(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 December 2012, the gruesome and fatal gang rape of a young woman, named Nirbhaya (‘fearless’) by the media, unleashed intense media and public outrage across India. Angry middle-class men and women, breaking some of their taboos and silences around sexual crimes, 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. Spotting an emotionally charged issue, opposition politicians promised to make Delhi safe for women. Campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2013, Narendra Modi told Delhiites, ‘When you go out to vote, keep in mind "Nirbhaya" who became a victim of rape.’ The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor, 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 three questions: who are the rapists, where do they rape, and how common is rape in Delhi? The 2014 Delhi Police data on rape 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 as among the familiar ones. ‘Statistically speaking’, journalist Cordelia Jenkins wrote in August 2013, ‘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.’ According to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a women’s rights organisation in Delhi, ‘This data compels us to look at what is happening in and around our homes and workplaces.’ 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 blend of pious concern with plain denial is the modus operandi of patriarchy itself.