In December 2012, news broke of a 23-year-old student brutally gang raped on a moving New Delhi bus. Initially, the events that transpired on that fateful December night led to widespread and well-documented protests all over India. The Indian government, whose outrage did not surface in the immediate aftermath, eventually responded with stricter punishment for rape, including the death penalty.
Yet, additional incidents are continually reported; each is gruesome. These incidents are often reported alongside ignorant comments from prominent Indian politicians; comments that reek of widespread and internalized misogyny. For example, Babulal Gaur, Interior Security Minister of Madhya Pradesh stated in 2014 about rape that "sometimes it is right, and sometimes it is wrong." Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, commented on amendments to punishment for rape by stating that boys commit mistakes, but that does not mean they should be hanged.
Most recently, the documentary India's Daughter, highlighting the shameful reactions in India of victim-blaming and girl/woman-blaming following rape, was banned by the Indian government. Among the individuals justifying rape by attributing blame to women were the December 2012 rapists. Yet, those in support of banning the documentary spoke about misrepresentations of Indian culture to the world, and resorted to victim-blaming in their arguments too.
"Focusing the point of change solely on men who rape is erroneous."
Disgusting. But, not shocking. India is more Animal Farm than democracy. As in, "All men are equal. All men (and boys) are more equal than women." Indian culture (both in India and the diaspora) is replete with double-standards. It is precisely these double standards, whether large or small, that sustain the misogyny that supports the brutality.
For example, last year I learned of a poker tournament in an affluent sub-community of Indians in New York City, where women and men have different buy-ins under assumption of lower skill. I listened in disbelief as a couple (man and woman) argued with me vehemently that women should have lower buy-ins because they are less capable at poker than men, and that it is unfair to let men (even beginners) play with women since they have an advantage. A small moment, but one loaded with a microaggression that conveys both ignorance and internalised misogyny. Social media interactions between family members in India who share conversation and banter reveal that the vast majority of "jokes" involve stereotypes of women from centuries past (for example, this gem: "Electricity is the daughter of government, and has extremely loose character. She goes anytime, anywhere, without telling anyone, even at midnight"). Another largely accepted microaggression was highlighted by my then three-year-old daughter, who asked at an Indian dinner party, "Why do all the kids and daddies eat first, and the mommies eat last?" From the mouths of babes.
Rape and reactions to it highlight the Indian gender imbalance on a large scale. Nothing really comes out of the movements that pick up in the immediate aftermath of incidents of rape and the subsequent justification and victim-blaming, because the internalised misogyny that unfolds within homes, in everyday contexts goes unaddressed. Focusing the point of change solely on men who rape is erroneous. Compartmentalising the issue serves to placate the individual that has been forced to look at the shameful social state of affairs around him/her, but ultimately they contribute to further silencing of an issue that feeds from that silence.
"Teach young boys to regard their future female partners as equals. Encourage them to shoulder domestic responsibilities."
Just to be clear, victimisation of women and girls is not ONLY an Indian problem. The fight for equal status that women have led for decades is, undoubtedly, global. Further, every arena where this struggle unfolds adds culturally-specific nuances to it. This is not news; and it is also not mutually exclusive from the recent global focus on India's brutality toward its women. India appears unwilling to rise up in revolt to stop this brutality once and for all, within the home as well as outside.
If this revolt is to register, it must go beyond protests on the street; it will hold only if it begins with a good, hard look in the mirror. And it must be practiced by every boy and man, and yes, every woman who has internalised the violence.
Here are some humble suggestions for what such social change must include:
1. Acknowledge that there is a mammoth social problem of female persecution in India.
2. Think about the centuries' old, unsuccessful strategy of teaching girls how to be 'good' and 'virtuous' in an attempt to avoid sexual trauma. It has not worked. So why keep repeating that which leads to the same unsuccessful outcomes?
3. Empower Indian daughters. Teach them, not just about rape awareness, but to expect equal rights and respect from their spouse and his family. Encourage them to demand it, not beg for it. Cultivate the belief that those women whose husbands treat them as equal are not "lucky," but instead are the norm.
4. Educate Indian sons; focus seminars toward them. As incidents of brutality since December 2012 indicate, higher punishment for rape is not enough to stop sexual assault in India. Boys need to be educated on not raping, with the same systematic vigour that the culture has heretofore applied to teaching girls how not to get raped. Here's an idea; maybe try the strategy of repeatedly, and systematically, teaching boys that they are not 'good' and 'virtuous' if they rape or otherwise victimise another fellow being. Build it into sex education courses. Maybe offer additional opportunities for boys to hear about girls' experiences, and learn to develop empathy. Perhaps improved perspective-taking will lead, over time, to more and more of them humanising girls and women.
5. Go even further. Teach young boys to regard their future female partners as equals. Encourage them to shoulder domestic responsibilities such as household chores and childcare. Allow them to catch up to the rest of the world, and learn that one does not become less of a man if he participates in the running of a household.
In due course, maybe these lessons will catch on. Perhaps, through persistent education, boys will begin to understand that these 'objects' -- which they were (directly or indirectly) taught all along were meant for cooking, cleaning, bearing and raising children, and sexual gratification -- have feelings. Maybe more Indian boys will develop the ability to see an Indian girl/woman as a person who does not deserve to spend her life in fear, subjected to a second-class life.
Maybe, eventually, these boys can grow into men. Perhaps, even, good men.