Days after the Badaun rape story was out, a French news programme – Envoyé Special – aired a story on India called “Series of rapes in Gandhi’s country”. It started with the presenter telling us how “every 22 minutes, one woman is raped in this country”.
The report opened with visuals of the ghats of Banaras, the most popular holiday destination among French tourists to India. “They [Indian pilgrims] come here to purify themselves”, said the voiceover. But to present viewers with India’s “reality”, the camera chose to follow a white French woman, Joanna walking in the streets. Drunken young men lunged at her to hug her roughly and wish her “happy Holi”. As men with painted faces chewed paan and swayed in front of the camera, Joanna explained that their hands touched her at the slightest opportunity. When it got “too much” for her she returned to the hotel.
The camera continued following a rowdy group of men who were shown enacting fake orgies. We saw other repulsive Indian men in the report — from patriarchs of the infamous Khap Panchayats in Haryana to a rapist in Bihar who said he and his friends punish unfaithful girlfriends with rape or acid attacks. “India is no longer safe for women”, concluded the report and asked, “What do these aggressions say about Indian society?”
A direct answer to the question is not provided but it’s embedded in the auto-suggestion that Indian men are depraved and Indian women vulnerable and downtrodden. This is just one of the frequent news reports in France on India’s so-called “rape culture”. There seems to be no other reality about India that’s more interesting to the foreign media right now. And as most Indians living or travelling abroad will tell you, this “rape culture” is now better known than India’s geographical location on the world map.
Since the December 16, 2012 gang-rape case in Delhi, Western media has developed a voracious appetite for all rape stories that make the headlines in India. The narrative “another rape” continues to encourage the gawking sensationalism that afflicts most of these reports. The focus remains on gruesomeness and the emphasis is on evoking fear – turning the coverage into little more than an exercise in titillation. For an audience with little or no first-hand knowledge of India, the country is demonised and reduced to one single horrific, regressive reality – its rape culture.
A much-read piece in The Times called “Gang-rape shame could drag India into 21st century” had Libby Purves speak of “India’s cultural rottenness”. Writing soon after the December 16 rape in Delhi, she says, only a “benign cultural earthquake” could “allow India to hold its head up in the civilised world”. In contrast, she feels, Western feminists have the luxury to fret over petty matters, thereby suggesting that the West is progressive in comparison. This self-aggrandisement in oblique suggestions that lead to “we are better off here” pervades most Western readings of crimes against women in India.
That sexual violence in India should be reported abroad is not the problem. Nor is it a question of hurt national pride. There should be more and more balanced reporting on violence against women everywhere. But the singling out of India is unsettling because similar local reports hardly get any room in the headlines even in Europe. In the French Envoyé Special report, for instance, the India figures on violence against women are presented as shocking but one look at figures in France shows they’re equally startling.
If one woman is raped every 22 minutes in India, one woman is raped every seven minutes in France. As for low conviction rates mentioned in the same report, these are not unique to India either. In France, only two per cent of the cases lead to conviction, according to the French National Institute for Advanced Studies in Security and Justice. In fact, a recent European Union-wide survey (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) showed that just 13 per cent women in Europe reported their most serious incident of violence to the police. In her sharp critique of the “neocolonialist” way in which the United States of America and the United Kingdom handled the December 16 rape coverage, Emer O’Toole, writing in The Guardian, shows how a BBC article points to the statistic that a woman is raped in Delhi every 14 hours. Yet, in England and Wales (3.5 times larger than Delhi), the figure for recorded rapes of women is proportionately four times larger.
Comparing rape scores is not always productive, as figures can be misleading, but it does highlight that violence against women is not unique to India. If anything is unique, it’s the mainstreaming of these reports in the Indian media and the public debate it has triggered. Yet the selective gaze of the western media remains fixed on the suffering, lynched or silenced Indian women. The strong women and non-criminal men are missing because they don’t fit into the sensational narrative. Women are given a voice in these reports only when they are echoing the “India-is-backward” note. Chandra Mohanty in her essay – “Under the Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” speaks of this Western construct of an archetypal victim image. She describes this as a “colonialist move” resulting in depriving local feminists and activists of “their historical and political agency”.
The popular perception in Europe is that progressive or feminist voices in India are those of “Westernised” as opposed to “real” Indian women. The assumption is that everything progressive is a Western import, as opposed to the irredeemable Indian outlook. Even the rich history of India’s women’s movements remains practically unknown because it doesn’t fit into the Western perception of what feminist movements should look like. But Indian women’s rights activists and feminists are by no means “waking up” only now. Since the early Seventies, there have been several campaigns “from urban to rural and radical to reformist” as Radha Kumar demonstrates in From Chipko to Sati: The Contemporary Indian Women’s movement.
In the Sixties, in Maharashtra, as an active part of the landless labourer Shahada movement, Bhil tribal women came together to fight domestic violence. In the mid-Seventies, in the hills of north India, the Chipko was a movement against deforestation in which women were leading the way as villagers clung to trees to prevent them from being cut down by timber contractors. A movement against dowry started brewing in 1975 and led to a public debate that culminated in the Indian government passing an anti-dowry law in 1980. In the Seventies, a Dalit women’s group called ‘Mahila Samta Sainik Dal’ (League of Women Soldiers for Equality) was started and it claimed black African-American activist Angela Davis of Black Feminism as a sister.
More recently, rural activism has been deeply engaged and sustained. Urvashi Butalia, feminist publisher says, “For rural activists, the battles are over life and death issues. In Koodankulam, women have been at the forefront of the anti-nuclear protests. In Kunan Poshpora village in Kashmir, people are ready to reopen the case of the gang-rape of 30 women by the Indian army two decades ago. In Punjab and Haryana, women are willing to battle for the right to choose their marriage partners”. There’s a long list of achievements that can be attributed to Indian feminists. “In recent times, the slew of laws we have on rape, dowry, widow immolation, inheritance, domestic violence, sexual harassment, the inclusion of women’s voices in policy and planning, the presence of 1.3 million elected women at village and municipal levels. But no one notices them”, adds Butalia.
India’s feminists are aware of caste divides, class differences and religious diversity. They are mature enough to take cognisance of these. Active on many fronts in India today, feminists are pushing for the law to recognise marital rape, speaking out against custodial rape and asking for strict safeguards against sexual harassment at work. Public personalities making misogynist remarks are hauled up and condemned in the harsh glare of prime time media.
India’s increasingly vocal Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender – or LGBT – community is asking for the removal of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an archaic British colonial law that criminalises all forms of sexual relations other than peno-vaginal sex. The recent media reports on rapes in caste conflicts led to a furore and women’s groups demanded the resignation of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh where such atrocities go unchecked by law. Before the Delhi elections, more than 50 feminists came to write a “Womanifesto”, a six-point programme asking future governments to counter the culture of gender-based violence.
Social media is also abuzz in India with feminists conversing around gender-related debates. A campaign called “Bell Bajao!” launched in 2008 calls on men and boys to take a stand against domestic violence. Another project called “Blank Noise” asks women to share images of the clothes they were wearing when they were harassed and the location they were in. With the hashtag #INEVERASKFORIT, they counter the idea that women are sexually assaulted because of the way they are dressed.
Websites like The Ladies Finger are talking about feminism by taking women’s issues beyond the question of harassment. Feminists are also questioning the way Indian media covers stories on violence against women, and warn against sensationalism and the commodification of rape stories.
These are only some of the many stories and strong voices that are eclipsed in media reports on India. This selective omission of local activism in foreign media reports and the fixation on only the horror and misery propagates stunted stereotypes. It’s hard to categorise this as anything other than neo-colonialism.