The recent rape and murder of two teenage girls from Katra Saadatganj, Budaun district in north India has sparked shock and outrage across the country and triggered a wave of international attention and scrutiny. The two slain girls, both cousins, were gang raped and then hung by their attackers after they sought to relieve themselves in a field near their homes. The girls were from the Dalit caste, previously referred to as "untouchables." Their attackers, the Yadavs, came from a caste above them, as did the police and other municipal officials who initially rebuffed and ridiculed family demands that those responsible be brought to justice. In the wake of police inaction, the bodies of the girls were left to hang. Gruesome pictures of the scene were disseminated across social media without consent of the family and became the latest in what media outlets have branded as India's "gang rape problem."
Mulayam Singh Yadav, an Indian minister, offered the excuse that "boys will be boys, they make mistakes" this past April after coming out against a proposed death penalty for gang rapists. Recently, Babulal Gaur, a home minister from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, said of rape: "sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong," noting that governments could not ensure women's safety. The horrible legacy of the rape of Dalit women, often a tactic used by upper caste men to assert control, is increasingly garnering the attention of Western media sources.
The Delhi incident and the recent atrocity in Katra are select flashpoint moments that media are using to bring attention to the prevalence of sexual violence against women in the country. Since the 2012 gang rape of a woman on a moving bus in Delhi sparked protests both in and outside of India, mass media has placed the country under a kind of rape-watch. The US and UN have both weighed in recently, with UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon commenting that "violence against women is a peace and security issue. It is a human rights issue. It is a development issue." A recent UNICEF statement condemning the Katra incident also asserted the unique dangers that rural women and girls face due to lack of toilets.
The sad reality is that these kinds of assaults have been commonplace for years. There has been little prior mention or interrogation, for example, of the less horrific though equally heinous daily assaults that have taken place since the wave of coverage in 2012 (it is estimated that one rape happens every 20 minutes in India), or the role religion played in the mass rape and murder of the Gujarat riots, the systematic rape of women by military elements in Jammu and Kashmir, the collusion of police and politicians with rapists and the stigma that discourages women from speaking up, or the complex web of macro and microaggressions that drive behaviors that, in the case of Katra girls, have been attributed to the detritus of the caste system.
Nor has there been much major coverage in the West prior to the recent Katra event of the complicated passage of the anti-rape law in 2013, which expands the definition of rape and recognizes harassment and stalking as criminal behavior, or the decidedly less newsworthy actions taken by activist organizations inside of India against rape. There are clearly benefits to broad coverage and pledges of solidarity against rape and violence, but portrayals of the situation outside India seem to imply there must be a shift in generalized notions of Indian culture in order for the problem to be fixed.
The Western media's salaciousness and righteousness in rushing to cover the more gruesome cases is disconcerting to say the least. And this not only because of the inconsistency in the coverage but also due to the fact that articles detailing the "tarnishing" of India's image seem to set up a situation where rape is conceptualized as being a cultural holdover at odds with modernity and neoliberal ascendancy. These articles are also tinged with the hopeful notion that these horrific events continue to drive a domestic and international groundswell that will propel India from its primeval rape problem and into the modern era, where it can claim its place among developed nations. It is right to give visibility to atrocities and harness anger in hopes of bringing about change, but it's also necessary to question the utility of solidarity if it's shaped by problematic rhetoric rooted in colonial perceptions.
Jason Huettner is a Blogs Editor for Warscapes.
Image via Newsweek.