Sexual violence in India: feminists and others

Geetanjali Gangoli, from the School for Policy Studies, discusses the issues raised by ‘India’s daughter’

The recent furore around the BBC Four documentary, India’s Daughter, has once again brought to the forefront the issue of sexual violence in India. Sexual violence continues to be a serious issue for Indian women. The latest crime statistics released by the Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB, 2014) show that 93 women are raped every day in the country. The number of reported rapes a day has increased nearly by 700% per cent since 1971 — when such cases were first recorded by the NCRB.

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The documentary, made for BBC by a British filmmaker Lesley Udwin was based on the well publicised rape and murder of 23 year old student, Jyoti Singh in a bus in New Delhi, and featured controversial interviews with Mukesh Singh, one of the six men accused in the case. He is currently on death row, awaiting an appeal to the Supreme Court, and he made several misogynist statements about the victim, including arguing that women were more responsible for rape than men were. He also argued that the woman should not have fought back, and that if he was executed, that it may lead to murders of rape victims. The film also included interviews with the defence lawyers, who also argued that the victim should not have been out at night with a male friend, and with her quietly dignified parents, and friend, whose voices are used effectively to challenge these pervasive rape myths.

As is well known by now, a group of feminists wrote an open letter to NDTV, an Indian news channel, which was planning to air the documentary on March 8th 2015 (at the same time as BBC Four), asking them to show restraint and postpone the broadcast, as the appeal against the death sentences is still pending; but also raising some other objections to the film, including that it promoted ‘hate speech’ against women, that it could lead to increased violence against women, and that it included graphic and gratuitous descriptions of sexual violence. The Indian government however banned the film, on the grounds that it violated ‘permission guidelines’ in airing the interviews with Mukesh Singh, and his comments were ‘highly derogatory’ and violated the dignity of women.

The documentary was, however, aired on BBC Four and released on you tube, rendering the ban ineffective. Since the ban, a number of interesting feminist views on this issue have been voiced, not one of them supporting the ban. What to me has been most impressive is that Indian feminists have been one of the strongest voices standing for the rights of the accused to a free trial (even and especially in a case where the ‘facts’ of the case appear to be clear), and arguing that the death penalty is not only counterproductive, but against feminist principles.

The film itself is interesting and well made, though at points tends to suggest that not much happened in the public and social sphere against sexual violence in India before this particular case, and that sexual violence owes much to poverty, deprivation and social exclusion made worse by globalization, and commodification of women. It projects Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder as emerging from a clash of culture between the upwardly mobile, forward thinking section of Indian society and the socially excluded working class, who have not been able to benefit from globalization. By virtue of omission, it also tends to project sexual violence as happening primarily in the public sphere, by strangers, rather than within the domestic sphere. Recent statistics released by the Delhi police suggest that in over 95% of all recorded cases of sexual violence, the accused was either a family member or known to the victim.

Indian feminists have of course, challenged these rape myths since the 1970s. They have constructed sexual violence as an act of patriarchal power and control, rather than as class warfare, and pointed to the endemic nature of rape and assault across social class, caste and region. Even though most cases of sexual violence around which Indian feminist campaigns have been centred on the rapes of working class and/or Dalit women by those in power (for e.g. the Mathura rape case in the late 1970s, and Bhanwari Devi case in the 1990s), feminists have placed sexual violence as an integral part of the domestic sphere, and demands have been made to the State to criminalise marital rape since the early 1980s. That these have still not been met reflects the pervasive nature of popular beliefs of the sanctity of marriage as a ‘private’ sphere, and the acceptance of male entitlement to women’s bodies, particularly in the home and within the private sphere.

Feminists have always (often simultaneously) collaborated with and opposed State (and media) engagement with gender based violence. Following Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder, feminist groups have fed into Justice Verma Committee , a committee made up of Justice J.S. Verma, Justice Leila Seth (both retired judges) and Gopal Subramanium constituted by the Government to look into possible amendments to the Criminal Justice Law ‘to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assault of extreme nature against women’, and some recommendations of the committee were passed into law through ordinance in early 2013. In opposition to feminist demands, the ordinance retained the marital rape exemption; therefore women in violent and abusive marriages continue to be unable to access the law when raped by intimates. It also created the offence of rape and sexual assault as a gender neutral offence, both in terms of perpetrators and victims, in ‘everyday contexts’ as well as the aggravated rape cases (e.g. gang rape and custodial rape cases).

Demands for legal changes are often an immediate response to social issues, especially in the area of gender based violence, but even moderate ‘successes’ – such as the inclusion of the custodial rape clause and the repeal of the ‘past sexual history’ clause – are often rendered useless where social attitudes regarding women’s sexuality remain unchanged. Legal intervention, even where unsuccessful or partially successful, therefore, must be seen as part of multiple strategies within the Indian women’s movement which seek to challenge, redefine and reshape patriarchal conceptualizations of women’s sexuality in law and society.

Celebrating 25 years of Gender Violence Research @ Bristol Policy Studies.
Save the date: June 15th 2015.

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