Indian society is yet to acknowledge the existence of rape culture – a set of beliefs that condones aggression on women.
Perhaps no other event in India has received more international attention in the recent past than the brutal gang rape in Delhi and its tragic aftermath. The issue is widely covered in the Western media; the latest addition is the channel interview of the rape victim’s male friend — a clear illustration of the extent to which the public, the police, and the healthcare system was “ruthless” towards a dying, sexually assaulted woman.
Gang rapes do occur in most countries, regardless of stringent anti-rape laws. Like what happened in the Indian capital, most gang rapes are atrociously violent and traumatising: brutal torture during and after the sexual act is not quite uncommon. In the US, one such unspeakable crime was reported from Steubenville, a football-obsessed industrial city in Appalachia.
IN US AND BRITAIN
The heinous gang rape of a teenage girl occurred on August 11, 2012. According to news reports, the offenders dragged her from party to party. Two 16-year-old high school football players of the Big Red team were arrested about a week after the girl’s parents reported the case. An inquiry is still on, and more student players are suspected to be involved in the rape.
The issue is on fire since the New Year. An anonymous hackers group has come with the details about how the partygoers videotaped the incident and the high school administration and law enforcement agents tried to cover up the charges.
Rapes committed by teenage gangs are on the rise in Britain. In March 2012, Channel 4 News revealed that young girls are being sexually exploited by street gangs across the UK.
“From the conversations we’ve had with individual girls, some of the stories we get are quite heart-rending really in terms of girls being kidnapped, held at gun point, threatened with being what the public would understand as gang raped,” said Sue Berelowitz, who is leading the two-year official inquiry on the issue.
Many studies conducted in the Western societies have shown that gang rape has its roots in what is known in academic circles as ‘rape culture’.
Rape culture is a concept in feminist research, which explains the prevalent attitudes, norms and practices in a society that trivialises, excuses, tolerates, or even condones rape. It “is a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women”, as defined in the Encyclopedia of Rape.
The rapes committed by British teenage gangs and the American football team evidently spring from rape culture. In his book Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols (2005), Stanley Tietelbaum has argued that the male sports culture perpetuates the notion that women can be sexually exploited.
Those who stand accused in most Western gang rapes are boys in their late teens and early twenties trying to establish a gang identity.
In India, most gang rapes aren’t a ‘boyish’ thing; it is a particular form of domination based on social relationships of unequal power. Caste, class and gender — the key hierarchical social structures — are at play in the Indian context.
The suicide of a dalit rape victim in Punjab on December 26 is a typical example. Even at a time when the whole country is in anguish over the Delhi gang rape, the Patiala police harassed the victim to withdraw her complaint.
On top of that, she was under immense social pressure to compromise with the rapists, who belong to an influential caste.
Upendra Baxi, a well-known Indian legal scholar, pointed out in an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly (2002) that the political and governance systems of India deny as well as silence women’s sufferings, and thus support a rape culture. In this context, it would be relevant to look how differently India and the West handle the “rape crisis”.
RAPE CRISIS CENTERS
An anti-rape movement was on the rise in New York during the early 1970s. It spread throughout the US and later to Europe in the succeeding years. Ever since its beginning, Western anti-rape movements have attempted to set up an extensive network of rape crisis centres (RCCs), in order to provide direct support for rape victims and to address the ‘rape culture’.
Such RCCs work in unison with counties, communities, and different local institutions. Many universities and colleges even have their own RCC or sexual assault offices. Most of them have own buildings and well-maintained Web sites.
As of today, there are about 1,100 RCCs all around the US, which work hand in hand with the National Sexual Assault Helpline. Rape crisis centres in England and Wales received funding worth £10 million from the government for the 2011-13 period.
Though of recent origin, some Indian States have their own rape crisis centres. A prototype would be the Rape Crisis Cell working under the Delhi Commission for Women since September 2005, which is now handling around 900 cases.
It should be noted that Indian RCCs are nothing more than places where the assault victims can avail of psychological counselling and legal assistance. Besides being few, many of them are located at the congested corners of the Women Commission or some NGO headquarters.
In the West there is a sort of internal realisation of the existence of a rape culture, something that is not acknowledged by Indian society. Therefore, rape crisis centres in India are set up only with the intention of helping the victims in need.
They are not geared up to organise outreach programmes and social awareness campaigns, like their American and British counterparts do. Along with reforming the existing anti-rape laws in India, there has to be some kind of popular initiative to establish an effective and decentralised network of rape crisis centres in the length and breadth of the country.
But that requires an acknowledgement of a ‘rape culture’ that exists within our own society. Are we ready for this self-realisation?
(Sajan is a social anthropologist at University of Bergen, Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist and neuroscientist at Haukeland University Hospital, Bergen, Norway.)