Even as large numbers of men hit the streets to protest against the Delhi gang rape incident, often the demonstrations became a show of machismo rather than real concern for gender equality.
When Hari Singh first heard about the gang rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus, he urged his 20-year-old daughter to be extra cautious while coming back home. He didn’t tell her to come back any earlier, though. The 58-year-old factory worker offered this fatherly advice for when night fell: “Do not bend your head. Walk confidently. Do not get bowed down by this.”
Weeks after their conversation, Mr. Singh still had his daughter in mind as he and his fellow union members held up posters and flags to protest against what many now broadly called “the Delhi rape case.” A young labour organiser shouted a very different slogan about women: “Let all these people in power not play around with the daughters of our houses. They can do what they want with their own.” Cheering him at the corner of a busy intersection in the B-Block of Mayapuri Industrial Area were three women and about 60 men.
Though far from the centre of the mass demonstrations which followed the rape of the 23-year-old student on December 16, the view from this small rally echoed scenes at Jantar Mantar, India Gate and Raisina Hill, where men often outnumbered women protestors. What started as a candlelight vigil outside Safdarjung Hospital came to dominate headlines, spark clashes between protesters and police, and brought so many men and women to the streets for the first time on the issue of rape.
This was not the first time men had protested crimes against women in India. But never has the abuse of a woman captured the attention of so many men. As with any massive public outpouring, men showed up for a number of reasons — some of which might sit uncomfortably with women’s rights groups. “Many people think, ‘This is my city; these are my women. They should be safe in it,’” said Anubhav Pradhan, an English professor at Delhi University and chapter organizer for the Blank Noise Project, a national group that works to establish women’s right to public spaces.
Other, often younger, men were moved to protest out of sympathy with women in their lives who had been hurt or harassed, said Amar Kanwar, a filmmaker who has worked on issues of gender violence for several years. They also identified with the victim’s male friend, who tried to defend her but was beaten and knocked unconscious by her alleged assailants. “A lot of guys felt that this could happen to them and they would not be in a position to do anything about it. This has been hurting decent young men, too.”
But there was also another set of men “who were very macho about their protest”, Mr. Kanwar said, calling the oft-repeated demands for public hanging — along with the torches, the nooses splashed on placards — “a lot like chest thumping…It was quite ugly, actually.”
Still, though some male outcry may have stemmed less from a desire for gender equity than the protection of ‘their’ women, “that’s an important contribution also,” Mr. Pradhan noted. “At the end of the day, it’s not simply a feminist or a patriarchal issue. It’s about human rights and human life.”
“I am feeling a bit embarrassed to be a man,” said Satish Rangu, a 22-year-old media student and NDTV intern who had come to witness the Jantar Mantar protests. As a teen, Satish said he’d made passing comments “at women in transparent dresses, or if I didn’t like what she said. I was surrounded by very conservative people,” he explained. In recent weeks, he’d felt women staring angrily at him on the Metro “like I was going to molest them. Men are being stereotyped. Not all men are like that.”
Perhaps that’s why Anil Singh, 26, drew sharp contrast between the men he knew and the six men who, according to police reports, tortured the physiotherapy student and left her and her friend for dead by the side of the road. “Rapists are different from society. They’re not normal people. They’re mentally dead.” He, however, stopped short of such descriptions when asked about other forms of harassment. “Eve-teasing also offends, I know, but it does not lead to rape. To like somebody does not lead to rape.”
Twenty-one-year-old Delhi University student Harleen Bains had a different word for eve-teasing: “I call it eye-rape.” The threat of “eye-rape,” and the harassment or molestation that she heard happened at the demonstrations, almost kept her home. “But people have to come out,” she said, and so she and her three female friends promised their parents they’d attend as a group and be home by 7 p.m. Though spokesman from Delhi police did not return phone calls from The Hindu, an anonymous senior police official told the New York Times he had received 42 complaints about men’s behaviour at rallies on Dec 22 and 23 alone.
Dusk was falling on Jantar Mantar, where men and women gathered in small groups — some with signs that spoke for them, some opining into megaphones — between police barricades. Others lit candles near the havan erected in the centre of the crowded street; many clustered around two men blanketed against the cold, on hunger strike to demand justice for the rape victim.
“I wish there were an equal number of men and women here,” Harleen said, looking out at the crowd of mostly men. “I’m leaving right now to get out of here before it gets dark,” one of her friends said. “We don’t feel safe here, either,” said another.
In the several protests he attended, Rahul Roy, a documentary filmmaker and activist, saw scores of women shouting slogans, bearing signs, and climbing flagpoles. They faced tear gas and water cannons and cops charging them with sticks. He saw women ready to lead the rallies — and sometimes doing it. But he also saw men throwing stones and attacking police cars, shouting loudly for the rapists to be hung and castrated. “That kind of aggressive masculinity always takes centre stage,” he said. He saw well-meaning men unwittingly assuming control of a protest that should have been led by the people whom the violence had most affected — women. “It was actually a pushing out [of the young women] by the young men,” he said. “I just found it very ironical at one level.”
At his side throughout much of the demonstrations was documentary filmmaker, Saba Dewan. She said she never felt unsafe at the marches she attended; rather she found men eager to help create a comfortable space for the women there. But she did feel talked down to.
Near Jantar Mantar on December 29, Saba and her friends looked for a patch of sun to stand in. The morning’s headlines had announced that the young woman had died. Three men in their late 20s approached them. “Hello, Aunti ji. Thank you so much for coming,” Saba said one greeted her, taking note of her greying hair. “But now you need to do more,” the young man went on, “and here’s what you need to think…”
“That’s when I told him to shut up,” she recalled. “It was a very patronising attitude.” And so she ended the conversation. “Excuse me, you don’t need to thank me,” she told the men. “I don’t come out here for you.”