor to escape the mob but was caught and stripped by the thugs.
To me, these group actions are more alarming than your garden-variety rapes and molestations because there seems to be no hesitation to be witnessed by peers while performing such crimes. The idea that a crime can be proposed—and that a group of people will take up the idea and act on it—signifies deep fractures in gender relations in Indian society. There is a certain contempt for women, a certain dehumanization that allows for this to become an acceptable action.
Inflicting harm on another person is not easy. Each of us sees ourselves as ideal. No person wants to be a criminal, an inflictor of injustice. No person is comfortable seeing himself or herself as the cause of another’s pain. For these actions to be possible, the victim must be somehow rendered “fair game”—deserving of the punishment meted out to “teach her a lesson.” Or the victim must be an object so completely dehumanized that the question of her having feelings does not matter.
Somehow, we are turning into a society in which there is a growing consensus among men that sexual assault is acceptable—those who “normally” respect women sometimes start to find reasons to make exceptions for some of them, e.g., those who are out late at night, those who seemed to be “asking for it.”
There is a collective inability to sustain an unambiguous message that a woman who refuses sexual contact must be inviolable.
Also, the feminists are right and wrong. This may not be desire, but it is fun.
Somehow, we have people who see rape as fun—a team bonding game for the “sexually potent male club.” This is why you have police talking about rape victims overreacting to “a little fun” that resulted from them provoking their rapists. They do not seem unfamiliar with the idea of a group of men having “fun” with a woman they pick up. This is how women get accused of provoking men by “flaunting their sexuality,” and men simply “misunderstanding.” “Wares advertised,” but deal reneged on. How common is this?
The Delhi gang rape caught the nation’s imagination, but the horror for me was the Mumbai gang rape of a photojournalist, in which she was one of a series of women who had been gang raped in that location. Women who hadn’t filed complaints. Gang rapes that were discovered from the confessions of the rapists. Rag-pickers and other street women who “don’t matter”—one imagines they did not expect much from the law. There was an utter casualness—a kind of loose gang rape group with no particular closeness, level of trust, or sense of loyalty between the men.
Police searched for the rapists, so the young man helped them find them. People he had raped with on other occasions. One has to wonder how the police knew who to ask as well. Were these “boys having fun” that the police were aware of and knew to ask if someone complained? On top of all this, the mother of one of the rapists helped her son evade the police.
But these acts still consist of strangers as perpetrators. Another gang rape in Indore a couple of years ago was actually the first sort of double gang rape I’d heard of. A girl was lured to a farmhouse by her boyfriend. She went there with a cousin. Both girls were gang raped by the boyfriend’s friends. Three of the boys were politically connected. A group of passers-by discovered the gang rape in progress and, instead of rescuing the girls, they joined in.
So coming now to the “hot news” these days…
On December 23, a 16-year-old girl in eastern Kolkata died of burn injuries that the police initially tried to pass off as a suicide attempt. In October, a young man she knew vaguely told her that her father had asked her to come from her home to a nearby shop. Instead, she was abducted, blindfolded, taken to a home, gang raped, and dumped in a field. The next day, when her father took her to the police station to file a complaint, the same rapists assaulted her father, kidnapped her again, and gang-raped her again, this time dumping her near the railway tracks.
After facing intimidation to withdraw the case, scant police protection, and finally being assaulted and set on fire, she lost her battle to live. She was pregnant when she died.
The response of the state is something we have come to expect from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s government. In a state where any bad news is called a Maoist/Communist conspiracy, this girl had the misfortune of having a father who actually belonged to a union dominated by Communist Party of India (Marxist). When the CPI(M) declared that they would carry the body in a procession for cremation as a mark of protest, the state-controlled police abducted the body and tried to cremate it themselves to prevent the protest. But they were unable to cremate it without a death certificate, which the father refused to surrender to the police. This resulted in a huge political row. Finally, seemingly on the order of “higher ups,” the police returned the body to the family.
While this rape didn’t make too many waves at that time (taxi driver’s daughter—who cares?), another double gang rape in the southeastern city of Pudducherry did. On Christmas Eve, a girl visiting her friend in Pudducherry went to meet her boyfriend. Three men abducted her outside his residence. One of them raped her.
When she escaped and made it back to her friend and boyfriend that evening, she was attacked again by another, supposedly unrelated group of seven men and raped by six of them. The boyfriend is himself under suspicion in the case, though he did not rape her. The victim has said she did not know any of her rapists. Two policemen were suspended for refusing to file a case for such a complaint.
A.M.H. Nazeem, a politician for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, which claims to fight for social justice for Dravidian people, characterized this horror story as “prostitution.” Not surprising, considering that the main man accused in the case is a close aide of Nazeem—and that most of those arrested are DMK cadre.
Women’s rights have no inherent value of their own in India. Some incidents grab attention for the shock value, and for media, rape continues to be sex, and sells if the star cast or storyline or political implication has potential.
“Sex” still sells.
On the other hand, the country’s women are living under a permanent shadow of potential violence against them, where the first person to be blamed for their devastation is likely to be them. A girl cannot speak of simple street harassment at home because the first advice she gets will likely be to stay home and play it safe. Support, too, may not succeed. Many men get attacked—knives seem to be a favorite—for protecting women.
Endless stories of police disinterest and politicians’ misogyny perpetuate a certain perception of okayness about a little “men will be men” behavior with women who “provoke” by existing. Impunity may be decreasing but the social stigma continues to belong to women. There continues to be little deterrent to men who may start some “man talk” about how a woman is asking for it that draws likeminded participants and snowballs till a group consensus forms for a crime. We continue to see self-confessed serial rapist God-men as victims of a political conspiracy to malign them.
Evaluating women as objects continues to be hip, as witnessed by the ongoing bewilderment of singer Palash Sen over feminist anger when he asked a college crowd if there were beautiful girls in their college. The crowd roared back “No!” Sen genuinely does not see what the issue is in recommending that parents of beautiful girls send them to an engineering college so that the intelligent men there have some visual relief. He may have the misfortune of being crass in the spotlight, but he’s hardly alone in the complete inability to see women beyond their utility to men.
It is a pervasive dehumanization that is spreading. At a casual level, it patronizes women. At another intensity, it savages them.
The inability to see women as actual humans is increasing—it no longer remains something that can be explained as orthodox misogyny. Much of the dehumanization is modern. It will also grow as women break through barriers previously imprisoning them, triggering a reflex backlash in an attempt to bring them under control as well as prevent them from sharing credibility as equals.
Our collective focus tends to be on police or security features or political insensitivity or judicial lapses, but the fact is that this issue has already grown beyond the ability of any of these institutions to prevent—the idea that a woman can be entertainment, can be further exploited to punish, and once violated is soiled, whether she likes it or not. In other words, “do what you will as long as no one objects” is already here, couched with excuses, preying on the fringes where no one pays attention to the plight of women “who don’t matter” for class, caste, or religion. Any punishments that take place happen out of the sightlines of society and serve no deterrent.
This is a tinderbox waiting to explode. Radical social interventions are needed urgently before things reach a point where the state simply cannot do anything about it and it becomes a “reality” to be accepted.