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On December 16th 2012, Jyoti Singh was gang raped by five men and eviscerated in a barbaric manner that outraged not only India but the entire world. Two weeks later she died, but her presence is felt on a global level. Just days after the attack thousands joined in a peaceful protest against not only this atrocity, but the abhorred abuse that women in India face on a regular protest. The government’s response was swift and harsh; police forces shot with water cannons, tear gas shells, beat protestors with bamboo sticks, and arrested several protesters. The statement was clear, India will not tolerate public outcry which challenges the current political order. This may explain why the government banned the BBC documentary, ‘India’s Daughter’, which highlighted the growing issue of violence towards women. From the government’s perspective the documentary was ‘a conspiracy to defame India’ and nothing more. Yet whilst the state has chosen to turn a blind eye, the people of India are becoming increasingly concerned about the issue of rape.
The Wall Street Journal took a poll of 100 men on the streets of New Delhi between the 22nd to 28th of January 2013, asking ‘What do you think is the main reason rape occurs in India?’ The poll illustrated that blame fell on, gaps in law enforcement, a lack of respect for women, and western influence. Whilst this research is not particularly extensive it does highlight major issues within India.
The failures within India’s legal system has been illustrated through the period of 2009-11, where there was 68,000 rape cases but only 16,000 rapists were sentenced to jail. The failure to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes often derives from the inadequate evidence for the trial. This is especially the case for women with mental disabilities who are seen as ‘mad and will say anything’. In response to the growing crisis the Indian government introduced a law in 2013 containing harsher punishment for rapists and a broader definition of rape. The latter is significant as often the police will not let complaints through as they do not register the offence as rape. Under this new legislation the definition of rape is expanded and says explicitly that the absence of physical struggle does not equal consent. This clearly signifies progress as, the procedures for gathering evidence and the trials are easier and there is a greater consideration of the rights of disabled people. Nevertheless, this progress is undermined by a refusal to reform education and to admit the growing problem of violence towards women. Despite the tougher sentences and threat of death sentences for those that repeatedly rape or rape that causes coma, the underlying issues remain. This is due to deeper social factors that not only demean women, but often dissuades them from reporting assault.
These factors are deeply rooted in Indian culture and are demonstrative of the patriarchal control that dominates Indian society. For a woman to report rape, she risks immediately losing her status within society as she is seen to have lost her innocence and been defiled of her worth. Often victims are pressured to marry their rapists as it is believed no man will now have her. With these deeply misogynistic views ingrained in the minds of many, it is no surprise that a common statement is, “If women stop wearing skimpy clothes, automatically rapes will stop”. To these people the West has had a corrosive effect on women who in their eyes, dress less formally, go out late in the evenings, and will drink and smoke. These Western influences were listed as the reason for rape by 26 per cent of the poll, reflecting the deeply imbedded misogyny rampant throughout India. The protests thus may be seen as a movement against a patriarchal and oppressive society. In the words of Sheweta Andrews,
“While our Western sisters burned bras in the 1960s for equality, India’s women are now taking to the streets to demand their right to walk freely without fear from men”
Ultimately, the reason that rape and abuse against women is so common in India is due to the lack of respect for women. It is for this reason that law enforcement often neglects the issue of rape and this deep disrespect perpetuates abuse towards women. In the eyes of the convicted rapist, Mukesh Singh, their act was ‘to teach a lesson’. Dr Maria Misra interpreted this as a lesson in power; it was a message ‘you are not to breech this boundary’. The BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ extended this argument by explaining the rigid class structure that is still prevalent throughout India. Traditionally, India’s hierarchy can be broken down into four castes Brahmans are priests and teachers; Kshatriyas are rulers and soldiers; Vaisyas are merchants and traders; and Sudras are labourers. Yet there is a fifth caste, these are the Untouchables (or Dalit) and women from this caste are most likely to face violence. Amnesty International released a report in 2001 which illustrated that only about five percent of attacks are registered, and that police officers dismissed at least 30 percent of rape complaints as false. This reflects the pejorative view that their voices can be stifled simply because they are of a lower class.
If India is to grow as a democratic and fair nation it must address the issues of gross inequality and the subjugation of women.
Jyoti Singh’s death has marked a monumental moment in India’s history and she is portrayed as a martyr for the feminist movement. Her attempts to break out of the shackles of class and gender through her pursuit of a professional career along with her determination and hard work illustrates that she was a remarkable woman. She has not died in vain as her death has lit the fuse that can liberate India from its patriarchal and oppressive government.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.