Indians had little to cheer about when 2012 ended. We had lived with economic sluggishness, inflation, corruption, and the growing hooliganism in both politics and Parliament throughout the year. But the brutal gang rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus on the night of December 16 wiped everything else off the slate of national consciousness.
As the horrific details became public and angry crowds spilled onto the streets—not just in Delhi but all over India—demanding justice and changes in the anti-rape laws, it seemed like a new awakening. The seductive rhetoric of slogans and placards, the large-scale presence of male protesters, and the sudden surge in media reporting on other, fresh instances of rape and sexual abuse all appeared to suggest that this protest would be catalytic, that violence against women was in the spotlight as never before.
It would be foolhardy, however, not to recognize that, far from being a harbinger of real change, the spotlight and the scale of protest this time had a lot to do with the communication networks in place. “Nirbhaya” (‘the fearless one,’ a soubriquet the media gave the unnamed woman who fought her rapists and battled unsuccessfully for life itself) is not singular but part of the long history of India’s abuse of women.
In the past four decades, the number of crimes against women has steadily increased. The list of horrific tales is endless: Mathura, a tribal minor, a victim of custodial rape; Tarvinder Kaur, burnt to death in her marital home; Roop Kanwar, who committed Sati (where a widow is cremated on her husband’s funeral pyre) or was forced to do so; Bhanwari Devi, raped by powerful men in her village for opposing child marriage; Rameeza Bi, arrested on false charges of prostitution and raped in custody; Maya Tyagi, molested by two plainclothes policemen and paraded naked through the marketplace.
In most cases, legal loopholes and conservative mindsets enabled the accused to escape conviction, while sustained but less attention-getting protests and efforts by activists to reform the legal system met with partial success at best. In contrast, the recent backlash of public outrage resulted in the formulation of fast-track courts to try the accused. A panel appointed to examine India’s anti-rape laws submitted its recommendations within days, and the President has already signed Cabinet’s new Ordinance incorporating many of them.
Under the new law, custodial rape, voyeurism, stalking, physical molestation, obscene gestures and phrases, public disrobing, acid attacks, and trafficking are recognized as serious crimes. Rape causing death or a persistent vegetative state could attract the death penalty. “Rape” is being replaced by “sexual assault” and will be gender neutral to include violent and forced sex on either gender.
Welcome as these developments are, they will accomplish little in real terms without a fundamental paradigm shift in attitudes. Every religious community still retains its own ‘personal laws,’ which relate to marriage, family inheritance, and divorce. They are zealously guarded by the patriarchs of each religious group, as these laws uniformly favor male power and privilege. Cutting across boundaries of caste, class, religion and language, Indians’ worldview continues to be conditioned by patriarchal codes of conduct contained in sacred texts and ingrained in our collective consciousness.
Paradoxically, India has always had a history of strong women who resisted these codes. The Indian freedom struggle gave Indian women a public presence unique in global history. We were in politics and public life decades before our Western counterparts, and this visibility only grew exponentially after Independence. Every political party has manipulated such contradictions for short-term gains. Postcolonial nativism has used them to challenge radical reform, projecting any ‘feminist’ struggle as a Western aberration irrelevant to a society that has always deified its women.
The reforms will not remove the hold of personal laws. Significantly, the new law does not address marital rape and acts of rape by armed forces. It will not stop the daily, repeated assaults on women’s bodies in public spaces unless Indian men are taught this is wrong, simply because neither the police nor the courts are equipped to handle the tsunami of criminal complaints that will surely emerge. It will not impact a conservative society besieged by mixed messages of family honor, tradition, and modernity so long as Bollywood says it is alright, even romantic, to stalk the woman you desire, force your attentions on her, and subdue her with your persistence.
The new law will not transform India unless the Indian consciousness evolves to accept more progressive gender norms. Mindsets need to change across urban and rural India if its women are to live with dignity and peace. All of us need to root out inherited prejudices if the reforms are to prove effective long after Nirbhaya fades from collective memory and is replaced by other ‘breaking news’. Jingoism and sloganeering are seductive but frothy. It is the purdah of the mind that remains the real hurdle.