In January 2018, an unidentified man raped an 80 year old woman inside her home in village Talwade near Pune (Outlook, 2018). In the same month, an 8 year old girl’s mangled body was found dumped in the jungles near Rasana village of Jammu and Kashmir after being gang raped and unspeakably brutalised. Barely two months later in Delhi, a 28 year old man was arrested for raping his 8 month old cousin. The baby languished in hospital in a critical condition (BBC, 2018). Every single day newspapers break such stories of rapes from different corners of the country. Neither infant nor octogenarian seem safe from this epidemic of rape.
In earlier decades, high profile cases such as those of Rameeza Bi, Maya Tyagi, Soni Sori and Bhanwari Devi had led to discussions on custodial rape. The Nirbhaya case in 2012 where a 23 year old was gang-raped with a metal rod and disembowelled before being thrown out of a moving bus shocked the nation and led to widespread demonstrations and a call to review rape laws. Even as these discussions and demonstrations continued, several other cases were reported from across the country with alarming regularity and sickening impunity. The widespread outrage following the Nirbhaya case, the scale of demonstration and discussion that followed and an amendment in rape law seemed to have had no deterrent effect on the incidence of rape occurring all over the country.
These media stories are backed by chilling statistics. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of 2016, reports 38,947 rapes. This translates to about four women raped every hour or, hypothetically, one woman raped by the time you finish reading this article. If one were to consider other categories of sexual crimes such as ‘attempts to rape’, ‘assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty’, and ‘insult to modesty of women’ listed in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and other crimes listed under Special Local Laws (SLL) such as ‘indecent representation of women’ as well as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, the number of women facing some form of sexual violence every hour could be even higher. Add to this the fact that not all such violence is actually reported due to a culture of silence and notions such as ‘ghar ki izzat’ and ‘mooch aur pagdi ki baat’, referring to family honour and patriarchal pride within the kinship and it is easy to see that the reality may in fact be grimmer. What is it that makes rape such a common occurrence?
In the face of these statistics, many argue that rape is a development problem and that it could actually be designed out of our cities and villages or planned away through better intervention (Padukone 2014). The rape of two teenage girls in Budayun soon after the Nirbahya case saw many arguing for building more toilets to avoid rape. Similarly, better lighting, police presence and surveillance systems in public places are often advocated as rape deterrents. In this article I argue that a far more holistic view is needed. Rape is a product of a culture of male violence and dominance. The circumstances and factors that allow crimes like rape to become commonplace—and perhaps even normalised—need to be interrogated. I have proposed the idea of a ‘genderscape of hate’ while attempting to theorise this (Datta, 2016), where violence against women is normalised. The link between everyday violence that is used to devalue women and violent crimes like rape is made clear.
The epidemic of rape cannot be theorised without an understanding of the near continuous stream of violence women and girls face over the entire course of their lives. A dialectical link exists between this debilitating everyday violence that is now normalised and the incidences of extreme sexual violence that occur with increasing regularity. In this cycle of violence, everyday violence allows for women and girls to be dehumanised, devalued and seen as ‘natural’ recipients of male violence. Male violence over women itself is viewed as part of a parcel of male privilege and often remains unquestioned.
Violence in the Womb and Daughter Discrimination
The violence girls and women face often begins even before they are born and continues over the course of their lives in homes, institutions and public spaces. Violence in the womb gets normalised through the operation of two sets of factors that ultimately intertwine. The first is the social and cultural factors that continually emphasise male privilege in patriarchy. These factors operate through festivals, rituals, customs and traditions to reinforce the lower value of daughters compared to sons and women vis-à-vis men. The second set of factors pertains to the policy emphasis on fertility reduction and the language of reproductive rights and choice. These factors, together with the new advances in medical technology intertwine with the culture of son preference to justify sex selection within households. The prenatal violence of sex selective foeticide has perhaps replaced or overlapped with neonatal violence—female infanticide. This is borne out by data from Census of India which shows an alarming trend of progressive masculinisation or our ‘disappearing daughters’ and ‘vanishing women’. Figure 1 shows the trend of declining sex ratio, although a slight increase may be seen in the last Census; and child sex ratio in India.
The prevalence of daughter discrimination has also been noted earlier (Dasgupta, 1987). Daughter discrimination is operationalised through a variety of practices within the household that result in gender differences in allocation of household resources between daughters and sons, enrolment, dropouts, immunisation and disparities in other areas of social wellbeing. To take a holistic view of violence against women means acknowledging the role of these practices as continuous culturally justifiable everyday violence to be seen in continuation with the prenatal and neonatal violence directed against girls.
The wave of normalised male violence also spills over and operates in institutional and public spaces. The onus of keeping oneself safe in public space becomes a woman’s responsibility or that of her male kin. In fact, this sets the tone for punitive familial violence in the name of honour. In their book, Why Loiter, Phadke et. al. (2011) illustrate how women need to constantly strategise in order to access public spaces for work or leisure. Public institutions and media also constantly echo the same narratives and tend to construct public spaces as especially dangerous to women. This then not only normalises violent incidences such as rape in public spaces, but also justifies an overall policing of women’s access to these public spaces for education, work or leisure.
Rape in India | Disappearing Women Normalising Violence against Women
In an earlier essay (Datta, 2016), I have argued how violence against women, particularly rape is normalised. Not just the way rapes are reported in the media, but also the statements by public figures play their role in this. The focus of the media headlines is on the raped woman rather than man or men who commit the crime. For example, ‘Woman Gang-raped!’ rather than ‘Men Gang rape Woman’. Use of words such as ‘victim’ rather than ‘survivor’, a focus on her presence in public spaces at what patriarchy deems an odd hour or unaccompanied, her clothes and prior acquaintance with the rapist—all coalesce into a socially acceptable culture of victim blaming rather than zero tolerance for rape or focus on the perpetrators of rape
Walby (1990) has written about male violence as a punitive patriarchal tool. Similarly Suad Joseph mentions what is termed as the ‘kinship contract’. In these, men within kin groups enter into tacit pacts to control the labour, sexuality and mobility of women in the name of ‘protecting’ women (Joseph, 2005). Intersectionalities of caste, class, religion, ethnicity and region further complicate the picture. As several cases show, women face rape as a symbolic subordination and ‘dishonour’ of the communities to which they belong. Gang-rapes during caste wars and communal riots are cases in point. Instances of custodial violence or excesses by state forces in theatres of insurgency or activism by tribal groups follow the same logic.
Viewing violence against women outside the envelope of development and as a product of a deep rooted patriarchal culture is an urgent prerequisite. This patriarchal culture is being constantly reinforced through tradition as well as modern popular culture. Eventually as a society we cannot hope to address the problem of rape through interventions and planning without also intervening in the cultural and social attitudes that allow us to devalue daughters as less valuable than sons. The cost of such violence is not just in terms of truncated horizons among our women and girls but also more practically in the image we carry in international tourism. More than one country has routinely issued advisories to its women against tourist travel to India.
The data from various sources including the NCRB show clearly the increasing incidences of rape, the increase in gang rapes, the rising incidences of child rape and also the trend of more juveniles being involved in rape cases (NCRB, 2014 and 2016). These trends only underline the continuing devaluation of women and girls, the seeping of misogyny to younger men and the rising incidences of group violence against women (Datta, 2016). Treating the rising incidences of rape as a problem of development that can be planned away is a naïve argument. There is a need to view the rising incidences of rape as dialectically linked to prenatal, neonatal and everyday violence that constantly devalues women and has now been normalised. Unless these are addressed through an inculcation of positive masculinity and calling out and dismantling rape culture, the costs we will have to pay as a society will be much too high.
National Crime Records Bureau, 2014. Crime in India 2014, Ministry of Home Affairs, Available at: https://bit.ly/2Ns2EfV
National Crime Records Bureau, 2016. Crime in India 2016, Ministry of Home Affairs, Available at: https://bit.ly/2FFqz8c
Dasgupta M., 1987. Selective Discrimination against Female Children, Rural Punjab, India.
Population and Development Review 13 (1): 77-100.
Datta A., 2016. The Genderscapes of Hate: On Violence against Women in India Dialogues in Human Geography, 6 (2)
Joseph S., 2005. The Kin Contract and Citizenship in the Middle East, in Friedman, M, Women and Citizenship, Studies in Feminist Philosophy, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 130–145.
Outlook Web Bureau, 2018. 80-Year-Old Woman Raped In Pune, Accused Absconding, Outlook, January 20.
Padukone N., 2014. How Urban Design Could Help Reduce Rape in India, CityLab, Available at: https://bit.ly/2uHX3fh
Pandey G., 2018. India outcry after eight-month-old baby raped, BBC News, January 30.
Phadke S., Khan S. and Ranade S., 2011. Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, India: Penguin Books.
Walby S., 1990. Theorising Patriarchy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.