Srila Roy

Rape is not exceptional but routine in most parts of the world. The fact that a twenty-three-year-old student, Jyoti, was brutally gang raped on a bus — leading to her death — in India’s capital city, New Delhi, is not shocking. This is after all a country in which rape is used as mode of policing women’s access to public spaces, as a tool of disciplining lower caste women and putting women of minority communities “in their place,” as part of the privilege enjoyed by married men (marital rape is not recognized in Indian law), and the legal impunity bestowed on the Indian army in conflict zones. The routine nature of violence against women is made possible by social structures and institutions that immediately suggests — as feminists long have — the inadequacy of understanding rape as “a crime of sex.” Rape is not about sex, they have cried, but power — caste, class and state power. 

Lest we think that such violence is a “problem” of the developing South (attributable to “tradition” and/or “culture”), the truth is that it is prevalent everywhere. Advanced industrialized countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are no exceptions in normalizing sexual violence through a culture of blaming the victim, misogynistic policing and legal systems that lead to low conviction rates, the general apathy of the political class — and even the mainstream left — to what are exclusively seen as “women’s issues,” objectifying women in the media while glorifying machismo, and silencing sexual violence when it occurs in the confines of the home and family. All of these factors contribute to what feminists have rightly termed “rape culture” through which rape is rendered everyday and not extraordinary. Routine, not exceptional. 

What has indeed been exceptional to the recent case of assault and murder in New Delhi is the unprecedented nature of mass protest it has spawned. In the days that followed the attack, thousands gathered in peaceful protest in the heart of the city to say enough is enough.” A majority were students, both men and women, and not solely of privileged middle-class backgrounds as is generally assumed. The reverberations were felt in other parts of the country where, again, orchestrated by social networking and not the mainstream media, young people came together at candlelight vigils and reclaim-the-night marches. They demanded a response from a political class that has never felt the need to be accountable for the normalized nature of violence inflicted upon its female citizens. At least for those few days, they took back the city, refusing a patriarchal logic which, in holding women responsible for their violation, places further restrictions on their mobility. Instead, young women — supported by men — demanded autonomy and greater access to public spaces rather than safety and protection through increased policing, securitization, and the confinement of women to the private sphere. 

Alongside these expressions of solidarity, freedom and justice, one also heard the rallying call for retributive violence. These were evident in placards demanding the death penalty for the rapists or chemical castration or even public flogging (and indeed a large amount of mediatized public debate has been on these issues). Messages were thus mixed in protests that were largely spontaneous, unmediated by political parties or usual activist groups and NGO circles. And perhaps for the first time, terms like “patriarchy” and “feminism” made their way into public discourse, compelling even a live televisual culture of 24/7 entertainment to take such discussions seriously. 

What do these protests mean for feminism? While, for some, the outpouring of anger and the ensuring mainstreaming of “women’s issues” was a welcome sign that feminism is alive and well in an Indian context, for others it signalled the absence of a genuine women’s movement in the country which was able to give voice and direction to such public anguish. The Indian women’s movement is invariably located in a specific temporal moment — the late seventies and early eighties that saw several politically non-affiliated or “autonomous” women’s groups take up campaigns around violence against women. One of the first was in the name of Mathura, a sixteen-year old tribal girl who was gang raped by the police while in custody. Protests against this custodial rape and the subsequent release of the policemen charged resulted in a slew of changes to existing laws around sexual violence, a marker of the considerable success of the women’s movement. Violence against women has since been at its heart even as the self-consciously feminist protests of the seventies and eighties have disappeared from the urban landscape. This disappearance can be attributed to wider changes in the women’s movement that have, with the opening up of the Indian economy, come to be associated more and more with professional NGO spaces rather than with unruly street protest. The bemoaning of the absence of feminist leadership in the context of the Delhi protests is thus part of a larger lament about the decline if not death of feminist politics, at least of a certain kind. 

Protests against sexual violence have not, however, disappeared even as they have changed form and expression. In recent times, we have seen the emergence of a new (largely urban and middle class) repertoire of addressing such violence through the employment of tools made available by India’s globalization, namely the Internet. The Pink Chaddi or pink panties campaign of 2009 which protested the violent right-wing attack on women in a pub and the Slutwalk marches against victim-bashing are two instances of this phenomenon. Both were spontaneously organized through social networking and evoked ambivalent responses from established women’s groups who watched a new generation of younger middle class women become politicized through the Internet and transnational feminist vocabularies. This is a generation of women who have grown up with a strong sense of entitlement — particularly to the same set of rights and privileges as men—and who are less self-conscious of being elite and “western” than a previous generation of feminists were.

For many in India’s progressive circles, these protests were a far cry from an earlier era where feminists rallied around violence against the poor and marginalized and not on behalf of the middle classes who are pub-going or pink chaddi-wearing. The current culture of protest — seen not only in the context of sexual violence but also anti-corruption in India—thus raises the question as to whether it is only of and for the urban metropolitan middle classes. So, in answer to the question “why did this rape produce such a response” when scores of others go unnoticed on a daily basis, many are asserting the middle class identification with the victim as the answer. She could have been “one of us” meaning someone from a middle class family in urban India (notwithstanding the fact that she was actually part of the rural poor and a recent migrant to the city). Many fear that the middle class character of the protest could end up diminishing rather than expanding the debate on rape and sexual crimes, ignoring rape culture’s most vulnerable victims, namely women of marginalized caste, communities and religion. 

Such fears are not unwarranted but dismissals of the Delhi protests on the grounds of elitism amount to very little. They overestimate the middle class character of both the protestors and the victim besides failing to capture the broad nature of the category of “middle class.” In any case, protest, like collective empathy, is always selective. But the selective nature of protest should not minimize its significance or impact. For whatever changes the Delhi rape case facilitates — legal or otherwise — women of all classes and not just those who are privileged or protesting will be affected. Dismissals on the grounds of elitism also risk setting up a hierarchy of victimhood where some victims — be they middle class or even lower class-caste — appear to be more worthy of our collective empathy than others. 

Finally, the politicization of the Indian middle classes — particularly its younger members — through protests of these sorts should not be underestimated. Traditionally, protests against sexual violence have been limited to self-identified women’s and leftist student groups without drawing on a broad base. India’s middle classes, famous for their political apathy and disinterestedness, have stayed away. Their coming out in large numbers, quite spontaneously and “autonomously,” was not anticipated. Their ability to call upon — even if in misguided ways — the state and structures of power on this individual crime opening up, thereby, a wider national remit for a discussion on rape, should be welcome. This is a space that decades of women’s rights and leftist mobilization has not enabled. The sociologist Saskia Sassen places the Delhi protests in a global phenomenon of the “revolting middle class.” The middle classes are being steadily politicized across the world on single issues (like rental prices in Israel and unemployment in austere Greece) that “become the occasion for enacting a much larger project.” In India, the protestors were also distinctive in that they were predominantly young people, another group that feminists have struggled to attract to their fold. At a time when globally young women are self-identifying as “postfeminist” — uninterested in feminist politics for its apparent lack of relevance to their lives — the galvanizing of masses of young women over rape should be viewed as nothing short of transformatory. 

Notwithstanding major gaps in understandings and demands, the Delhi protests have opened up a never-before space for public debate on conventionally “women’s issues” with the biggest audience ever including the high echelons of the political class. This space has to be capitalized upon, the collective energy channelized. It is for the established women’s movement to embrace not shun in the name of a ‘proper’ politics of a previous era. A veteran of the women’s movement, Devaki Jain, put it well: “We [the women’s movement] have always been an add-on and not a central political, economic and social force. Now we have a chance to become that”. To become routine, not exceptional.

Srila Roy is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg. She is author of Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement (Oxford University Press, 2012) and editor of New South Asian Feminisms (Zed, 2012).