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“She should just be silent”: the real roots of India’s rape culture

Indian activists participate in a rally organized by "The Red Brigade — Bring Bangalore Back" to protest against the recent incidents of sexual abuse, molestation, and rapes against women in Bangalore on July 20, 2014.
Indian activists participate in a rally organized by "The Red Brigade — Bring Bangalore Back" to protest against the recent incidents of sexual abuse, molestation, and rapes against women in Bangalore on July 20, 2014.
(Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

Three years after a horrific gang rape in Delhi brought global attention to India's sexual assault epidemic, a new documentary has quoted one of the rapists saying something so inflammatory that it has provoked a whole new wave of outrage.

"A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," Mukesh Singh, one of the six rapists convicted in the 2012 attack, says in the documentary, because "a decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night."

"Housework and housekeeping is for girls," he claimed, "not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 percent of girls are good."

If women are not "good," he said, men have a right to "teach them a lesson" by raping them. And if that happens, the woman being raped has a responsibility to silently accept the assault. "When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape."

What has made the comments so outrageous is not just the callousness and victim-blaming expressed by this one rapist, but the degree to which his comments reflect attitudes that are disturbingly common in India, and that are central to its climate of hostility toward women and, often, impunity for male violence against them.

The 2012 gang rapist's horrifying justification for his attack reflects a much deeper problem in India

India rape protest candle

(DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Singh made the comments in the new documentary India's Daughter, which screened Wednesday night on the BBC. In the 2012 attack, Singh and five other men lured a young woman onto a bus and then gang-raped her, violating her so brutally that she later died from her injuries.

The 2012 Delhi gang rape was a high-profile instance of the brutal sexual attacks that strike fear into Indian women — more recently, a woman in Rohtak was violently gang-raped and beaten to death by eight men. In a 2011 study, nearly one in four Indian men surveyed admitted to committing rape — by far the highest of any country included in the sample.

Driving this problem is a widespread view among many tradition-minded Indians that women must adhere to certain conservative social norms, and that rapes are the fault of "bad" women who violate those norms.

At the same time, culturally modernizing forces are leading more Indian women to behave in ways that traditionalist society deems transgressive — dating, delaying marriage, pursuing careers — thus making them "deserving" of rape. Not only are victims blamed and rapists forgiven, but aspects of India's legal system and police also support this view of rape, which for traditionalists is all about enforcing their demand that women adhere to their "proper" role in the traditional family structure, which just happens to mean subjugation.

The documentary — and India's decision to ban it — shows that the issues raised in 2012 are still very much alive

India rape protest Rohtak Feb 2015

A demonstration in Rohtak, India, on February 8, 2015, to protest police inaction after the rape and murder of a mentally challenged woman, whose body was found stuffed with stones and missing some organs. (Manoj Dhaka/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In the documentary, Singh, who was sentenced to death for his role in the crime, shows no remorse. He explains that the victim's death was her own fault: that if she had simply silently acquiesced to the rape, the men would have "dropped her off after doing her."

India's government has now banned the documentary, arguing that it could provoke "public disorder," which suggests that officials may fear a resurgence of the massive protests that occurred in 2012 and 2013 in response to the attack. Their apprehension is understandable: sexual assault is a serious problem in India, and outrage over both that problem and the failure to address it is still high.

Sexual assault has become a flashpoint in a much deeper political dispute over the ways in which Indian culture is changing as the country becomes more urban and less traditional. A sort of culture war has emerged. One aspect of that war: sexual assault has at times become a weapon used to police Indian women's adherence to traditional social rules and, by extension, society's adherence to traditional values. That has come with disturbingly institutionalized victim-blaming that, along with impunity for perpetrators, allows a culture of sexual assault to flourish.

Singh's comments offer a fairly precise summary of the traditionalist logic — by no means unique to India — that insists sexual assault is the result of women transgressing traditional norms of behavior. That attitude doesn't just blame women for rapists' violence against them. Its logic leads to the conclusion that women must avoid public life, and therefore abandon any prospect of economic or social empowerment.

Indian writer Salil Tripathi argues in Mint that Singh's statements highlight the true discourse about rape in India (and, he points out, in many other countries, as well): "it is not about sex; it is about control, power, and violence." That helps explain why Singh's interview has provoked such a strong response: his comments perfectly capture the logic of that argument — one that many Indian women are desperately fighting against.

Why some in India see rape as permissible

India rape protest don't tell your daughter to come home early

Indian journalists protest in Ahmedabad in 2013 after the gang-rape of a female colleague in Mumbai. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Sexual assault has become a point of major political conflict between India’s growing urban, progressive middle class, and the traditionalists — whose base skews older and more rural — who still control most state institutions.

This issue is just one in a larger culture war over India's social and political transformation. It's a transformation that many traditionalists bitterly oppose, so in many ways the fight over sexual assault is also a fight over how traditional Indian society will remain.

India's traditionalists tend to view rape as a matter of collective honor and morality. To them, decisions about women’s sexual relationships are to be made by parents, when they select their daughters’ husbands, and then by husbands after marriage. A woman’s only legitimate sexual decision, then, is to obey her family.

In that view, rape is the result of transgressive behavior on the part of the victim — often due to the pernicious temptations of modern life — by placing herself in a situation where she was able to interact with men outside the supervision of her elders. In this view, rape can be permissible and rapists innocent of real wrongdoing, just as Mukesh Singh claims in the new documentary. Indeed, under that logic, rape can be seen as serving an important social role: it punishes women for "bad" behavior and discourages other women who might be considering it.

And yet as India becomes a more urban, better-educated, and wealthier country, more women are embracing freedoms that look like "bad behavior" to traditionalists. That includes delaying marriage to pursue higher education, working outside the home, and socializing publicly with men outside their families. To traditionalists, that behavior is threatening to the social order they prize, in which women primarily restrict their lives to the private sphere and only socialize according to their families' direction.

Enforcing "traditional" social roles often means blaming victims and forgiving rapists

India rape we want justice candles

Demonstrators light candles that spell "we want justice" during a 2014 protest to mark the second anniversary of the Delhi rape. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

It would seem like an obvious point that rape should be prevented by punishing rapists and making India safer for women. But traditionalists tend to see policies designed to make public life safer for women as more trouble than they're worth, because they would erode the social order that is to them central to the entire issue.

Why go through the bother of changing society to accommodate women’s increased participation in it, if you think their increased participation is a bad thing? Understanding that view is crucial to understanding why rapists often enjoy such impunity.

That's why traditionalists tend to argue that the right response to rape is to restrict women's freedom, for example by forbidding them from the social spaces that traditionalists believe lead to rape. Often, this means preventing women and girls from participating in public life, especially if they are not supervised by elders who can ensure their "proper" behavior. By shifting the responsibility to women, this implies that the victims — and not the rapists — are at fault for rape.

For instance, in 2012, an organization of village councils in the state of Haryana called for girls to be married before the age of 18 in order to prevent rapes, which they attributed to the early sexualization of girls who watch "vulgarity shown in TV and cinema."

Mobile phones are also viewed as sources of moral danger. The leader of a khap panchayat (village council) in Haryana explained to the New York Times that "the mobile plays a main role," in sexual assaults because "a girl sits on a bus, she calls a male friend, asks him to put money on her mobile. Is he going to put money on her mobile for free? No. He will meet her at a certain place, with five of his friends, and they will call it rape."

In Bhopal, a mobile police squad named the "Nirbhaya unit," after the Delhi rape victim, has been criticized for policing morality in the name of preventing sexual assault. It reportedly targets young women and couples wearing "fashionable clothes," meting out vigilante punishments including slaps and forced sit-ups in response to their perceived transgressions.

Politicians, male and female, offer similar views. Asha Mirje, a Nationalist Congress Party leader in western Maharashtra state, claimed in January 2014 that rapes take place "because of a woman's clothes, her behavior, and her presence at inappropriate places."

The Congress Party’s leader in the state of Andhra Pradesh criticized the Delhi rape victim for going out at night: "Just because India achieved freedom at midnight does not mean that women can venture out after dark" — a slightly more poetic version of the sentiment Mukesh Singh espoused in the more recent documentary.

Attitudes toward gender and rape have created a "subculture of oppression"

India rape protest signs

Indian students  at a December 2014 protest in Mumbai hold placards with messages about how sexual violence affects their daily lives. (INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

In response to the 2012 Delhi rape, India’s central government created the Verma Commission, a three-person committee chaired by former Supreme Court chief justice J.S. Verma, to investigate ways in which India’s laws should be improved in order to better combat sexual assault.

Their report looked at more than just laws: it found that police in India had created a "subculture of oppression" against rape victims.

Anecdotal evidence bears that out. A 2012 investigation by the magazine Tehelka revealed a widespread belief among police officers that "genuine rape victims never approach the police and those who do are basically extortionists or have loose moral values."

Several officers asserted that if a woman consented to sex with one man, she could not object if several of his friends "joined in."

And in another particularly egregious case, police in Kolkata tried to steal the corpse of a young woman who had allegedly been gang-raped and murdered, apparently in order to destroy evidence of the rape, which had proven embarrassing to them after the victim’s murder prompted an outcry. They also accused the victim of being a prostitute.

India has tried to reform some laws that reinforce the problem, but that alone won't solve it

Delhi rape protest police HQ

Women stage a protest outside of Delhi police headquarters following the rape of a woman by a taxi driver in December 2014. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

After the 2012 Delhi gang rape, when mass protests gathered in 2012 and 2013 over India's problems with sexual assault and impunity, one issue that drew national attention were laws that encoded these destructive social norms. For example, evidence laws permitted defense lawyers to introduce the victim's sexual history as evidence of her "character."

Many of the Verma Commission’s recommendations to address this were adopted into law, including amendments to the rules of evidence to prevent victims from being questioned about their previous sexual histories.

However, several of the Commission’s recommendations were rejected, including, most important, its proposed prohibition on marital rape.

The parliamentary panel that reviewed the proposed amendment argued that criminalizing marital rape "has the potential of destroying the institution of marriage," and that "if the marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress." (Which, in fairness, is probably true if the "family system" in question is based on women's subjugation.)

As a result, it is still legal in India for a man to rape his wife, as long as she’s at least 16 years old. That’s a particularly chilling rule given that 47 percent of Indian wives were married before they turned 18 — meaning that their husbands were legally permitted to force them into sex before they had even reached adulthood.

That law, and the political support for maintaining it, is just one example of the culture of victim-blaming and impunity that remains, and why its root causes go much deeper than legislation.

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