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.