Rape and Retribution: Female Professionals in India

Avinash Gavai

“This is what I remember. My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth,” recalls Alice Sebold of her brutal rape in the very first sentence of her raw and searing self-autobiography Lucky.

“He said these words: ‘I’ll kill you if you scream…Do you understand? If you scream you’re dead.’ I nodded my head. My arms were pinned to my sides by his right arm wrapped around me and my mouth was covered with his left…Since then I’ve always thought that under rape in the dictionary it should tell the truth. It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything.”

The now internationally infamous gang rape on December 2012 in India’s capital New Delhi, along with scores of other atrocities, has brought global attention on the plague-like levels of sexual violence in this country.

And unfortunately, Sebold’s devastating memoir too often echoes the physical and psychological destruction of thousands of women in India. Long overdue debates on gender and justice have finally begun to take shape, along with some idiotic calls for women to abide by family-enforced curfews and shroud their bodies in skin-covering overcoats. And yet, few of the self-appointed moral guardians­­­ address the main problem itself — those X and Y chromosome creatures—men.

For scores of male youth around the world, violence against women — a gamut that runs from domestic violence to gang rape and your basic neighborhood sexual harassment — is simply part of the system of male virility rites, along with drinking heavily, competition in sports, and of course, beating the shit out of each other.

This isn’t to insinuate that depraved masculinity is the sole causality of this violence; indeed human behaviors stem from many sources. Nevertheless, the various streams of correlations present a compelling case. And based on the evidence hard data and testimonies given by women, we can gather that a virulent form of gender-centric terror does exist.

Reports of crimes against women in India such as rape, dowry murders, abduction and molestation have increased by a whopping 26.7 per cent in 2013 compared to the same period in 2012, according to government statistics released back in July. The National Crime Records Bureau indicated there were 309,546 crimes against women last year against 244,270 in 2012—and this only covers those that were actually reported to the police.

Mindthis got a chance to speak to young upwardly mobile, professional women in major cities across India to get their insights into this culture of violent machismo. The picture they collectively paint isn’t a pretty one.

Suneera Madhok, an entertainment lawyer working in India’s commercial & supposedly safe capital, Mumbai talks of the brazen actions of many men she has encountered.

“I have been slapped on the breasts by a passing male while I was in a rickshaw (in the afternoon); at work conferences by men coming up to you and asking if you ‘wanna cut the bullshit and leave with him’; at social gatherings by men who keep trying to back you into corners, hold you too close and too tight, not take no for an answer; and at clubs by guys who will keep insisting you go out with them and when you repeatedly refuse (they) start to abuse you,” she says.

Men, regardless of class see women as status-enhancing commodities —and a sense of entitlement is all too easy to catch sight of. Rape, though, is something rapists do, not who they are. Why so many people derive pleasure from brutalizing women is a question that everyone from evolutionary biologists to cultural anthropologists has tried to answer. But there is no consensus, and probably will never be.

“This is a hunch, but every time I’ve felt insecure it comes down to asserting power. There is a rape problem because we are hierarchy obsessed society, and globalization, internet, education is making a lot of people uncomfortable,” says Kudrat Kahlon, a pepper spray and knife carrying Bangalore-based management consultant, when asked on why India has such an egregiously bad rape problem.

“The idea behind my protocol is that harassment is not sexual frustration or desire. It is a cowardly means of control. So depending on the kind of harasser, a couple of things have always worked for me.  Cat calls, lewd comments, should just be ignored, engaging is never useful. By recognizing the aggressor you empower them. Not being fazed by them makes most of them feel inconsequential and they walk away.”

Women interviewed also bemoan the fact that there is a distinct lack of education at the high-school level. This coupled with institutional cultural hindrances is creating a time bomb of sexual terror.

“First off, sexual education is virtually non-existent, and people aren’t free to experience their sexuality especially when you come from a lower socioeconomic status,” says Puja Amin, an American NGO professional who worked in New Delhi for over a year, adding with a caveat, “on another hand, you don’t know what you don’t know, and act as a result of your upbringing and what you do know. But really, with a population so high it’s difficult to pinpoint just one problem.”

When it comes to upbringing, a number of young men, especially in slums, are being brought up in broken homes — homes abandoned by dead-beat dads, and where moms work long hours. This isn’t unique to India. In a 2010 study of child rapists, South African researcher Amelia Kleijn found most had deprived childhoods marked by “physical and emotional abuse, as well as neglect.”

But coming back to Ms. Amin’s point, there are just too many damn problems. So how does Indian society tackle them?

Nandini Datta, a health-care executive shuttling between New Delhi and Bangalore, stresses that action needs to be taken at a very fundamental level: “Of course, for effective behavioural changes to take place, people need to take responsibility, as individuals and as a society,” she says, adding, “We have to instill the right values from early ages—‘hello children, rape, murder, etc are wrong, don’t do it!’—and of course having respect for fellow human beings.”

Ummm….okay, but it would take years of filtering that stuff into a person’s neurology from elementary school onwards. And a purported shift in what some would consider to be an archaic cultural paradigm would probably take even longer. Can’t we tackle this very immediate problem immediately?

“We need to start with stronger law enforcement. At the initial stages of civilizing our rather barbaric society, nothing works better than strong punishment against an offender,” she says.

“It sets precedence. It’s like Pavlov’s experiment on conditioning behavior. While Pavlov conditioned the dog to know that the sound of the bell meant food was available (even if it wasn’t), strong laws, effective and immediate action against offenders will send out the message that this is wrong, and will not be tolerated.”

Others interviewed offered some controversially different—a soft-power strategy anchored on sexual liberation.

“Make sex less taboo, legalize prostitution and nude beaches. I would personally never visit either, but such moves would make sex less vilified,” says Ms. Kahlon.

“I cannot emphasize the importance enough of this. You cannot have a power high from something that is socially mundane. If sex and being comfortable in your sexuality was treated as a biological necessity than a taboo evil, I feel gender relations would be much better.”

There’s no doubt that a crisis of sexuality exists in India. Very few men, whether rich or poor, have access to a societal model which allows them sexual freedom. This is magnified by the fact that members of the bourgeoisie participate in a sexual culture that’s fairly open — a lifestyle that young men can experience on TV and in theatres, but never hope to actively is part of. Hence, the sexually and professionally independent female is a nemesis that must be vilified.

That’s not to say everything is doom and gloom. The Delhi gang-rape travesty has galvanized India’s civil society like never before, with hundreds of thousands of furious citizens—both male and female—taking to the streets to protest crimes and inaction on the part of the authorities. There’s a distinct feeling in the air that the sickening culture of impunity won’t be as powerful and entrenched as before.

“I think more cases of sexual harassment are coming to light now than before which does not necessarily mean that more rapes are taking place; it just means more women are gaining the courage to come forth about it,” says Ms. Madhok.

“There is a sudden awakening across the board to be more vocal. More boys will think twice before indulging in mindless harassment lest they be complained about.”

Perseverance, positivity, and pro-activeness when it comes to self-protection are also needed to mitigate the vast challenges that a woman faces living in India, according to Ms. Amin. It may not be the ideal situation, but it’s better than consigning oneself to a defeatist mindset.

“Women have to look out for their safety in equal measures in any city they are living,” she says.

“Yeah sure it sucks because we’re women and why should we have to do that in the first place, but it is what it is and until it changes, we have to kind of do our thing and not live in fear. India shouldn’t be defined by the rapes anyway; there’s more to this miserable place and I love it.”