Sexual violence is not a cultural phenomenon in India; it is endemic everywhere – Owen Jones

Owen Jones“Let us Brits not get all high and mighty, either. Amnesty International conducted a poll in the United Kingdom a few years ago. Only four per cent of respondents thought that the number of women raped each year exceeded 10,000. But according to the Government’s Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls, 80,000 women are raped a year, and 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. It is a pandemic of violence against women that – given its scale – is not discussed nearly enough.” – Owen Jones

RapeWe don’t know the name of the 23-year-old student who was raped and killed on a city bus in Delhi.

We do know that, after getting on a bus home after watching a film with a friend, she was tortured so badly that she lost her intestines. Six people – including the bus driver – have been arrested; they have been widely denounced as “animals” on social media. It’s always comforting to think – despite everything that the 20th century should have taught us – that those who commit vile acts are sub-human, are not quite like us, so we can create emotional distance from them. But it was thinking, feeling, living human men who committed this rape, however nauseating it is to accept.

The death of a woman popularly named Damini – “lightning” in Hindi – has provoked thousands to take to India’s streets, furious at endemic and unchecked violence against women. Some have been met with police batons, tear gas and water cannon. But, in the West, Damini’s death has triggered a different response: a sense that this is an Indian-specific problem. “The crime has highlighted the prevalence of sex attacks in India,” says the Daily Telegraph; “India tries to move beyond its rape culture,” says Reuters. Again, it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous.

Rape and sexual violence against women are endemic everywhere. Shocked by what happened in India? Take a look at France, that prosperous bastion of European civilisation. In 1999, two then-teenagers – named only as Nina and Stephanie – were raped almost every day for six months. Young men would queue up to rape them, patiently waiting for their friends to finish in secluded basements. After a three-week trial this year, 10 of the 14 accused left the courtroom as free men; the other four were granted lenient sentences of one year at most.

Shocked? Again, let us Brits not get all high and mighty, either. Amnesty International conducted a poll in the United Kingdom a few years ago. Only four per cent of respondents thought that the number of women raped each year exceeded 10,000. But according to the Government’s Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls, 80,000 women are raped a year, and 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. It is a pandemic of violence against women that – given its scale – is not discussed nearly enough.

All rape is violence by definition, but particularly horrifying incidents take place here, too. Exactly a year ago, one woman was raped by 21-year-old Mustafa Yussuf in central Manchester; shortly afterwards a passer-by – who the rape survivor thought was coming to help – raped her again as she lay on the floor. Or take 63-year-old Marie Reid, raped and savagely murdered earlier this year by an 18-year-old boy she had treated like a “grandson”.

Rape Ruins LivesIt’s important to clarify that most rapes – in India or elsewhere – are not carried out by strangers waiting in alleys to pounce on women. It is mostly by people known to the rape survivor or victim; often someone they trust. It is a concept that the law itself took a long time to recognise, which is why – until 1991 – it was legal to rape your wife.

Other myths are even more disturbing. The Amnesty poll found that a third of Britons believed a woman acting flirtatiously was partly or completely to blame for being raped, while over a quarter found women who were wearing revealing clothes or were drunk shared responsibility. This victim-blaming was echoed by a judge at Caernarfon Crown Court a few weeks ago, who told the rapist: “She let herself down badly. She consumed far too much alcohol and took drugs, but she also had the misfortune of meeting you.”  A Thames Valley Police poster combating underage drinking featured a young woman being attacked underneath the headline “Her mum bought her the cider”.

If we are to defeat rape, we have to understand where it comes from – and that means linking it to a broader continuum of violence against women. According to the Government’s own estimates, one million women in England and Wales are victims of domestic violence every year.

Those punches, slaps, kicks and bile-filled screams are happening all around us – yes, undoubtedly on our own streets. A quarter of women will face this abuse at some point in their life and – horrifyingly – two women will be murdered by their current or former male partner each week.

It’s not just the overt aggression. It’s the sexual harassment and objectification of women by men that provide fertile ground for this violence. In a poll by End Violence Against Women this year, 41 per cent of women aged between 18 and 34 had experienced unwanted sexual attention in London. Some men may regard a few “jokes” about rape  as a bit of harmless banter, but it all helps normalise violence against women.

As a country, we still don’t take rape survivors seriously. A 2009 study revealed that Britain has the lowest conviction rate of 33 European countries: it’s a shockingly pathetic 6.5 per cent. Survivors often struggle with a misplaced sense of shame, of somehow bringing it on themselves, of fear; an all-too pervasive sense of victim-blaming discourages them from coming forward and having to facing down their attacker. If any good is to come from the horrors of the Jimmy Savile scandal, it must be that these voices are taken far more seriously.

But although the voices of women must be heard above all else, men must speak out too. It’s really important that we show solidarity with women, educate each other and challenge prejudice in our ranks. In the US and Australia there are more flourishing movements of men against sexual violence, such as Men Can Stop Rape. But there are similar campaigning groups in Britain such as the White Ribbon Campaign and Respect: they have a crucial role to play, too.

There is nothing inevitable about violence against women, here or anywhere. Struggle by courageous women and their allies has already had an impact. But the worst thing we can do is allow our horror at what happened on that Delhi bus to make us complacent. Let the death of Damini inspire everyone – everywhere – to defeat this horror once and for all. – The Independent, 30 December 2012

» Owen Jones is an English author and columnist who contributes regularly to The Guardian. He blogs at http://owenjones.org/.

Delhi Rape Protest 2012

5 Responses

  1. India is not a country of rapists: German Ambassador to India – India Today – New Delhi – March 9, 2015

    Reacting to a news report about a professor from Leipzig University refusing internship to an Indian student because of the country’s “rape problem”, the German Ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, has written to Professor Annette Beck-Sickinger saying that India is not a country of rapists.

    In her refusal to the male student, Professor Sickinger of the Institute of Biochemistry had refused the student citing the rape culture in India and had also said that many female professors across Europe were turning down male students from India.

    In his letter to Professor Sickinger, Ambassador Steiner wrote:

    “It has been brought to my attention that you denied an internship to a male Indian student, giving “the rape problem in India” as a reason. Let me make it clear at the outset that I strongly object to this.

    “The 2012 Nirbhaya rape case has refocused attention on the issue of violence against women. Rape is indeed a serious issue in India as in most countries, including Germany. In India, the Nirbhaya case has triggered a lively honest, sustained and very healthy public debate – a public debate of a quality that wouldn’t be possible in many other countries. The Indian Government and Indian civil society organisations are very committed to tackling the issue.

    “Yesterday we celebrated International Women’s Day at the German Embassy here in Delhi with many local activists including many men. Your oversimplifying and discriminating generalization is an offense to these women and men ardently committed to furthering women empowerment in India; and it is an offense to millions of law-abiding, tolerant, open-minded and hard-working Indians. Let’s be clear: India is not a country of rapists.

    “I would encourage you to learn more about the diverse, dynamic and fascinating country and the many welcoming and open-minded people of India so that you could conect a simplistic image, which – in my opinion – is particularly unsuitable for a professor and teacher.”

  2. Well, it seems that the government was right in thinking the documentary was more to defame India than to point out the enormous outrage it generated and the laws that were created to tackle this. People talk of the “Indian” man’s mindset. But the protestors included a large number of men. I wonder why the rapist is supposedly representative of the Indian man, as opposed to the protesters and law makers. One would never hear on the Western media that the catholic priest pedophiles are emblematic of the Christian mindset.

    That Europeans are racist bigots should come as no surprise. Aren’t these the guys who justify killing others under various names. Last century it was Hiltler. Now it is America and its “war” on terror which allowed it to destroy the entire middle east.

  3. Delhi Gang-Rape: Look westward in disgust – Emer O’Toole – The Guardian – London – 1 January 2013

    There’s something uncomfortably neocolonial about the way the Delhi gang-rape and subsequent death of the woman now known as Damini is being handled in the UK and US media. While India’s civil and political spheres are alight with protest and demands for changes to the country’s culture of sexual violence, commentators here are using the event to simultaneously demonise Indian society, lionise our own, and minimise the enormity of western rape culture.

    A particularly blatant example of this is Libby Purves’s piece for [The Australian]. She says the Delhi bus rape should “shatter our Bollywood fantasies”. For Purves, westerners enjoy a romanticised view of India, all heady spirituality and Marigold Hotels; and especially romantic in their views, for reasons Purves neglects to address, are the British. Thus, upright Europeans have sentimentally ignored the “murderous, hyena-like male contempt” that Purves says is an Indian cultural norm. Neatly excised from her account however is the relationship between poverty, lack of education and repressive attitudes towards women, and, by extension, the role of Europe in creating and sustaining poverty in its former colonies. Attitudes towards women in the east were once used by colonialists to, first, prop up the logic of cultural superiority that justified unequal power relations (the “white man’s burden”) and second, silence feminists working back in the west by telling them that, comparatively, they had nothing to complain about.

    When it finishes calling Indian men hyenas, Purves’s article states that westerners “have the luxury of fretting about frillier feminist issues such as magazine images, rude remarks and men not doing housework”. Does anyone else see an unattractive historical pattern here?

    Her article is not, by any means, the only one to report on this issue as if rape is something that only happens “over there” – something we civilised folk in the west have somehow put behind us. Elsewhere, the message is subtler, but a misplaced sense of cultural superiority shines through. For example, this BBC article states, as if shocking, the statistic that a woman is raped in Delhi every 14 hours. That equates to 625 a year. Yet in England and Wales, which has a population about 3.5 times that of Delhi, we find a figure for recorded rapes of women that is proportionately four times larger: 9,509. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal decries the fact that in India just over a quarter of alleged rapists are convicted; in the US only 24% of alleged rapes even result in an arrest, never mind a conviction. This is the strange kind of reportage you tend to get on the issue.

    Owen Jones’s excellent piece in the Independent is a breath of fresh air, asking people to acknowledge that rape, as well as gang rapes, happen in the west too. Similarly, Laura Bates’s recent article on victim blaming should act as sufficient retort to anyone who thinks police chief K P Raghuvanshi’s advice that women should carry chilli powder to prevent rape is symptomatic of a specifically Indian brand of misogyny.

    The coverage of Damini’s death strikes a particularly ironic note following recent media controversy over a rape, in Steubenville, Ohio, of a 16-year-old girl – allegedly by members of the high-school football team. The case is that the young woman was dragged, drunk and unresponsive, from party to party, where she was sexually abused. The brutal death of Damini has spurred Indian civil society to its feet, causing protest and unrest, bringing women and men into the streets, vocal in their demands for change. Sonia Gandhi has met the woman’s parents. The army and the states of Punjab and Haryana have cancelled new year’s celebrations. What happened in the US? In Steubenville, football-crazy townsfolk blamed the victim and it took a blogger – Alexandria Goddard, who is now being sued – and a follow-up article from the New York Times four months after the incident to get nationwide attention for the story.

    Purves’s article claims that we in the west are “looking eastward in disgust”. I believe that disgusted parties would do well to turn their judgmental gazes on their own societies. Let’s look east in solidarity and support for India’s urgently necessary women’s rights movement; let’s keep talking about the social discrimination Indian women face, which affluent westerners do not. However, it is both prejudiced and completely fantastical to talk as though sexual violence is some kind of Indian preserve. We might have comparatively better women’s rights in the UK, but this is due, in large part, to the social services that our wealth allows. Colonial history helped to create and global capital continues to sustain low standards of living in India. We would do well to be cognisant of our historically inscribed privilege before complaining that this horrific event has destroyed our pretty colonial fantasies.

  4. The author seems to be a balanced person which surprises me for after all the hullabaloo over the past week by the western media and our own shameless media. I wonder why the bbc or anybody from the west did not bother to analyse the mindset of the paedophile Holy! Men from the catholic church and make it this famous. omething sucks bbc. Anyway it is your credibility u have lost bbc

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