The angry protests demanding justice for the Delhi rape victim struggling for her life in hospital are another instance of people stirring into action when a heinous crime shocks their conscience. Public outrage at the plight of the young victim raped in a moving bus in Delhi has been directed at the police for failing to stem the increase in the incidence of rape and bring the guilty to book; when protestors took to the streets this week, the police dispersed them with water cannons, fuelling the anger. Many are demanding harsher punishment for rape, including the death penalty.
Talking with a friend about this incident made me wonder if rape is a crime of violence alone or if it was a result of sexual frustration.
Rape is viewed by most in the West as purely a crime of violence, an instance of the perpetrator seeking to control and exercise power over the victim. This may hold true in societies like the US, where sex outside of marriage is not taboo and individuals can freely choose sexual partners. Sexual freedom for the most part allows both men and women equal access to one another and to each other, too. It isn’t the case in India.
While dating has gained almost universal acceptance among many metropolitan families, such progressive attitudes are absent elsewhere and there is no sexual freedom to speak about. The country that gave the world the Kama Sutra seems to have firmly latched onto and is entrenched still in foreign attitudes about sexuality inflicted by less progressive invaders and conquerors. If Indians allowed themselves more sexual freedom, would rape cases diminish?
Yet, there is no denying that the urge to control and exercise power over women in India is the root cause and driver of the vast amount of violence inflicted by men over women everyday all around the country. The maid with the drunken husband who beats her is present in at least one household we know. Current attitudes towards women are also reflected in the many Khap panchayat rules oppressing women and by fatwas like the one against women taking up jobs as receptionists.
Worse still, religious practices that oppress women have also crept in via the back door through migrant workers in the Middle East. An alarming trend in Hyderabad is the rise of Wahabism as a direct result of locals going to the Middle East and returning with newly minted ideas about Islam and the place of women and how they ought to conduct themselves. Seeing their Middle Eastern bosses treat their women much like cattle has found great appeal among Indian men and so we have little islands of imported and repressive culture amid us. Thus the number of women in burqas in Hyderabad is astonishing. Growing up, it was a minority of women who wore burqas in the old city. Now it’s the majority.
My friend also reminded me about how hard cases often have the potential to create bad law. Sure, extremely depraved acts as the Delhi rape can often make the legal pendulum shift to the extreme right, much the way privacy rights have been eroded post 9/11 in the US. The urge to legislate a way out of problems makes people feel they have taken action and feel good about having done something. However, more and stricter laws rarely lead to a decrease in crime.
Death penalty for rape in India is not going to put much of a dent in crimes against women. Especially in a country where the police is made up largely of men with the same mindsets as the perpetrators of crime against women.
The kind of paradigm shift that needs to take place in Indian society to give women the equality and the respect they deserve will remain elusive as long as men have the upper hand and few men want to relinquish what little they can control.