What gang rapes tell us about Delhi and the wider world

Protesters gather in Delhi, near the site where a Danish woman was gang-raped, to demand action on rampant violence against women. EPA/Money Sharma

Coinciding with yet another brutal gang rape in Delhi is news that Delhi’s women and child welfare minister, Rakhi Birla, is recruiting an all-female commando unit to help respond to Delhi’s rape problem.

At first glance, the idea of a unit more responsive to the concerns of women may seem like a welcome change in what has long been a misogynistic and patriarchal police force. Yet it is also problematic to use all-women forces as problem-solving units that act as “protectors” from local men and male police officers.

The unit would presumably counteract the noticeable absence of public safety in the city. Delhi is plagued by poor street lighting, a lack of women’s toilets and a general sense that women cannot be protected outside of their homes.

The latest attack against a 51-year-old Dutch tourist by a group of eight men comes a little more than a year after the gang rape of a young student caused international outrage. Now widely known as the “Delhi Rape Case”, the December 2012 attack resulted in the woman’s death.

The dark side of Delhi

Delhi has been called India’s rape capital, if not the rape capital of the world. The city recorded nearly 400 reported cases of rape in the first quarter of 2013.

The response in India and internationally has been to call on authorities to improve women’s safety in the capital. The all-female, martial arts-trained commando unit is the latest of a raft of measures to tackle the rampant abuse of women and girls.

India already employs an all-female police unit in its United Nations peacekeeping operation in Liberia. The UN has heralded this as an ideal special force for responding to sexual violence in conflict areas.

Such measures, whether domestic or international, are limited by a number of assumptions. The first is that sexual violence is an inevitable risk that women must “manage”. The second is that women are a “peaceful” panacea to men’s natural “violent” tendencies.

Both assumptions rely on essentialist ideas about gender that obscure the social, economic and political determinants of such violence. The root of the problem is not the physical space of the city, however dark. Nor is it, as suggested by Delhi’s chief minister, “sex and drug rackets”, the presence of certain, individual “bad men”.

Symptoms of social crisis

The violence against women in Delhi extends beyond rape. It is part of a wider cultural phenomenon that sees women subjugated daily.

Street harassment is rampant in India. This includes catcalling, molestation, groping and overt disrespect in public places. Femicide has resulted in 50 million women “missing” from the population, primarily through sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, gender-based violence, dowry-related murders and so-called “honour killings”.

For each of these forms of gender-based violence, laws have been implemented to try to curb the maltreatment of women and girls and induce cultural change. However, the violence against women persists because the problem is more than lawlessness that can be managed by changes in law and law enforcement. The violence is symptomatic of a greater socio-political crisis.

Watching a self-defence class at a Mumbai shopping mall, a girl stands in front of a “pledge wall” signed by women vowing to fight back against sexual violence. EPA/Divyakant Solanki

As Jacqui True illustrated in her book The Political Economy of Violence Against Women, rape and other forms of gender-based violence are not an aberration of our social, economic and political systems, but an inherent part of them and a means by which to obtain, enforce, or resist control and coercion.

Sexual violence, as with all forms of gender-based violence, is a means of demonstrating one’s dominance and superiority. It serves to strengthen or reconstitute the perpetrator’s sense of masculinity.

To be a man is to be strong, independent, adversarial, risk-taking, sexually virile and dominant. Central to this sort of masculinity is the rejection of all things feminine, as well as control over all things feminine.

Men use violence to dominate (and by extension, effeminate) their victim and to prove their masculinity in a variety of ways and contexts. Sexual violence is another form of this.

The global dimensions

The need to assert male dominance is, as many feminist political economists have argued, being exacerbated by globalisation and the loss of traditional patriarchal entitlements and privileges that men have come to expect. The result, for True, is that:

…relatively poor access to economic social and political resources for women and men is associated with being both perpetrators and victims of violence.

This is certainly reflected in India, where reports of rape have increased from 10,068 cases in 1990 to 24,206 in 2011. Dr Vandana Shiva has argued that this coincides with economic reforms driven by globalisation. This has deepened women’s economic vulnerability and left them more exposed to gender-based violence.

Her argument is echoed by Ruchira Gupta, who connects the increasing commodification of women in India with the dramatic rise in rape.

Masculinity in many parts of the world is experiencing a crisis as a result of the expansion of liberal trade and finance and policies of deregulation. The gender hierarchy is no longer constructed in local contexts. It is increasingly shaped by globalised material relations in which some may fail to achieve the traditional norms of masculine success.

As men find their avenues to status, wealth and power blocked, violence against women has presented as an alternative means by which to express masculinity. It is also a way to punish women for their rising economic and social status.

And this is not a problem unique to India. As Swati Parashar pointed out after the December 2012 Delhi Rape Case made worldwide headlines, violence against women is a global phenomenon. It is not the exception but the rule for women’s lives.

Patriarchy is not culturally unique to South Asia. Violence against women is common here in Australia as well, where 48% of women have experienced physical violence in their lives and 34% have experienced sexual violence.

As long as we focus on individual acts of violence against women, we remain blind to the social context of these acts and the wider institutions and cultures in which these behaviours are produced. We continue to discuss sexual violence in an individualistic rather than collective, cultural and institutional manner.

In so doing, we are obscuring the underlying social, political and economic values that help to tolerate, condone and even promote violence against women.