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Cultures of rape, cultures of protest
May 4, 2013, 4:00 pm

In December 2012, the streets of New Delhi erupted in spontaneous public protests of unprecedented magnitude following the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, who eventually succumbed to her injuries. The rape, which occurred at about 9:30 pm in a busy middle-class neighbourhood of south Delhi, unleashed the outrage of young women – and men – in a way that sexual violence had never before done.

The police, instead of providing greater public security, used water cannons to dispel the protestors. Competing with the repressive machinery of the state in its insensitivity was the distasteful commentary of conservative religious and caste leaders asserting that women who dressed provocatively were sending out invitations to be raped; and that rape was a purely urban phenomenon, the result of a western consumer culture fostered by globalization. One such religious leader suggested that the blame needs to be shared by the victim as well, asking provocatively: “Can one hand clap?”.

The significance of the protests that gripped India this time, lies in the fact that they represented the first-ever public acknowledgment of sexual violence as a widespread social problem. They inaugurated an energetic and candid debate on an astonishing range of legal, administrative, social and cultural issues relating to gendered violence. Rape was scarcely uncommon before this particular incident, but a frank public discussion on it certainly was.

Rape is an everyday occurrence. The newspapers have been reporting several rapes a day from different parts of the country, and continue to do so even today. However, till this incident sparked off the protests, discussions on rape had mostly remained confined to feminist seminar rooms. It is surely a measure of the power of the protests that it is today not unusual to hear people discussing the finer points of the age of consent or even the abhorrent two-finger test as a form of medical evidence of rape.

Similarly, in the past, the social stigma of rape had inevitably discouraged victims from speaking up. In some cases, rapists were even enjoined by judges to offer to marry their victims, and the victims encouraged in this further humiliation. The gang rape of December 2012, and the protests that ensued, enabled rape survivors to emerge from the shadows and speak frankly about their experiences of trauma followed by stigmatization.

The most significant concrete outcome of the protests was undoubtedly the constitution of the Justice Verma Committee to advise the government on law reform. Over 80,000 representations, more than a hundred testimonies, and four weeks later, the Verma Committee submitted a path-breaking 650-page report on amending the criminal law on sexual violence. The report deals with everything from acid attacks and stalking as sexual crimes to the more contentious issues of marital rape and the lowering of the age of consent.

Though the suggested reforms are yet to be enacted as  law, the government has already passed an ordinance on sexual assault that is clearly calculated to forestall protest. However weak and unsatisfactory the ordinance may be in both procedural and substantive terms, the Report of the Justice Verma Committee will stand as an enlightened force for moulding public discourse and a lodestar for future legislation.

A third largely positive aspect of the protests and the media attention to them is that the middle class appears to have been shaken out of its legendary political apathy. The anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare in 2011 had accomplished something similar; the protests against the gang rape made it clear that the middle-class citizenry no longer hesitates to join sit-ins, demonstrations, silent marches and candle-light vigils.

The practice and the performance of citizenship may be limited in scope, but they are certainly visible in the cities as they have never been in the past. In the last few days, the repeated rape and brutalization of a 5 year old girl by two men has sparked off fresh protests, this time demanding the resignation of the Police Commissioner.

Whether such protest will be sustained or, more importantly, integrated with the larger agenda of the feminist movement, is as yet unclear. This is because the urban and middle-class bias of the movement is both a virtue and a limitation. The victim of December’s gang rape was aspirationally middle class. Her class background was modest, but hers was a story of social mobility that reaffirms the faith of urban elites in the model of growth and prosperity ushered in by the economic reforms.

While the protests have been heartening, it remains to be seen whether the young people of cities like Delhi would be as willing to take up cudgels for, say, dalit women in rural areas. There may be insufficient acknowledgment here of the fact that sexual exploitation is endemic in Indian society, especially for women belonging to marginalized groups, whose experience of sexual exploitation and sexual violence is no less brutal for its being everyday, routinized and meekly accepted.

A disturbing aspect of the protests was the shrill calls for the death penalty, or at least chemical castration. The Verma Committee was unequivocal in its position against the death penalty, but this view continues to enjoy some popularity in society at large. The evidence that the death penalty does not serve as a disincentive to sexual violence is not always given the attention that it deserves.

The greater public consciousness about sexual violence will hopefully, in time, have the effect of making women from even the least advantaged sections of Indian society more aware of their rights in relation to the range of offensive behavior that can be classified as sexual violence. Better policing and improved adjudication in such cases are only two of the many institutional and governance challenges that have yet to be addressed.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.