The anti-rape protests that have exploded in several Indian cities are a heartening response to a horrific event. Upon reading an account of the gang-rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student, natural reactions are disgust, contempt for the attackers, and impotent rage. The details of the incident in which she was lured onto a bus and assaulted with such brutality that her organs were destroyed merely add to these emotions. Watching the mobilization, even from half a world away, sustains the hope that the young woman’s death will yield some change that might make such an incident less likely to happen in the future. The question is: what is to be done?

Part of this question requires an understanding of the problem. This is extremely difficult. First, because rape is a notoriously underreported crime, it is extremely difficult to know the scope of the problem. Based on reported rapes there were 24 times as many rapes per capita in the United States in 2011 as there were in India. I doubt many Indians would agree with the idea that those statistics reflect reality. There are surveys, personal stories and common experiences of harassment and sexual violence that suggests the magnitude of the problem is far greater and more pervasive, but there is little systematic data.

The second problem is that it is an extremely complex issue. Questions of power and the relative standing of women in society are usually at the root of sexual violence and predation. But beyond that it goes to questions of deviance, the symbolism associated with women, laws, policing and the courts. India happens to have an unhappy combination of traditions that subordinate women, an undermanned and unprofessionalized police force, weak legal consequences for ill-treatment of women, and an overwhelmed judiciary.

Other problems have been expressed in media outlets around the world. Some blame the moral decline of the Indian family or Indian morality in general. Others blame an expectation of callow responses on the part of witnesses or the police. Some blame women themselves, the way they dress, or even their use of cellphones. In India, sexual violence is often dealt with as an unavoidable fact of life rather than as deviant behavior that violates the rights of women.

In the midst of the hand-wringing about the distinctiveness of India’s backward misogyny, it is useful to point out that sexual violence is not a distinctly Indian problem, no matter how offended many Indians are about the scope of it in their society. It is a global problem. For example, the second most prominent news story about rape in the United States (after the case in Delhi and the related protests) is a sensational gang rape case in the football-mad town of Steubenville, Ohio. In this case the New York Times reported on an unprosecuted gang rape of a drunk and unconscious female teenager by members of the town’s high school football team. The question was why the incident was not being prosecuted. Alleged and demonstrated ties between the sherriff, the prosecutor, and members of the team seem to explain a lot, but in the course of the investigation it has become reasonably clear that the incident wasn’t isolated. In fact, some members of the team may have formed a predatory gang called the “Rape Crew” that may have been supported by some of the town’s adults. At least that is the position of the hacker group Anonymous which, in its own anti-rape protest, has been posting video related to the incident and the names and addresses of the alleged perpetrators.

This is not to say that the problem in India is the same as it is everywhere. It isn’t. But the difference is probably not related to Indian family values or a normative acceptance of paternalism and misogyny. Moreover, in many contexts, sexual violence gets wrapped up with a host of meanings that are only indirectly related to gender relations and sexual predation. Sexual violence is used for its symbolic value, as a weapon of war and ethnic cleansing, and as an instrument of cultural war to keep women in their place or to police the boundaries of appropriate behavior. This can be done through acts of violence against women or, as in the American South not so long ago, as a fear that is used to justify violence against male African-Americans. As disheartening as it is to contemplate, we as a species, not as Indians, Americans, Africans, or Europeans, but as a species, seem to be particularly energetic about exploring the multiple uses to which sexual violence can be put.

Even within India it is not the case that all sexual violence carries the same symbolic meaning. And indeed, the case in Delhi and the protests it spawned carries a lot of meaning that is only indirectly related to women and sexuality. So, what separates Delhi from Stuebenville is not a proclivity for organized sexual violence — both places appear to be prone to such acts. At the same time, there are huge differences between the two cases that shed light on the question of what is to be done in India.

Cultural warfare

What is distinctive about the case in Delhi is the way the symbolism of it is wrapped up with a host of issues related to India’s social and economic transformation.  India is a country that contains places that are fully integrated into the most advanced and cosmopolitan sectors of the global economy. At the same time, it is home to abject poverty and cultural mores that are rooted in village traditions that date back centuries. The experiences of this transition are, as they are in all places that experience them, wrenching. For those oriented to market economies, liberal politics, and cosmopolitan values, there is predictable frustration about the pace of change and the stubborn backwardness that holds back social advancement. For those oriented to communalism and tradition there is predictable anger at the declining relevance of their skills, their knowledge, and their values.

Women are in the crosshairs of this transition through no fault of their own. Modern economies and liberal polities can radically transform the possibilities available to women by freeing them from the constraints of traditions that confined them to the household and, usually, legally subordinated them to men. But this also means that the appearance of women in public is tied up with a host of meanings beyond sex, extending to India’s social transformation, the status of tradition, and potential threats to the economic and social position of men. Women appearing in public can be not worthy of a second glance from one perspective and deeply provocative from the other. The situation is not helped by the fact that Indian instruments of justice are ambiguous about which perspective underpins legal sanctions.

Regardless of the problems of men who engage in such organized predation, not all rape is about sexual appetite and power alone. The victim in this case was a student, accompanied by a man of similar age, out in public. As innocuous as the act is, those bare facts potentially represent a threat to those who struggle with India’s transition and are resentful towards those who appear to succeed. Of course, not all rapes are about this, but given India’s current transition and the circumstances of the rape, including its organized nature and brutality, the incident bears the marks of broader symbolism as well.

At the same time, the creation and reproduction of sexual danger in public is not simply a personal assault, it works as a price to be paid for modern living that makes the paternalism of traditional life more attractive. Sexual assaults encourage the sense that public space is inherently dangerous which makes a woman’s choice to venture into public a much more considered one that it is for men. Even if laws recognize the equality of women, the acts of a few men can make the experience of living one that is radically unequal. Sexual violence is not simply an instrument of gender warfare, it is an instrument of cultural warfare.

The response to the rape bears these marks of this struggle. There are many activists and NGOs that are active on the issue of sexual violence in India. What characterizes the recent protests is the number of protesters, the uncharacteristic participation of large number of men, and their distinctly urban character. The rape has come to symbolize an assault by traditional Indian society on those who want the country to become more cosmopolitan and affluent.

This last is significant. It is possible to change the punishment for rape. It might even be possible to reform the police. But as long as women in public evoke not just sexual possibility to some of India’s men, but the resentments and fears associated with India’s transition, rape will not be universally accepted as deviant. Addressing these conflicting norms will require political deliberation and, ultimately, it will require enforcement by laws, the police, and the judiciary. Piecemeal reform will not do. The cultural battle to make India more tolerant, affluent and modern is being waged by protestors, but it is unlikely to be won without the instruments of government.

Michael McQuarrie is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis

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