Thursday, October 18, 2012

Understanding responses to rapes in West Bengal

In my previous post  I encouraged female travelers to learn about the culture of the place they are visiting to better prepare themselves. This article is an attempt to provide greater understanding of sexual harassment and sexual assault in India through an analysis of the responses by media and political leaders to a series of rapes occurring recently in West Bengal (India). I hope that this piece will bring a greater understanding of the challenges and complexities of gender relations and the difficulties in reporting sexual assault in India.

I have been recently following the series of rapes in West Bengal that have appeared in the news. As more and more women and young girls report rape, the media attention continues to spotlight these events, which seems to have made West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee quite uncomfortable. In response to the rise of media attention to rapes in the area Banerjee—a woman— on national television accuses media of “glorifying rape” in order to get more press coverage and makes a series of comments strongly implying that what she calls “modern permissive society” in India (things such as holding hands in public) are the cause of rape in the first place. Here are several different records of her response in prominent Indian newspapers: In the first one I read, which was both in the print and online version of the Times of India contains the following account:

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took a dig at the modern permissive society, but stopped short of linking it to rise in crimes against women in the state. 

"Earlier, if men and women held hands, parents would reprimand them. Now everything is done openly. It's like an open market with open options," said Mamata.

She accused the media of "news pollution" against her government and trying to project Bengal as a land of rapists. "Rape is sought to be glorified by these people. This will not be tolerated by people. Negative journalism only destroys and it is time to champion positive journalism," she said at a programme to release the festival number of the Trinamool Congress mouthpiece Jago Bangla in Kolkata. Besides party leaders, pro-Trinamool intellectuals and Tollywood actors were present there.
"Wrong news items and canards are being circulated by a section of the media, particularly some news channels, to target the government. They are even distorting my version," Mamata said.

The Hindustan Times similarly reported:

The chief minister alleged that these media were suppressing facts and thus causing "news pollution", pointing to projection of some rape incidents in the state.
"Everyday rape incidents are being highlighted as if the entire state has become the land of rapists. Rape is sought to be glorified by these people. This will not be tolerated by people. I would like to say that negative journalism only destroys and it is time to champion positive journalism," she said.

First let’s get the facts straight. The facts are there has been a significant rise in the reports of rapes in the West Bengal area over the past few weeks. To see details of some of these I encourage you to read here and here.  The news media has been paying attention to this. In Chief Minister Banerjee’s view, this media attention is a bad thing because it brings unwanted negative attention to the region, which is what she refers to as “glorifying rape.” It is perhaps even accurate to say that the media attention paid to West Bengal recently has focused on West Bengal itself and questioned why the rapes are there rather than directly addressing potential causes for increase in rape in the area. But the words the Chief Minister Monday night carry much more than a reproach for media attention to her state. Her words imply that rape should not be covered by media, and that attention paid by media to rape is unwarranted. This I think is a huge problem.  While news media often tends towards the sensational, that does not negate the importance of reporting these events. Rape and sexual assault in India is severely under-reported in India, in part because of the lack of support for women (and men) survivors. The attitudes of police officers, even in major cities such as Delhi may also be a contributing factor, if this report based on this exposé  is to be believed. While I cannot verify the facts, judging by the way 'modern' Indian women are depicted in even the English-language print media, I think the attitudes depicted in those articles are likely accurate enough.

Despite advances in women's access to education and the (reluctant) acceptance of women in the workplace in the larger cities, Indian women who dress 'western' are often treated with the same disrespect given to white female travelers who dress 'western.'  Women who engage in behaviors that are considered 'inappropriate' for women, such as smoking or drinking, are also assumed to be engaging in similarly 'inappropriate' sexual behavior. When these women are sexually harassed or even assaulted, the media response is usually to blame the victim. The male perpetrator is culturally left off the hook by the adage "Boys will be boys." In colleges, girls dorms will often have an earlier curfew than boys dorms, "for their own protection" and boys are often prohibited (with harsh restrictions) from visiting female dorms. These restrictions further reinforce the the cultural assumption that boys can't control their impulses and can't be trusted. The responsibility is passed on to the female who must "protect" themselves as society dictates with 'appropriate' clothing and behavior. Suffice it to say that rape and sexual assault, let alone sexual harassment are major problems throughout India that have not been sufficiently reported, let alone addressed. With greater public awareness comes greater political pressure to change laws and law enforcement regarding these crimes, which are important steps towards reducing the incidents of rape.

What I find most problematic about Chief Minister Banerjee’s statements is the victim-blaming. Recall her statement, “Earlier, if men and women held hands, parents would reprimand them. Now everything is done openly. It's like an open market with open options." For those less aware of Indian cultural norms, I should explain that in India, public displays of affection such as hand-holding, let alone kissing or more intimate  displays are considered inappropriate. Simply put, affection is only considered appropriate between husband and wife and only in the privacy of their own bedroom.  Nowadays, hand-holding (and occasionally embracing) between couples can be seen in public parks (and occasionally in dark booths in local restaurants), but this is largely considered inappropriate behavior by Indian society.  Pre-marital dating and PDA in India is much too complex an issue to do justice here, but suffice it to say, it is a controversial topic.

What I think is important to state is that Chief Minister Banerjee’s statements clearly imply that this “modern permissive society” 's allowance of things such as dating and hand-holding are indirect causes for the apparent rise in sexual assault. These statements remove the responsibility from the perpetrator and places it on those participating in this “modern permissive society,” thus implying that any woman who ‘participates’ in those types of actions deserves to be raped. These kinds of statements, spoken by a public government official carry weight and are significant  But Chief Minister Banerjee is not simply any public official.  She is the first female elected to her position and has become a public figure, well-known in many circles for her work in reforming health and education in West Bengal, among other things. In 2012 (a year after assuming office), Time Magazine named her one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” For someone of her status to be publicly making such statements is truly shocking. 

While this issue pertains specifically to the rape of Indian women in West Bengal, I think it is helpful for female travelers to understand some of the complexities and tensions regarding these issues.  It is important to note that India is changing. While India is quickly developing and is increasingly becoming more modernized in terms of infrastructure, changes in social norms have not necessarily paced the developments in infrastructure. Along with the rise of women in higher education and in the workplace, especially in bigger cities, there is perhaps an increased resistance to this very fact. From research on rape and violence prevention, we know that sexual harassment and sexual assault is never about ‘sex’, it is about issues of power and/or anger.  With all changing power structures in India, tension, resulting in resistance to and anger towards  these kinds of change are at an all-time high. Foreign women may symbolize perhaps a even greater disparity in power for a variety of reasons, which is one aspect  (of the many) I neglected to address in my previous post on "Sexual harassment of white Women in India". Perhaps these issues warrant further reflection.

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