<EDIT>: 20th December, 2012: Please read with the caveat that I am very much a North Indian male living in Delhi. You may consider “North Indian male” short-hand for the guys brought up in families with outdated notions of honor and masculinity. Nearly all of my good friends are in fact North Indian men who are some of the kindest, most chivalrous people you had meet. But let’s face it, in NCR, we would be a minority. </EDIT>
As people across the country try to make sense of the ghastly gang-rape of a paramedical student, here’s a short explanation: it’s because of the North Indian male. What exactly is wrong with this guy? Plenty: brought up on a steady diet of patriarchal superiority and misogyny, he is yet to come to grasp with a simple fact; that when it comes to women, his mindset is still medieval. In spite of all the national outrage, the head-shaking by the pointy-heads, the candle light vigils and the amped up rhetoric of the English media, rest assured that the person who really needs to do some soul searching will go to bed tonight convinced of either one of two things: 1.) It was the woman’s fault for being out late at night with a male friend or 2.) The sexual intercourse was a consensual commercial transaction, and when the arrangement went sour, the woman raised the bogey of rape.
Why are these regressive attitudes so deep-seated? And why in spite of all the evidence to the contrary does the needle of the Delhi man’s Neanderthal mentality refuse to move? The fault lies in how a large chunk of the North Indian society is structured. This is a society where a woman is an object, which at all times must be owned by a man. She is the vessel of the family’s honour and if she does anything which might cause the family to lose face, the menfolk are justified in restoring this honour by whatever means necessary, including murder. This is not just a system imposed by men on unwilling women. In most cases, it’s accepted without question and indeed passed on from mothers to sons. It begins right at childhood, when boys are given preference over girls in everything from nutrition to health to education. The rate of honor killings is the highest among communities which have traditionally been considered martial or agricultural castes.
The events as reported seem to have transpired thusly: The perpetrators were drunk and offered the couple a ride, who mistook the bus to be public transport. They started misbehaving with the girl and when her companion intervened, they assaulted him. The news reports say that the girl tried to defend her friend by biting one of the perpetrators. It was after this that they took turns raping her. This sequence of events is crucial: the intention to rape was not formed when they picked up the couple, in which case they would have tried to drive to a secluded spot right away. It’s only when the girl asserted herself that ignited the primal instincts of these animals. For all the mis-guided moral guardians of our society who claim that girls are to blame for inciting rape through their dressing and immoral behavior, this is exactly where there thick-headedness stands exposed. There was nothing come-hither about the girl’s appearance. These men were not sexually aroused by her. Her only crime was to stand up for her friend. Now, she had to be put in her place. A Delhi man cannot tolerate being shouted at by an object as lowly as a woman, that too in front of his friends. A re-assertion of power was necessary to avoid “losing face”.
A casual parsing of the names and occupations of the main accused in the latest outrage: Singh, bus driver; Singh, unknown; Gupta, fruit seller; Sharma: Gym instructor. All are immigrants from Rajasthan, Bihar and UP, living in the RK Puram slums of Delhi. Not surprisingly, all are states with the lowest literacy level among girls. Among all the regions of India, the North has the lowest participation of women in the workforce. These are states where being upper-caste and male still affords special privileges and entitlement to power. More than Mumbai, Bangalore or Kolkata, Delhi is an island that is mentally and geographically surrounded by an ocean of illiteracy, under-employment, and backwardness resting on the fault lines of caste tectonics.
In all probability, these men were brought up in homes that prized male children over girls. They were provided with whatever little access to education was available. Their sisters were probably engaged exclusively in household work, in many cases tending to their brothers. Their families probably felt relieved that none of their girls brought dishonor on the family by say, falling in love with a person from a wrong caste. They took pride in getting them married off at an appropriately young age. These men probably had little or no interaction at all with women in their hometowns. They have never been conditioned to believe that women are human beings as evolved as their own selves: that they too can have emotions, aspirations and the desire to break out of the rural monotony of marriage and bearing children.
It’s a man like this, with his half-formed ideas that usually migrates to Delhi in search of livelihood. What he encounters is a societal ethos completely in contradiction to what he has been accustomed to. It’s a society where girls can choose who to go out with, sometimes multiple men before marriage. Although he doesn’t have access to pubs and malls that liberalization’s children take for granted, he still sees the evidence all around. Women in jeans going to work in fancy multi-nationals, driving their own cars, wearing skirts to college, going out for drinks with male friends. It is a world which is at once confounding as well as enticing. He also knows that this is a world which he will never have access to, because of the limitations of his education and circumstances. In the village, his upper-caste status meant something but in the metro where social standing corresponds only to economics, it is utterly meaningless.
And then there are the media of mass entertainment with their unrepentant objectification of women in newspapers, films and TV. In the entertainment world, Akshay Kumar plays a lout who cannot express his feelings for his lady love through words. So he communicates by letting his hand slip on her “chikni kamar” and singing a song about it, thus channeling the basest of urges of eve-teasers on our public transport. And guess what? The on-screen lady loves it! So why wouldn’t everybody else?
In most cases, an immigrant with a blue-collar job would be careful enough not to transgress against an upper or middle class woman (although there have been exceptions). He understands that the law can work swiftly to deliver justice to the well-off.
But a para-medical student with a male friend who has to use public transport at night with the temerity to defend herself? That is the final straw. She has to be taught a lesson. In the booze induced stupor, he can avenge all his humiliations, he can be momentarily powerful and he can deliver justice to the slut. He probably believes that he can get away with it too. Surely, this little cunt has to be taught a lesson and needs to be put in place. And this other man accompanying her? Why does he get to own her?
I know some of this sounds extremely patrician as if only the lower middle classes were to blame for all the rapes. But this is true for a majority of Delhi men of all classes, particularly in families with outdated notions of honor where women are expected to have little interaction with men or the outside world. Almost everybody in India is familiar with the comic boorishness of a typical Delhi guy. I have lived in 4 metros in India and Delhi is the only place where even in a minor kerkuffle, both parties will invariably go into “bande-bulata-hoon” mode. Even in front of strangers, the guy is less worried about recovering his damages but more interested in “saving face” by having the upper hand in a roadside brawl.
A similarly misguided idea of a masculine ownership ideal extends to women among the educated classes. It is a common practice for groups of boys riding in a car to harass girls walking on the street. That is, in cases where they are magnanimous enough not to pull her inside and rape her outright. In Noida, I saw a 14 year old boy riding pillion on a Kinetic Honda, wearing the uniform of a prestigious school; pass a lewd comment on two ladies in their 20s, before speeding away. I was once in a party where two guys (a Haryanvi and a Punjabi), who were competing for the affections of the same girl, almost came to blows about who will take the lady home. In the entire half an hour argument, neither of these men considered it fit to ask the lady whether she even wished to be accompanied by either of them. Mind you, all three of them belonged to what can easily be called as a crorepati upper class society. The rapists of Delhi are likely to be the nouveau riche of places like Rohtak and Moradabad or children of migrants from Jind and Bareilly.
Which underscores the sheer ridiculousness of people shouting at India Gate holding up banners in English. The rapists and potential rapists have no interaction with the English or even the mainstream media. On a night when English as well as Hindi national news channels feigned outrage over the gang-rape, the local Uttar Pradesh news channel (which is far more likely to have the ears and eyeballs of these young men) couldn’t have been less bothered about the incident.
My conversations with average Delhi men reveal a disturbing but remarkably consistent trope: that there are very few legitimate rapes. They genuinely believe that women who have boyfriends and careers or who drink alcohol develop insatiable sexual urges. In their world view, there are only two types of women: the ones who are like the mothers and sisters they grew up around: married away at a young age and dedicated to housework and child rearing for the rest of their lives. These are the normal, cultured ones. Any woman deviating from this straight and narrow is well.. just asking for it. It’s either that or the rape victim was simply peddling her wares. When the transactions go awry, they cry rape. Autowallahs, taxi drivers, roadside stall owners are reliable broadcasters of salacious gossip. On more than a few occasions, I have heard them go out of their way to remark on how they regularly see prostitutes roaming around in certain areas. For some reason, they love to talk about it. It bothers them because of its unobtainability but also simultaneously reassures them because it confirms their worst suspicions about women. They are convinced that both the high society and low are steeped in commercial sex. Last month, I was in a taxi whose driver told me the story of how he once taxied a girl from one of Delhi’s posh localities to another. On the way back, the girl was wearing a different dress. On that evidence alone, he was convinced, convinced that she could be nothing but a high society call girl. “Main samajhta nahi hoon kya?”, was how he claimed to have cracked the puzzle of the changed dress. The worst aspect of it all: nearly every policeman at the Station House Officer level and below fully subscribes to this theory about women. But then, this is hardly unexpected since the policemen come from the same milieu and neither is this attitude of policemen unique to Delhi. What sets Delhi apart is the peculiar non-cosmopolitan North Indian demographic and the consequent parochial mindset.
What this reveals is a common belief on the streets of Delhi: all women who don’t adhere to a strict 19th century “traditional” moral code are somehow deviant. We might be shocked that even women in large parts of North India would be more likely to blame the victim even in the latest act of barbarism. Why was she outside anyway at 9 PM with a man? Their aspirational mindsets make them inviters of rape and they shouldn’t complain when it happens. This is what needs to change. And it will take time and effort and education and the emancipation of women in the hinterland. All this is happening and as with everything else in India, change can be glacial. One of the most moving news stories that I saw on TV this year was a heart-warming one. CNN interviewed a backward caste girl in Haryana, who said that as college enrollment improved among the girls of her caste, the upper caste boys who had all dropped out of college mocked and harassed them frequently. This story was done in the backdrop of the spurt of rape cases reported from Haryana. Make what you will of it.
While this happens, the fear of God needs to be put in the men. We can cry hoarse about capital punishments and political accountability. The fact is that existing laws can be deterrence enough if the upholders can find the balls to file FIRs, treat victims kindly, collect evidence, pursue the perpetrators diligently and most importantly secure convictions. Unless the policemen become sensitized that women are indeed being genuinely raped without asking for it and unless the criminal justice system can overcome its legendary tardiness, Delhi will remain the rape capital of India, and maybe even South Asia and Asia.