Delhi gang rape protests, responses from patriarchy and what really changed

Physical or sexual violence and harassment is a day to day affair in the lives of vast numbers of women in India, irrespective of whether they are old, young or in many cases, even babies; “modern” or “traditional”; urban or rural; wearing jeans, mini skirts, sari or burka; working women or homemakers. Some quick statistics: 37% of married women in India between the age of 15 and 49 are victims of physical violence1; more than 53% children report face one or more forms of sexual abuse -- a higher number for boys than girls2; 90% urban women have been sexually harassed, 80% of women are being harassed in cities like Mumbai every day3; 97% of all rapes are committed by people known to the victim4; and the country ranks 136 out of 187 countries on the gender inequality index5.

Such statistics might appear inanimate or unimaginable to some, hence I would like to humanize them by drawing upon experience of three middle class women from Kerala, who are my friends and family members. As children, they were sexually abused by strangers, family friends or men in the neighborhood. As they became older, they were molested multiple times in crowded buses and in crowded streets. They were stalked upon by men showering obscenities; and always had to be victims of lewd comments, staring and vulgar expressions. Strangers have exposed their private parts and spat cigarette butts at them; and were sexually harassed while traveling in trains. They had to face physical and emotional violence at home, from the husband as well as his family.

Crimes such as rapes and female infanticide were a part of life in India for several years. Yet they completely failed to become an effective political issue, and rarely formed an organized, mass protest. Instead, the patriarchal, male-dominated structures6 in the society used these crimes to justify their “solution” -- further suppression of women, restriction of their movement, way of clothing, interactions with men, access to public spaces and so on. The Delhi gang-rape and the victim’s tragic death triggered a mass outpouring of the hitherto individual discontent, especially among the urban elite youth, and hence amplified by the media, resulting in very visible protests. It pushed the issue into national spotlight, and captured the attention of the collective consciousness of the people. The government could not ignore the issue any longer.

Patriarchal social structures

The wide-spread nature of sexual harassment and violence against women in India cannot be seen as the work of a few deviants, in isolation of the country’s deeply patriarchal social structures and practices. These include the patriarchal values that are impressed upon their minds starting in childhood -- concepts of a “good, pure woman”, a “virile, masculine man”, the priority of men over women; the educational system which reinforces them; repression of sexuality, insistence on female “virginity” and the false morality; the repressive “arranged marriage” system -- endogamous, heterosexual and often dictated by the family; the power structures of extended family and their control of the wife; inequality in job profiles, salary, property and at work; the unsalaried, private nature of housework; a popular culture that objectifies women; the obsessive segregation of sexes in public and private spaces -- public transport, classrooms in school, etc, barriers to open interaction between the sexes; control on women’s access to public spaces; and so on. As the J. S. Verma committee would write: “Abuse cannot be looked at in isolation as one related only to sexual harassment but rather as an issue related to children and to childhood; sex and sexuality, violence and violation; and at a deeper level, power and domination, gender and patriarchy and so on”7. A real solution to the problem of sexual harassment and violence against women involves breaking down these social structures and practices.

Unexpected chance to uproot patriarchy: The JS Verma committee

The commitment of a major chunk of the nation's political class -- neck deep in the ideological hegemony of patriarchy, with a majority of them representing semi-feudal and patriarchal interests, or that of a capitalist class that often compromises with existing patriarchal structures, to attempts for a solution to the issue, was always in doubt. This doubt was further reinforced by the callous and trivializing comments, the victim-blaming and calls for further oppression of women that sections of the political class resorted to while responding to Delhi gang rape. All were signs of a classic “rape culture”. But the central government had to respond to the mass outrage, and appointed a committee to suggest amendments to criminal law to deal with sexual assault cases.

Several such committees had been formed in the past for many issues that were used to delay action, taking forever to create toothless reports, to the extent that “committee formation” itself has become a joke. However, the justice JS Verma committee proved to be different -- it brought out a 657 page document within a month, after listening to 80000 voices from across the country and abroad. Its contents could make not only those who took to the streets for justice, but even the most progressive human rights activists in the country, happy. Instead of falling for mass hysteria drummed up by the media and recommending that the solution for all the problems is death penalty or chemical castration, or taking a patriarchal view of the problem by suggesting further suppression of women, they produced a document of erudition and action all Indians could be proud of. The committee analyzed the conditions as they were; observing the terrible lack of human rights in the country and the failures of the institutional mechanisms of the State; with extensive references to laws and judgements in other countries, studies and statistics, critical scholarship on sexuality, gender, education and even findings of neuroscience.

Its response to the obvious problem at hand was straightforward: more stringent punishment, but no death penalty; practical enforcement procedures for rape conviction; bringing a number of other forms of harassment under the criminal law, including stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks. However, it also had several unexpected treasures: it called for a separate Bill of Rights for women, whose statement of object noted: “certain practices including cultural, social, political, religious and customary norms are patriarchal and impair the agency, dignity and equality of women”. It also had clauses like “Every woman has the right to express and experience complete sexual autonomy including with respect to her relationships and choice of partners” -- revolutionary statements by Indian standards. It recommended to consider marital rapes as criminal offenses, writing: “exemption for marital rape stems from a long outdated notion of marriage which regarded wives as no more than the property of their husbands”. Khap panchayats, and “honour killings” are illegal, and the State should ensure they must be “ruthlessly stamped out” as the Supreme Court wrote in its judgement. For the committee, gender justice was not only about women, but it called for the protection of the rights for all sexual identities. They wrote: ”since the possibility of sexual assault on men, as well as homosexual, transgender and transsexual rape, is a reality the provisions have to be cognizant of the same”. The report also recommended changing the age for consensual sex back to 16 from 18. It was 16 for 150 years and was increased to 18 last year, thus criminalizing all sex by teenagers , a decision that was called by a trial court as "undemocratic" , "regressive", and a "tool for the police to harass minors"8. The committee also suggested the imminent review of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which legitimized the “impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of internal security duties”.

Changes on the scale recommended by the J. S. Verma committee report could have helped to strike at the root of the current patriarchal structures, which are increasingly becoming anachronistic due to their contradictions with the accelerated introduction of modernism into the country.

Apart from such immediate recommendations, the report spent a lot of effort studying the social structures in the country. To give a glimpse of the revolutionary nature of it: in a lengthy critique of the education system, they noted-- “schools are reproductive, not just productive: they reflect prevailing structures, not only provide vehicles to change them”, “school as a social arena is also marked by asymmetrical power relations”,”within the school, the gender regime is constructed through everyday, taken for granted routine practices”, like: “In some classrooms, girls may sit at the front of the class and boys at the back”, “newly-emergent information based societies exhibit elitism compounding the existing inequities existing in education”, “Sexuality can be diverse“, ”it is the duty of the State to provide clear, well informed and scientifically grounded sexuality education based on the universal values of respect for human rights”, the school structure required: “stripping out language of sexism from books/materials”, “eliminating different lessons for girls and boys (i.e. sewing vs sports)”, gender-neutral pedagogy (boys cooking and cleaning), and so on.

Reaction from patriarchy and only a diluted bill

Changes on the scale recommended by the J. S. Verma committee report could have helped to strike at the root of the current patriarchal structures, which are increasingly becoming anachronistic due to their contradictions with the accelerated introduction of modernism into the country. Massive capitalist growth for two decades, large-scale urbanization and migration that break up local reactionary traditions, female empowerment due to increasing number of female workers in jobs of lesser patriarchal nature9, better access to education, their increased visibility in public spaces, and easier access to the external world and a variety of popular culture through the media and the Internet, the acceptability of newer forms of marriage and sexual relations, are causing pressures on the existing structures. This, despite the non-uniform development of such forces across different identities (class,region, religion, etc) and their compromises with patriarchy.

The Congress party represents not just semi-feudal interests but also the liberal elite, and could have gone either way on a few of the proposals; but since the government is supported by the likes of Samajwadi party, that veritable fighter for old school patriarchy; and challenged by the nationalist BJP, who, like a classic Fascist party, sees the problem as a result of deviation from the “ideal Bharat of the past” -- which to them, was a magical arch-patriarchal place that never had sexual harassment or violence against women for some reason. Making a progressive, liberal law is not a populist measure in a country mired deep in the ideological hegemony of patriarchy, with gender not forming a solid political identity unlike caste and religion, and where progressive ideas are eclipsed by semi-feudal and nationalist ideologies. Why would the government upset the patriarchal social structure? The victims that would be helped by changes like AFSPA revision, protection for queer groups in any case just did not have enough political power for bargaining.

However, as the public anger was still palpable, and the continuing reports of rapes kept it so, doing a Srikrishna or a Sachar on the JS Verma was difficult. The government brought out an ordinance and later a bill10, supposedly introducing the committee’s recommendations about changes to the criminal law, but in effect rejecting most of them. Marital rape was sacrosanct -- since bringing it under law has the “potential of destroying the institution of marriage”, as the parliamentary committee on home affairs, in their deliberations on the report, concluded. They wrote among its recommendations: the government should emphasize “strengthening family system and inculcating moral and family values while preparing textbooks”. The final version of the bill would have it written, as it was in the colonial Indian Penal Code: “Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.”[^8], even when the age of legal consensual sex outside marriage is eighteen. Thus, consensual sex with a seventeen year old girl would be legally a rape if they are not married, while forced sex with her is a right provided by the legal system, if they are married. The proposal to change it back to sixteen was blocked by parties like the BJP and TMC who argued that since a woman had to be 18 to get married (technically not true, since the definition of wife has the minimum age fixed at 15; and about 50% of marriages in India happen with women less than 18 years of age)11, lowering the age of consent to 16 would encourage premarital sex, which is against the culture of the country. There would be no mention of any “complications” like gender sensitivity in the new bill, and rape will remain defined as “against woman”. Touching the AFSPA was out of question (“the army does not agree, and contradicting them is compromising on national security”). Thus, finally, the bill, while lacking tooth, still having archaic and patriarchal terms like “outraging her modesty”, but yet an improvement, reached the parliament for discussions. What happened there was something bordering a farce.

Debate on the bill, or a catharsis of misogyny

In Lok Sabha, only 168 of the 545 members were present when the bill was passed, that is, around 30% attendance. In Rajya Sabha, it was less than 25% at the time of its discussion. This, while being not too low compared to the usual attendance in Parliament, clearly showed India’s lawmakers’ apathy towards the issue, or in other words, their patriarchal nature. But their speeches during the discussion12 over the bill was even more revealing: instead of discussing seriously about the bill and how it can be improved, what came out was the misogyny and criminal attitudes of certain members. Crude, sexist jokes reminiscent of Freud’s ideas in 'Wit and its relation to the unconscious', victim blaming, moralizing -- it was again classic rape culture.

The debate in the parliament was littered with crude sexist jokes, victim blaming and moralizing -- it was again classic rape culture. Even the sponsor of the bill, the Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, was found laughing. Image credit: NDTV

For Shailendra Kumar (SP, Uttar Pradesh), the biggest reason for “why we had to have this bill now” is television, and the “dirty programs” in it. The second biggest reason is the clothing that women wear, which had become “so dirty”. This man had the gall to point at a woman member -- film star Jayaprada, MP from Uttar Pradesh, elected on an SP ticket but now fell out with them -- during the debate, and say: “I am talking about the clothing women wear, and I’ve seen your picture too”, probably referring to her films. ”If you want, I can define what is this ‘sense of clothing’ I am talking about”. He concluded his speech by quoting “some poet”: ”Krishna's Radha is selling kisses and her love to fill her stomach”, and made a wonderful progressive proposal: “the state has to put the women in better financial position”. The reason? “These days women are ready to do anything to fill their stomach’s hunger”. The house let him finish his utterly obvious anti-women tirade, with no signs of protest.

Senior member Sharad Yadav (JD-U, Bihar) while arguing that “making stalking and voyeurism a punishable offense is too harsh and wrong”, asked: “Who amongst us have not followed girls”, “When you watch Sheila ki jawaani or Munni with her Zandu Balm what goes on in your mind?, And so what, we are all men after all!”. His language and demeanor were bordering on gossip, trivializing the debate on a grave social issue. His argument that stalking was justified because “women do not talk first and men has to go behind them to woo them” -- forgetting that stalking by its definition in the bill is “repeated attempts” to follow or attempt to follow a woman, “despite clear indication of disinterest” -- was absolutely insensitive to the troubles of the victims. The argument is also insensitive to the fact that rape, or other violent crimes, often start with stalking. The legislature, rather than protesting his demeanor, language and argument, instead burst into laughter, with some even clapping. Even the sponsor of the bill, the Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, was found laughing.

Bhola Singh (BJP, Bihar) told the house how the arrival of a daughter was a cause for despair in the family, and that a woman’s primary task was to bear children. He also said: “Western culture which is all about the body as opposed to ours, which is all about the spirit”, while blaming Westernization for the rising crimes in the society. Anand Geete (Shiv Sena, Maharashtra), said: “A lot of people made fun of us when we opposed Valentine’s Day, but now everyone agrees that it is Westernization of our culture which is to blame for the rising number of rapes in the country”. According to him, women are the safest in Mumbai and the credit for this went to Shiv Sena. He perhaps did not read the surveys that said 80% of women in Mumbai face sexual harassment every day. And perhaps both choose to forget that the “pure Bharat” they spoke of was far more patriarchal and repressive.

Having more women in political parties and the legislature is not an end in itself, but is a fundamental factor in fighting patriarchal social structures. They would not prefer to remain oppressed if they have the power to change the system -- their own interest eventually overcoming the ideological hegemony of patriarchy. However, for Sumitra Mahajan (BJP, Madhya Pradesh) -- a woman, the debate was the time to moralize on the side of patriarchy. She said: “Anyway people these days get divorced over insignificant issues. Marital rape shouldn’t be made into a criminal offense. It will destroy Indian families. Things like these should be sorted out within the family or by counseling. There is no need for a law. You know the Indian family, it has a binding effect on the society”. Even when marital rape was not criminalized in the bill being discussed. She also played the puritan: “These dirty spray ads, condom ads, they put such negative thoughts in people’s minds.”, “Animals and birds have a mating season. Unlike human beings, they don’t have just one thing on their mind all year round Lalu ji”, while replying to Lalu Prasad Yadav. Another woman MP who decided to fight on the side of patriarchy was Harsimrat Kaur Badal (Akali Dal, Punjab), who argued against the change of consensual age back to 16: “an old man can come, pay the poor family a few thousand rupees and have consensual sex with their 16-year old daughter” “What are we telling this 16-year old girl? We are telling: “You cannot marry till you are 18 years old but ‘yes’ you can indulge in sex when you are 16 years old and if you get pregnant, either you produce an illegitimate child”, or “you go in for repeated abortions”, “Is there not going to be increase in teenage pregnancies? “increase in the diseases like HIV and cases like cervical cancer?”, “there will be increase in honor killing”.

Pointing out the misogynistic and patriarchal attitudes of these members should not be taken as a blanket criticism of the entire political class; or as a denial of the several excellent interventions made by various MPs, especially from the Left. However, most of their proposed amendments were defeated -- only government amendments normally pass -- and thus in the end, these discussions amounted to nothing more than mere speeches. The bill was passed without any major changes.

What really changed, or what needs to be done?

The public outrage that started with the report of the Delhi gang rape resulted in a new law against sexual harassment. However, the bill, while certainly progressive, failed to do justice to the spirit of the J. S. Verma committee report. It ignored several of their recommendations, firmly leaving several elements of patriarchy in the legal system. As far as the government is concerned, the best the legislature could do about the problem of sexual harassment and violence against women in the country had been done with the passing of this bill. And the chance to affect the patriarchal social structures of society -- by criminalizing marital rape, recognizing queer rights, legalizing teenage sex, passing the Bill of Rights that the had committee recommended, stamping out the Khap panchayats, implementing the improvements suggested to the educational system, and so on -- are probably lost.

Having this law in place -- or even a more progressive one -- while being a necessity, is not sufficient to ensure prevention and punishment of crimes against women. How much does such a law change the situation on the ground, in a society where the victim is often blamed for causing the crime? In a country where the local power structures -- the family and the local neighborhood with its elites, the clergy, the khap panchayats, the police and the judge, often make their own laws? Where the judicial process is so time consuming, difficult and archaic that the victims soon give up than fighting for the justice they deserve?

Creating a law to punish sexual harassment and violence against women is one thing, tackling why they occur is another. As mentioned before, such practices are deeply rooted in patriarchal social structures. With the changes in economic and social forces, these structures are under pressure, and are forced to evolve according to the dictation of their dynamics. The guardians of the old order are responding to the change with violent reactionary politics and mass propaganda, or as it happened in Parliament, with farcical sexist jokes. It is up to the progressive forces in the country to develop and channel the outrage generated by the Delhi gang rape, to campaign to make sexual harassment, violence against women and patriarchal social structures a political issue, to organize like-minded groups and people, and to fight for setting the correct course of the evolving social structures. Their immediate task also involves the fight for a more just, progressive law, and its effective implementation. And to keep arguing that the solution to harassment and violence is not further oppression of women.

(The author wishes to express his thanks to Gyorgi Narodin for his help in writing this essay)