On December 16, 2012, a 23-year old female student was gang raped and brutally assaulted with an iron rod in a moving bus in Delhi, the capital city of India. Nearly two weeks later, she succumbed to her injuries in a hospital in Singapore. A male friend, who was accompanying the woman that evening, was also assaulted and injured by the assailants. The incident sparked protests and outrage all over the country, with thousands of protestors, young and old, male and female, gathering in various spaces, including the centre of the city of Delhi. Demanding various changes, from death penalty and castration of the guilty to a change in a ‘societal’ mindset and ‘cultural’ value system, protestors withstood the government’s efforts to silence and disperse them. While this might have been one of the largest mainstream populist mobilizations against gender-based violence in recent times, violence against women is an ‘everyday’ reality, pervasive in its several manifestations across all spectrums of society. Therefore, mobilizations and protests must continue in various forms, addressing and engaging with the layered discourses and practices that define women’s lives, actions, and roles in the country.
In early 2012, in a survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, India was identified as the “worst nation for women” by 370 gender specialists. The survey highlighted that in spite of the presence of women in leading political positions, business ventures, science and technology related organizations, and in media, entertainment, and journalism; the status and position of women in the country remains largely beneath their male counterparts. Thus, as a member of the G20 and as the “world’s largest democracy,” its ranking behind countries like the DRC and Saudi Arabia was a stark reminder of the problematic statistics pertaining to gender-related issues in the country. The National Crime Records Bureau in India reported that between 2010 and 2011, there was a 7.1 percent hike in crimes against women. The NCRB also reported that between 2005 and 2009, while all cognizable crimes increased by 16 percent, crimes against women increased by 31 percent. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs added that while the general crime rate increased marginally from 2009 to 2010, crimes against women have continuously increased during 2006-2010. The strongest hikes have been in cases that have been filed under the Dowry Prohibition Act, Rape, and Kidnapping and Abduction. Furthermore, in 2012, UNICEF found that 52 percent of adolescent girls (and 57 percent of adolescent boys) in India thought domestic violence was acceptable. The pervasiveness of structural sexual violence against women from lower castes, the high incidence of sexual violence by the army and paramilitary in Kashmir, Northeast India, and Central India, the low conviction rates of rapists, and the misogynistic and sexist attitudes of law enforcement officers and judicial establishments, render violence as an issue that requires daily negotiations between women and the private/domestic spheres as well as the public spaces they occupy and are entitled to occupy.
According to a 2010 report by the International Centre for Research on Women, 45 percent of Indian girls are married before the age of 18 (with 18 being the legal age). In 2010, the UN Population Fund added that early marriages and poor healthcare contributed to a recorded 56,000 annual maternal deaths. A much-publicized 2011 study by The Lancet also highlighted that sex-selective abortion (legally prohibited) due to a preference for a male child had resulted in the feticide of 12 million girls in the last three decades. Women’s literacy rates, educational achievements and access, representation in political parties and local governments, wages and economic participation all remain woefully behind those of the men in the country. The aforementioned statistics lie at the intersection of inadequate healthcare, insufficient legal access, and the inability of the law to combat misogynistic practices and traditions justified by cultural and societal responsibilities. They also highlight the deep-rooted presence of misogyny and patriarchy in systems of power and justice.
Since December 2012, discussions regarding women’s rights and experiences in India have been mainstreamed and brought to popular attention. The Delhi gang rape, although just one in a long line of brutal attacks against women, has managed to mobilize different sections of Indian society and bring issues of women’s rights and gender-based violence to the forefront. These issues and discussions have encompassed suggested changes to the language and scope of various laws that deal with gender issues, changes in policing and judicial structures, and changes in the manner in which sexism and even sexual harassment is legitimized in the media. While all the aforementioned changes remain integral, the protests and mobilizations of the last two months have highlighted two key points that remain crucial to implementing and sustaining the aforementioned changes as well as countering structural violence against women in India.
First, gender-based violence and women’s issues have often been ‘exceptionalized’ in academic and other discourses. There has been a tendency to focus on and to view violence against women, sexual violence, and structural violence from case studies of the ‘exceptional.’ To elaborate, while massive attention is given to rape during conflict, rape in urban centers, as well as crimes against upper-class/caste women, ‘everyday’ instances of patriarchal violence garner limited theorization and mobilization. These discussions thus, while focusing on the finer details of a particular incident, overlook the inherent gender hierarchies and gender-linked structures of power that sustain and breed these ‘exceptional’ incidents alongside ‘everyday’ injustices faced by women. Therefore, when women negotiate public and domestic spaces on a daily basis and face a multitude of patriarchal structures in their ‘everyday,’ isn’t it necessary that discussions of women’s issues align themselves closer to the ‘everyday’ rather than the ‘exceptional?’ Second, it remains necessary that mobilizations that ask for changes in policing and judicial structures be accompanied by a deconstruction of ‘everyday’ collective patriarchy that supports these structures.
On December 23rd, Justice JS Verma, a former Chief Justice of India, was appointed the head of a three-member commission that was to recommend revisions to the current laws on gender-based violence in India. On January 23, 2013, the commission submitted its reports recommending several key changes in the existing laws. These included police reforms, repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, making marital rape a criminal offence, amending the Code of Criminal Procedure, expanding the definitions of rape and sexual violence, and adding a separate Bill of Rights for Women. In February 2013, the Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee, passed a Presidential Ordinance based on the Justice Verma Commission. While this ordinance included some of the recommendations put forth by the commission, it omitted most of them, causing India’s Women’s Rights and Feminist Groups to reject it. The Ordinance, although disappointing, has provided yet another key moment to garner and sustain the momentum required for mobilization and protests across India. Mobilizations and protests that can no longer ignore collective and pervasive patriarchy and the structures of subjugation they it breeds.
Akanksha Mehta is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the Center for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She can be reached on Twitter at @SahibanInExile.
This photojournal was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s May/June 2013 print edition.