(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
On how caste patriarchy in urban India hijacks and distorts the reality of gender violence.
Delhi now lives in infamy as India’s ‘rape capital’. In Dec 2012, the gruesome and fatal gang rape of a young woman, named by the media as ‘Nirbhaya’, unleashed intense media and public outrage across India. Breaking some of their taboos and long silence around sexual assault, angry middle-class men and women marched in Delhi shouting ‘Death to Rapists!’ The parliament scrambled to enact tough new anti-rape laws.
Many Delhiites have since grown fearful of their city’s public spaces. Opposition politicians, spotting an emotionally charged issue, promised to make Delhi safe for women. Campaigning for the BJP, Narendra Modi told Delhiites last year, ‘When you go out to vote, keep in mind "Nirbhaya" who became a victim of rape.’ AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal even promised private security guards with ‘commando training’ in every neighborhood. All this might suggest that a rape epidemic has broken out in Delhi’s streets, alleys, and buses. Mainstream media outlets in India and abroad seem to agree.
Anyone trying to analyze the issue must at least ask: who are the rapists, where do they rape, and how common is rape in Delhi? The latest 2014 data on rape from Delhi Police is a great place to start, not the least because it challenges the conventional wisdom of Delhiites and their media and politicians. It shows that, as in other countries and consistent with previous years in Delhi, men known to the victims commit the vast majority of rapes—96 percent in Delhi. These men include friends, neighbours, ‘relatives such as brother-in-law, uncle, husband or ex-husband and even father.’ More than 80 percent of them rape inside the victim’s home or their own. Strangers commit only 4 percent of rapes, which are also likelier to be reported. Yet so many people fixate on this latter scenario and take it as proof that Delhi is unsafe for women to go out by themselves.
The hard truth is that sexual predators are not so much ‘out there’ in the faceless crowd but among the familiar ones. ‘Statistically speaking’, journalist Cordelia Jenkins wrote in Mint last year, ‘the problem [of rape in Delhi] is not on the streets at all, but in the home; the greatest threat to most women is not from strangers but from their own families, neighbours and friends.’ In other words, we ought to worry about rape less when women enter public spaces on their own, and more when they return home or hang out with friends. Why do so few Indians—men and women, including policy makers and public figures—seem to realize this? Some feminists have argued that this wicked blend of pious concern with plain denial is the modus operandi of patriarchy itself.
So how common is rape in Delhi? The reported incidence, which drives the media and public fear and perception of this crime, is far lower than in every one of the 76 cities in a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ). Delhi in 2012 reported 4 rapes per 100K population vs. 107 in Minneapolis, 88 in Cleveland, 58 in Philadelphia, 43 in Boston, 36 in Houston, and so on. Western European capitals are better on average than U.S. cities but not by much. Even in terms of other violent crimes like robbery and murder, Delhi is better than most of these 76 U.S. cities. Strangers this year committed about 8 rapes per month in Delhi, the second largest city in the world with 25 million people. In London, a third as populated as Delhi, strangers committed about 36 rapes per month—a rate 13X Delhi’s. Every rape is one too many but by comparison, Delhi seems significantly safer for women. Other Indian metros are even safer than Delhi. Could this really be true?