Thursday, December 27, 2012

Recent narratives on rape in India: responses to the Delhi Gang rape

Originally the purpose of this blog was to provide resources for female travelers who visit (or want to visit) countries like India which are known for street harassment problems and create a space for them to discuss issues and share their experiences. Until recently, my posts have been tailored rather specifically to that aim and thus have talked most about ‘videsi’ (foreigner) issues and have rarely addressed the issue  of street harassment or rape of Indian women. Given the events of the past few weeks, as a (junior) scholar and activist dedicated to women’s rights causes, I feel this blog now must expand to serve a larger purpose—to educate others on the more general situation regarding all women in India, desi (local) and videsi. 

Over the past 2-3 months since I arrived in India late September, I have noticed a steady rise in the reports of rape in India. For a couple weeks in October, the local news headlines centered on a series of unrelated rapes in West Bengal and on Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee’s response to these rapes (and her response to media coverage of the rapes). It was clear to me at that time that in India people are still very divided regarding how they attribute blame in the event of rape. There are currently at least two competing narratives used to speak about rape in India. One narrative is advocated by activists and women’s rights groups such as Blank Noise and Safe Delhi which seek to educate men and women on issues of sexual harassment (‘eve-teasing’ as it is usually called in English-language Indian media) and the harm it does to women. Not unlike violence prevention programs found in Europe and the US, the narrative promoted by these groups places the burden of responsibility for harassment (and rape) on men. The different ways in which sexual harassment manifests in India is enumerated. Statistical information is offered, demonstrating how women are harassed or molested in clothing ranging from full ‘desi’ (salwar-kamize with dupatta, burka, saree, etc.) to ‘Western’-style clothing (jeans, skirt, etc.) and are harassed or molested at all times of day or night. This evidence serves as counter-evidence to the opposing narrative (which I discussed more fully in my post on Chief Minister Banerjee) which asserts that if a woman is harassed or raped, she must have done something ‘wrong.’  This narrative is promoted in ways ranging from the subtle to overt. More subtle promotions include the persistent habit of news reports describing exactly what the female victim was wearing at the time, whether she was out late at night and whether or not she was drinking. More overt promotions can be found in  statements openly condemning the actions of a victim immediately prior to her attack. Discussing a molestation one blogger for the Times of India reported the following conversation while on a Delhi-bound train from Assam:
As the train’s attendants came with a fresh supply of bottled mineral water, the conversation turned to the Guwahati molestation case of July 9 this year when 15 men were caught on TV pouncing on a teenaged girl outside a bar as one of the goons whipped out his camera to record it for titillation and posterity.
“But what was the girl doing so late in the night?” asked the Air Force officer in the traveling group. From Ghaziabad but working in Guwahati, he went on, “Apparently she was drunk and was flirting with some men in the pub. Shouldn’t she be probed for loose character?” Some heads had already begun to nod in agreement when another passenger, by now red with rage, said, “Next time someone grabs your sister’s bottom, the police should first investigate whether she’s morally sound.” No one spoke to each other the rest of the journey as the sullen group waited impatiently to disembark at New Delhi.
These types of victim-blaming response are far from rare in India. I have already written on Chief Minister Banerjee’s recent remarks of a similar nature regarding the rise of rapes (and media coverage of the rapes) in West Bengal in October 2012.  The essence of this narrative is clear. Women who behave properly (do not smoke or drink or go out at night) and who dress properly (modest Indian clothing rather than ‘Western’ clothing) will not be harassed or raped. If a women is raped, it is because either she violated one or more of those moral codes or (in the absence of such evidence) or is asserted the victim had a “relationship” with the attacker or one of the attackers and is therefore at fault. In April 2012 Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote this article summarizing a series of interviews of Delhi police regarding their views and responses to rape. It is interesting to note that the exposé upon which this article was based, which was publically available online as recent as October 18, 2012 has since been removed and did not seem to be available in the news archives.  These victim-blaming narratives are certainly not limited to India. June 28, 2010 this anti-victim-blaming TV advert was aired in Scotland in response to a government study conducted in February 2010 reported a surprising percentage of Scottish people attribute at least partial blame to a female victims of rape if she was either drinking, wearing revealing clothing, flirting or  “known to have had many sexual partners.”

The past few weeks have witnessed a colossal upheaval  among the Indian people over the horrifically violent rape of a 23-year old female physiotherapy student in Delhi. The two competing narratives have now come to the forefront of media attention in India.  The general outline of the crime is as follows. The 23-year old girl and her male friend had gone to see a movie which let out 8:30pm. By 9 or so they were waiting for a public bus to head home. A group of six boys including one minor had been drinking and decided to go “joyriding.” They rented out a private bus, and drove around South Delhi, posing as a Delhi public bus. The minor posed as a fare collector and invited the couple on the bus. Thinking it to be a public bus, the couple boarded the bus and within five minutes the couple was harassed, the women subsequently taken to the back of the bus  to be raped repeatedly and viciously beaten. Her male companion who had tried to defend her was also severely beaten. The two were stripped naked and dumped outside and found not too long later and rushed to the emergency room. Based on statements from the male friend, the bus was identified and the majority of the attackers were rounded up and arrested within the same night. The victim recovered temporarily a few days later, but remained in intensive care and underwent several surgeries. Her health has wavered between stable and critical since. As of late night December 26, she was rushed on a plane to Singapore for emergency surgery for internal bleeding. 

This crime, known in Indian newspapers the “Delhi gang rape” has stirred a nation to response. Within three days of the rape, protests began at India gate (New Delhi) demanding “justice” in the form of hangings for the rapists. The protests turned violent as scuffles between angry protestors and police began. Policemen fired water cannons at the protesters and several protestors were injured. One police died during the protests, apparently due to a heart attack, although investigations are still underway. Two days ago a new “women’s helpline” emergency number (“181”) has been created in Delhi in response to the gang rape and recent protests. Police have cleared protestors away from India Gate at least twice and closed several metro stations nearby to prevent others from joining the protests. Protests have spanned India from various states in the south up through Himachal Pradesh. The demands of protestors does not appear to be unified, but what is clear is that the protestors are dissatisfied with the way the Indian government has handled issues of women’s safety and treated previous cases of rape and are demanding “justice.” Safety of women in  Delhi, which even prior to this case (as of June 2012 according to a Times of India article) was known as India’s “rape capital” has been of great concern over the past few years. The creation of women-only subway and train cars has been argued to be insufficient. In Delhi, the protests center around issue of safety for women and the The public is clamoring for change. Many protestors carry signs arguing that the rapists should be given the death sentence (such as “Rapists should be hanged”). Other protestors sport signs indicating their concern for social change (“Real Men Don’t Rape”).  The argument made in support of the death sentence is that if the attackers are sentenced to death, this will serve as a deterrent for future rapists.   In response to reports that the victim “fearlessly” remained “fearless”  and “composed” while reporting the event to police and officials when she first regained consciousness, The TOI (The Times of India) gave the victim the pseudonym ‘Nirbhaya’ (Hindi for ‘fearless’) and has continued to use that name as a place-holder for the victim in all news reporting, evidencing an obvious bias in favor of the victim. In this article the TOI describes the victim as follows,
But Nirbhaya, as TOI has named the 23-year-old, survived. Ten days on since the gang rape on December 16, she remains alive, even if precariously, but not as a vegetable on a hospital bed. The assault wrecked her body but has left her spirit tightly coiled. Her survival so far has depended on emergency operations, blood transfusions and ventilator support, but in her wakeful moments — even when dosed with morphine — Nirbhaya has never lacked clarity of mind, or a sense of purpose.
In her statement before an SDM last Friday, Nirbhaya reportedly gave a precise and detailed account of the assault which DCP (south) Chhaya Sharma described as "fearless and bold". Although police wanted her to respond with signs to a questionnaire, so as to not stress her out, she insisted on giving the details. 
Doctors attending to her say she is fired by a resolve to bring the six men to book. Early last week, when she was not allowed to speak, Nirbhaya scribbled a note for her family: "Mujhe bacha lo, mein jeena chahti hoon (save me, I want to live)". The same evening her entire intestine was removed as it had turned gangrenous. 
When she regained consciousness next morning, Thursday, Nirbhaya worried about her lost ATM cards and alerted her family to block them. "We have never seen such injuries, especially in a sexual assault case, (yet) she has immense fighting spirit," remarked Dr BD Athani, medical superintendent of Safdarjung Hospital, where she is admitted.
The tone of this newspaper article, which reads more like a travelogue, clearly evidences the sympathetic response predominantly conveyed in media. However, does sympathy towards the victim and desire for “justice” indicate a changing attitude towards rape victims and a reversal of previous victim-blaming narratives? It seems rather to be the case that public narratives addressing the issue of blame continue to be bifurcated. 
In an article discussing a group of schoolchildren’s responses to the Delhi gang rape case, a TOI correspondent writes,
A group of youngsters gathered to discuss sexual violence against women think hanging is too good for rapists. "Tarpana chahiye (they should suffer)," says a teenage girl. They may be children but their experiences are 'adult' ones - they've been harassed aboard public transport, molested in markets, been whistled at and felt up. They blame "mentality" for all of it…. 
...One teenaged boy made himself very unpopular by suggesting Sunday's incident wasn't entirely the men's fault. "She had also gone out to watch a movie and didn't tell her parents," he'd said and was instantly shouted down by the others. Most of the other boys felt girls should be allowed the freedom to go where they please. "Would it have changed anything if she had informed her parents? Or if she had taken the bus on the way back from work and not from a movie?" asked the rest.
This article seems to indicate that among this group of children addressed, victim-blaming responses are far from the norm. However, more critical responses include those of Andhra Pradesh Congress chief Botsa Satyanarayana who is reported to have argued December 24th,
"Just because India achieved freedom at midnight does not mean that women can venture out after dark. They should ensure that they do not board buses with few passengers," Botsa said to the shock of reporters at a press conference at Congress headquarters here.
Botsa's comment came in context of growing protests against the gang-rape and violence against women in general. He then tried to cover up for his remark by praising Sonia. "Although it (Delhi gang-rape) was a minor incident, Soniaji made it a point to meet the protesters when they called on her," Botsa said. 

There was no stopping Botsa as he continued, "The woman should have thought twice before boarding the suspicious private bus that night. Though the incident was condemnable, she should also have behaved keeping in mind the situation."

What is clear so far that there has been a raising of public consciousness regarding issues of rape and harassment in India. Competing narratives for who ultimately is to blame continue to persist openly, however the predominant narrative of victim-blaming is being debated openly, perhaps for the first time in India. Since news regarding ‘Nirbhaya’ continues to dominate the front pages of Indian newspapers and lagre-scale protests continue as of today, it is likely that the coming weeks will see further changes in the narratives surrounding victims of rape. I will do my best to update with a new post when that time comes. 

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