Symptoms Worse Than Death

The “daughter of India” died in a hospital in Singapore yesterday, causing shockwaves around the globe and placing India on the verge of a violent implosion. Whilst rape had become a matter that women were told that they had to contend with in their everyday lives, that they must make it safer for themselves by not being alone after dark, by not dressing provocatively, and by not drinking or acting in a manner that is ‘lewd’ and ‘unladylike’, especially in North India, something about this case has led to a national uprising of unprecedented proportions. People have taken to the streets, New Year eves’ parties have turned into mass commemoration events, and the Internet is positively ablaze with news, blogs, and posts about this nameless woman whose impact on Indian politics today cannot be exaggerated.

India has had the distinction of being labelled the worst country in the world for women and Delhi is often called India’s ‘rape capital’, so perhaps it is not surprising that a 23-year old woman was gang-raped on a bus by six men on the way home after watching The Life of Pi with her boyfriend. It is perhaps also not surprising that the rape was brutal, that a metal rod was shoved into her vagina, that the men took turns at “having a go” and finally got rid of both her and her male friend by throwing them out of the window of the moving bus. What is surprising, however, is the reaction. Why has an event that may even be classified as mundane garnered so much attention and prominence?

Many on the so-called Left in India have proclaimed that the case has been given such importance only because the woman was (ostensibly) middle-class and it is always a shock when it happens to “us”, not least when it happens in a manner this horrific. Most of the mobilized youth claim that this was the last straw in what has been a devastatingly protracted chain of brutalities against women. The cynics argue that reactions such as these are tokenistic gesture that will change nothing but help those protesting come together in a moment of collective catharsis, share in a feeling of shame and sorrow not unlike that experienced when Pakistan defeats India in a cricket match. For me, the answer to the question posed above is ultimately immaterial. Yes, the woman was not a Dalit or Adivasi, and crimes against the poor in India vastly exceed those against the rich. And yes, the injustices perpetrated against the rich, powerful or established have historically been at the forefront of media reporting and government agendas, as was most blatantly obvious in the case of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. And indeed, it is unlikely that there will be any overwhelming change in either attitudes or policy towards women in the immediate aftermath of this insurrection.

In light of this, should we just lull ourselves into a state of callous complacency and churn out platitudes about the state of our society? Those who want to are welcome to squander away both hope and perspective. For those who recognise that the path to any significant change is thorny but may yet render itself navigable, some acknowledgement of the conditions that have made gender-based violence possible and continue to make it possible, even run-of-the-mill, is in order. An awareness of how we ourselves, albeit unwittingly, reproduce these conditions and help engender systemic violence that is both symbolic and ‘real’ is also urgently needed. We must be cognisant of the fact that India is a deeply conservative society and the ‘opening-up’ of the economy since 1991 has witnessed a patriarchal backlash in the face of rising inequity, the collapse of the extended family and the disappearance of any social welfare. Those who have placed the blame singularly on “Indian men” and our “backward culture” – and who think revenge in the form of capital punishment and castration is the only solution – fail to take into account how deeply embedded they are in this patriarchal order and how readily they are partaking of a discourse that is both misogynistic and short-sighted.

The calls for castration are symptomatic of an acutely phallocentric order – where a man’s ‘masculinity’ is considered his greatest pride, and the source of this masculinity is none other than his reproductive organs. Similarly, the widespread proclamation that “rape is a crime worse than murder” and must be punished accordingly has a patently sinister side to it. Is a woman (or man for that matter) who has been raped not entitled to a life? Is she “worse than murdered”? Is it the “defilement”, the snatching away the “honour” and “purity” of a woman that so bothers us? It is worth remembering that the woman who died yesterday, who the Indian government in yet another meaningless and flippant gesture has called a “martyr” and “Delhi’s braveheart”, desperately wanted to live. She had been “violated” by six men in an ordeal that lasted over an hour, was on life-support, but not, in her own opinion, worse than dead. She was only (worse than) dead after she died.

The protests in Delhi and around India contain within themselves a latent emancipatory potential. But in order for this to amount to anything, even something as pedestrian as allowing women to negotiate public spaces in Delhi without constant threat of harassment, we must think about how our subjectivity as women, men, and citizens is (re)produced. This is the only way we can build up some resistance to the “common-sense” we are invariably brought up with. We need to start problematising the taken for granted assumptions that our heteronormative order inflicts upon us everyday, most importantly the implicit belief that women are “less equal” than men. The contours and manifestations of this tacit hierarchy may be different in the West from those in the global South, but the substance remains largely the same. As always, the words of anthropologist Barbara Diane Miller resonate deeply: “We must not forget that human gender hierarchies are one of the most persistent, pervasive and pernicious forms of inequality”. Change will not come easy.

3 thoughts on “Symptoms Worse Than Death

  1. Great post, Nivi. Gender inequality intersects with many other structures and processes of oppression, but it is usually at the center of the bundle. I’ve been in Delhi to witness the unfolding of the story from its beginning; “Nirbhaya” has been the number one topic of discussion for over two weeks, overshadowing all other media stories in the city and the country (other sordid crimes, the ASEAN summit, Putin’s visit etc). Allow me to make a few observations: first, the sophisticated points you’ve raised about women are familiar to the few dozen well-educated men and women I interacted with, and no one I talked to questioned the statement that India is the worst place for women in the world. Indeed, there has been a lot of naming and shaming of the different levels of government in Delhi. Some if it has come from “abroad”: both local and heads offices of the UN, UNICEF, HRW blasted India’s human rights record, and the local newspapers duly reported critical stories from the international (predominantly British and American) media (I’ve read somewhere that the Chinese media concluded that India is XX [I think it was 10] years behind China in gender equality, which must be a bitter pill to swallow for some Indian nationalists). The blame game is an even bigger event “at home”, the modal target being the the government in the abstract. The victim’s family, the key opposition parties as well as and the public opinion at large are calling for harsher “rape laws” (and a special parliamentary session). Government officials have responded by falling over themselves to appear “helpful”: yesterday, an unnamed Congress official helped the victim’s family fly out to Varanasi and escape unwanted media attention, while the Delhi and UP govts said they’d help with “compensation packages” (Rs 15 and 20 lakh, respectively, on top of previous offers of cash and a “good and secure,” “post-recovery” job for the victim). The govt apparently also helped by suspending “tainted” MPs and MLAs who are facing trial in crimes against women (I wonder just how many of them there are). From what I gather from my interlocutors, most thinking people perceive these moves as flippant, as you put it. And there is much skepticism about change, especially among the students of politics and NGO workers I interacted with. Any feminist (and there are many, especially coming from JNU), after all, understand the limits of, to use the Dalhian idiom, conceptualizing change in terms of “power to.” Why some actors consistently oppress others requires thinking about “power over” and the ways in which the enduring structures and processes of the social and political world – many of them unconscious (possibly most of them!) – enable or constrain what human beings can say or do. Change will not come easy partly because the said structures and processes of oppression operate at the global scale. This was recognized in the US embassy statement on the event, which intelligently – and of course also diplomatically – called for changing gender attitudes “everywhere” and “ending all forms of gender-based violence which plagues every country in the world.” Change “gender” for “gun” and there is another post to be written on gender and intersectionality. Guess what was The Times of India main headline for this morning? “Nirbaya tragedy triggers surge in gun license request from women.”

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  2. Wow, another gut wrenching article. This is indicative of societal norms gone awfully wrong. Rape happens in every corner of the globe. This is a story that puts India on that ‘Rape Map’. What has India done about it to stop males whose hormones are so spiked up that they will go to such horrific acts & rape an innocent woman? We can only grieve & hope that young women of today are given ample warning that this can happen to them too no matter where on earth they are.


  3. Brilliant post, Nivi. Just a clarification about the “so called” Indian left (from my understanding of it). when it is pointed out that the reason for the anger is because the girl had a middle class background, it is not to encourage complacency or apathy. in fact, it is the Indian left that has been shouting itself hoarse, protesting and often getting arrested/ detained for protesting over the same issues consistently; it did not take an “odd” incident to wake them up. the idea is to draw attention to the hypocrisy of ‘us’, the indian middle class, which will turn its heads away, and even defend the rapists, when it comes to the cases such as those of Soni Suri and Manorama. For any real change on ground, in the attitudes of society to take place, it MUST be acknowledged that the rapists in the above cases were not only left free but given gallantry awards. it MUST be acknowledged that the outrage is because it plays into the idea of the ‘criminal poor’ daring to assault a middle class girl. It MUST be acknowledged that the laws that are introduced as a result of this outrage will only protect ‘us’, the middle class. we MUST acknowledge that rape is constantly used as a weapon by the ruling classes, more so against ‘weaker’ sections in society, as a weapon to shame and keep the oppressed oppressed- the lower class, castes, women in the north east . The “so called Left” is bringing forth these important issues, and is only much louder now, not complacent. there was a march for Soni Suri organised by all the Left student parties on the 2nd of January. The police, of course, slapped section 144 on them and arrested them. It did not make it to any of the national dailies.

    you might find this article interesting:


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