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View: Is Rape a new Development Indicator?

Last updated on: December 31, 2012 14:02 IST

If rapes are rising dramatically in India over the last 20 years, is it logical to blame traditional Indian culture, asks Sankrant Sanu.

The brutal gang-rape in Delhi, leading to the death of a young woman, is both sad and shocking. However, the responses to this event have been predictable. Some of these blame the culture, others blame the justice system; some advocate draconian punishments, while others wring their hands saying nothing will change.

Most of them, however, appear to look at this gang-rape as a uniquely Indian aberration. A recent op-ed in Times of India ('No country for young women') goes as far as to say, 'It's only in India that gang rapes are uploaded as MMS clips... indicative of a social pathology that is specific to us.'

These responses are both factually incorrect and analytically lazy -- and prevent us from both understanding our problems as well as having any hope of solving them.

First, the facts. Not long ago, 18 men in Texas, including five students of Cleveland High School and the 21-year old son of a school board member, gang raped an 11-year-old girl for several hours.

The crime was discovered when a student alerted a teacher to a video made on a cell phone that was being circulated in the school. So the Times of India has its 'only in India' facts wrong. Nor is this an isolated incident. The number of rapes in the United States is unimaginably high.

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by a US government agency, reported that nearly 20% of women in the US had experienced rape or attempted rape and one in four reported had been beaten by an intimate partner. This provides at least one counterpoint to much of the dubious analysis that is being circulated around, so let us examine the arguments bandied about.

1. Rape is a result of gender bias that results in a skewed sex ratio. Vivek Kaul claims the rapes are linked to India's gender ratio -- 'We kill our women before birth, after birth and keep killing them as they grow up. In a society like this it is not surprising that men grow up with terribly demented minds and commit heinous rapes like the one in Delhi.' There is no evidence of gender ratio causing rape.

The United States has a gender ratio of more than 1 female per male and it still has a very high rate of rape. To say Indians have a more 'demented mind' would be amusingly racist if such ill-informed explanations were less commonplace.

2. Rape is a result of the government system. While I am in strong agreement that the Government of India, including the administration and police force, needs radical reform, rape is not the result of the deficiencies of the system.

The criminal justice system in the United States works reasonably well and the responsiveness of its police force is light years ahead of India, yet this does not prevent an estimated million plus rapes that take place there each year, only a fraction of which are reported.

3. Draconian punishment to the rapists is the way to address the problem. People have suggested everything from the death sentence to chemical castration. It is ironic that all these commentators have missed the plea of one of the confessed perpetrators of the recent Delhi incident -- Mujhe faansi de do (Please hang me).'

Where then is the deterrent? Those that are committing this crime of passion are not sitting back coolly and contemplating consequences. Draconian punishment is like locking the stable after the horse has bolted.

It may satisfy anger and evoke retribution, but will it really reduce crimes of passion. And do we really want to give the corrupt state apparatus more power over its citizens?

What then is the problem?

Researchers in the United States have looked at the culture of rape in American society. This is related to the objectification of women, of treating women as sex objects and of the 'jock' culture in American high schools and American sports.

If rapes are rising dramatically in India over the last 20 years, is it logical to blame traditional Indian culture?

To co-relate with something that is growing we need to find another factor that is growing in the same time period (or negative co-relate with something that is diminishing).

Traditional culture has hardly grown to explain the growth in rape, but Western-style consumerism has definitely kept apace.

Perhaps we should look at giant billboards of scantily clad women and television ads of women as sultry seductresses being used to sell everything from soap to mobile phones. The consumer culture is producing a steady barrage of overtly sexual messages, something that is also true in the United States.

At the same time society is caught in a bind between the repressed sexuality of the Catholic nuns that educate our elite in 'convent schools' and the freshly-imported IPL cheerleaders raising bare legs to show off their coloured underwear, American jock culture style.

But this is progress and development, of course, and perhaps it is time to add the increase in number of rapes per capita to 'development indicators' such as hospital births and the number of televisions per household per capita streaming in these messages.

This culture of objectifying women -- in the non-stop commercialisation of sexuality, in importing the 'cheerleader culture' of the United States in the IPL and in the increasingly brazen 'item numbers' in Indian movies -- is symptomatic of this objectification.

While we commercialise sexuality, sex itself is kept under lock and key. The social elite push for raising the age of consent and the age of marriage and keep prostitution illegal.

What that means is that we have a modern culture which is saturated with sexual messages, while at the same time, making it more difficult to consummate desire.

This schizophrenic approach of our 'convent-educated' elite -- combining the repressed sexual morality of the nuns with media messages copied from the women-objectifying jock culture of America -- creates an unsustainable sexual tension.

Along with the increasingly sexualised mass media message we hold old-fashioned Catholic values such as keeping prostitution illegal. In traditional society, public women served as a safe regulated outlet for sexuality.

A study by the Independent Institute found that legalising prostitution could decrease the rate of rape by as much as 25 per cent. However, our convent-educated Victorian morality does not allow us to consider realistic solutions.

In Indian villages, the marriage age was also traditionally lower, allowing people to be sexually active in a marriage setting at a younger age. In the agrarian rural society, a lower marriage age makes a lot of sense. However our disconnected social scientists seek to impose their learned values of modernity on a rural populace where they make little sense.

Today Mahatma Gandhi's marriage at thirteen would be illegal and condemned as a perversity. By a recent court ruling he would liable to be tried for rape for consensual sexual relations with Kasturba.

We have a schizophrenic morality -- increasingly permissive of sexual messaging, but stuck in Victorian laws and ideas on sexual relations.

Analysts and social commentators in India have been trained to look at Indian culture as the source of all that is bad. As a result, they are often blind to studying the negative impact of changes that come from the outside.

Violent gang-rape is indeed an aberration in our society, hence the outrage, but it is a good time to examine whether it is time to shed our colonially-inspired laws and values and create a framework based on our own traditions.

Neither Islamic-style laws and burqas or a wholesale import of Western consumerist values or the perpetuation of colonial paradigms is the solution to this dilemma. Nor, of course, will criminal elements ever be eliminated entirely, East or West.

Nonetheless, a realistic understanding of sexuality in society and appreciation of our cultural strengths and differences will help us move towards more mature solutions than the shrill commentary we have heard so far.

Sankrant Sanu is an author and entrepreneur based in Seattle and Gurgaon. He blogs at sankrant.org.

Sankrant Sanu