Violence against women in India: culture, institutions and inequality

On December 16, 2012, a 23-year old woman was gang raped and brutalized by six men on a bus in India’s capital New Delhi. Jyoti Singh Pandey died as a result of the injuries she sustained during the attack 13 days later.

There are particular elements to this case which make it stand out against the multitude of other sexual offences reported in India every week. In an article on a New York Times blog, Neha Thirani Bagri cites the gruesome nature of the act, the fact that it happened in an urban metropolis, and the way in which Jyoti – a medical student whose father was an airport baggage-handler – symbolized ‘the aspirations of the new India.’

The tens of thousands of protestors who marched in several cities and signed online petitions were acting not just in response to this incident but also to express their anger at the way women in India are treated more generally, criticizing in particular state apathy in the face of rape, and the severe deficiencies in law and order. There is a widespread perception within and outside of India that – as put by Rashmee Roshan Lall in an article for Foreign Policy magazine – the country has ‘a woman problem.’

The question of why violence against women is so prolific in India is a matter of considerable debate, as is the question of what to do about it.

On September 13, 2013, a Delhi court sentenced to death four of the six men accused of the gang-rape and murder of Pandey. While this verdict was greeted with joy by her family and many sympathizers around the country, Dr. Aisha Gill, writing on the feminist website, describes it as a short-cut way to quiet public anger that does not deal with the complex socio-political factors driving violence against women.

Being a woman in India: the statistics

India’s international image is commonly tied to its economic performance. It is grouped with China, Russia and Brazil as one of the BRIC emerging economies – though, during a visit in November 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama described the country as ‘not just a rising power’ but one that has ‘already risen.’ This optimism was clouded by the findings of a poll conducted by Thomson Reuters in 2011, according to which India is the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women.

According to author and activist Rita Banerjee, within the span of three generations India has systematically targeted and annihilated more than 50 million women from its population. One illustration of this is the skewed sex ratio: the 2011 census found that there are 940 women for every 1000 men, and this national figure hides significant regional discrepancies. Women are threatened by multiple forms of violence including burnings, acid attacks, beatings and rape.

According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, registered rape cases in India have increased by almost 900 percent over the past 40 years. Numbers of trafficked women are also high, and a 2010 report published by the Asia Foundation states that, unusually, 90 percent of India’s trafficking in persons occurs within national borders. Violence against women is perpetrated not only, or even mostly, by strangers but also from agents of the state, spouses and family members.

Who to blame? From gender to culture

Many commentators have argued that the problem is caused by men’s underlying attitudes towards women. But placing blame upon men is to miss the point, according to Aisha Zakaria on the blog Zakaria says those working to end gender-based violence in India “are not struggling against a distinct oppressor; rather, we are working to dismantle a deeply held set of beliefs and values held by men and often by women as well.”

This opinion is shared by Shivam Vij who posted an article on in February 2013, following a visit to the Ravi Das slum colony, where four of the six men accused of the Delhi gang-rape lived. After talking with several women, Vij wrote, “That even the women of the Ravi Das Camp share patriarchal ideas about men and women pointed me towards the thought that the ‘collective conscience of society’ was what produced their barbarism.”

Identifying the cause of the problem

In a recent book entitled “India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War on Women,” Sunny Hundal discusses various features of Indian culture that foster violence against women. He writes that India’s brand of religiosity and ingrained ideas about the “’honor’ of women” make it particularly difficult to secure the change in attitudes required to address violence against women.

Traditional Hindu beliefs hold that girls should be brought up to be good daughters and later obedient wives. Rita Banerjee writes that docility is a prized characteristic for Indian women. If women deviate from social norms they bring shame not only upon themselves but upon their family and community who respond by stigmatizing and punishing the deviant, often employing violence as a means of social control.

This helps to explain the findings of a recent survey carried out by India’s National Commission for Women, which is that 88.9 percent of honor killings are perpetrated by family members. The culturally imposed obligation to keep her family together means that a woman is generally expected to put up with violence from family members. The prevalence of this situation is indicated by the 2011 International Men and Gender Equality Survey, which found that nearly one in four Indian men has committed sexual violence at one point in their lives.

Hundal describes how social norms that ascribe a particular role for women, emphasizing duty and submission, are reinforced across various dimensions of Indian culture from mythological Hindu epics such as the Ramayama to Bollywood cinema. Sex, in particular, is a topic whose cultural presence is marked by disturbing contradictions. Rashmee Roshan Lall writes, “Sex is on display everywhere from Bollywood films and TV advertisements to seedy roadside graffiti,” yet, at the same time, “a powerful conservative morality limits acknowledgment to innuendo and suggestive word pictures created by Hindi film songs.”

This unhealthy sexual culture presents temptations and provocations, yet allows neither men nor women any sexual freedoms or choices. Lall describes the result as ‘a debilitating sexual repressiveness.’

In an interview with Channel 4 News on December 21, 2012, author and activist Arundhati Roy observed that violence against women- particularly rape- is a means of asserting power, particularly from the perspective of men who feel that they lack power in other dimensions of their life such as their socioeconomic situation. Roy makes a connection between the widening gap between rich and poor, and the increase in violence against women. She says that whereas previously, “the rich did what they did with a fair amount of discretion,” today, “it’s all out there on television for conspicuous consumption.” There is ’’an anger and psychosis building up and women at the top, middle and the bottom are going to pay the price for it.”

In an article for the Hindu newspaper written in January 2013, Praveen Swami makes a similar point. India’s economic transformation is producing ‘’a mass of young, prospect-less men’,” under enormous pressure to succeed in an economic sense but finding few opportunities to do so. This, in combination with sexualized popular culture plastered all around them, has led to a situation where women’s bodies have become ‘’the principal terrain on which male rage is venting itself,’’ and the sexually independent woman in particular is perceived as an implicit threat and insult.

What can be done?

At a fundamental and general level, what is needed, according to a speech made by Congress President Sonia Gandhi on August 29, is a ‘social revolution’ for empowering women which must seek to reform “the mind-set and old thoughts of our society.” Such change cannot be achieved in a courtroom or through mass protest. It requires instilling particular values to boys and girls, at home, at school and in the public sphere. Conceptions of masculinity and femininity must be readjusted to place emphasis upon respect for the self and for others.

This change in mind-set must be accompanied by institutional reform. Antara Dev Sen, columnist for the Asian Age, points out that most victims of violent crimes are brutalized not just by their attacker but thereafter by the system they appeal to or live with. Women in India tend not to appeal to the legal and criminal system because, far from being a source of protection and empowerment, they find that this system makes them even more vulnerable to abuse.

There are stories reported regularly in India’s newspapers of soldiers and policemen raping girls and women and facing no legal or professional repercussions. The deep chauvinism that runs through India’s public institutions is apparent from the level of local councils (khap panchayats) to the highest levels of the judiciary.

India’s first female Assistant Solicitor General, Indira Jaising, recently wrote to the country’s Chief Justice to protest against remarks made by High Court Justice N Kirubakaran regarding the Delhi gang-rape case, which, according to Jaising, as quoted in the Times of India, were “to the effect that women are responsible for crimes against them.”

She pointed out that “no amount of Fast Track Courts and Special Courts will deliver justice to women, if those who hold the high office of a Judge of the High Court hold and express such male chauvinistic views.”

Despite these deep-rooted structures of patriarchy , there is plenty within the rich and historical culture of India that not only affirms the value and dignity of women but portrays them as leaders and warriors. Women can be found at the highest levels of almost every area of public life in India, from politics to academia to cinema. India has a long and vibrant history of women’s movements, and contemporary women’s rights advocates—whilst fighting many long-standing issues—are adeptly using new strategies to go about their work. Now that those accused of the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey have been tried, and the protestors and their placards have left the streets, the difficult journey towards identifying and changing the inherited prejudices of a collective conscience must continue.

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