You would be forgiven for thinking there is a rape epidemic raging in India , with daily reports of rapes in the country, of women, girls, minors even - horrific and gruesome. Today’s papers headline a case of bestiality, which could double up as an attempt to offend religious sensibility, for a cow was raped, then stabbed - and cow is sacred in India. Rape cases have emerged in the National Capital Region, Delhi , with such frequency that the acronym is being dubiously dubbed as the National Capital of Rape.
Has rape suddenly become excessively prevalent? Or does it make sensational copy that helps sell newspapers and attract eyeballs, until the next big story comes along? The horrific gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi last December shook up people, initiated soul-searching and put rape on the news radar.
And yet, there hasn’t been a let up in rapes. People are protesting, perplexed that the brouhaha of last December hasn’t wrought lasting change in police and judiciary. We want action and we want it now. As a popular cola advertisement says, we want change, oh yes abhi haan bus abhi, oh yes now and make it pronto!
Good advertising is built on insight and this popular advertisement leverages the zeitgeist of an India in a furious rush towards unadulterated prosperity. Aboard the inspiration bandwagon, we are hurtling our way towards the flimflam of the First world. The ad features Indian celebrities and other youngsters in frenzied pursuit of their dream as they rock a stage, dance on a cricket pitch, weave through traffic, get a bare back tattooed.
Rape apologists like to hold up such women - who feature in the ad and also form the target audience - as the reason for the epidemic of recent sexual assaults: they have boyfriends, wear western clothes, frequent pubs. These apologists range from policemen to politicians to spiritual leaders to aam junta, ordinary folk, who rail against the un-Indianness of such attitudes.
Some voices have been raised at the gross unfairness of the accusation but it is also true that most Indians who gulp that fizzy cola and demand change Now!, are equally unwilling to question the culture that systemically devalues women.
Indian society, 80% Hindu, is predicated on a fundamentally flawed precept that places men, Brahmanical, upper-caste, at the top of the pyramid and lumps women with Shudras, untouchables, at the bottom. Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s defining texts, is explicit on this, citing it unambiguously in chapter 9, verse 32.
mam hi partha vyapasritya
ye ’pi syuh papa-yonayah
striyo vaishyas tatha shudras
te ’pi yanti param gatim
For those who take refuge in Me, O Partha,
though they are lowly born,
women, vaisyas as well as sudras,
they also attain the highest goal
- translation by S.Radhadkrishnan
And before the apologists of rape come up with their usual apocryphal arguments, let me pre-empt them:
1. One popular defense is the context and social conditions prevalent at the time of the writing of the text
One can go into myriad interpretative calisthenics but the original verse is there for all to read and one thing cannot be denied: the text places women, the entire gender, in a category which is inferior to the superior male. The sheer hubris behind such an act of arrogation is of course divine, and thereby not to be questioned.
2. S Radhakrishnan's interpretation is flawed
R-ight. This for a man generally regarded as one of India's most influential scholars of comparative religion and philosophy.
3. The text doesn't discriminate against women alone
Yes, it lumps them with several other unfortunate males. To what extent the text is discriminatory and disparaging of women can be debated endlessly but what cannot be denied is that whatever the original intent of the text, the manner in which it is popularly understood and practiced is prejudicial to women.
The sooner we open our eyes, the better for our society. No nation can progress if it insists on suppressing 50% of its population. Traditional texts have to be reworked, reinterpreted and challenged until they portray women as equal to men - a concept that is surely not alien to any living being in today's world.
That an entire gender can be consigned to the lowermost rung of the Indian caste hierarchy is an instance of astonishing historical audacity. And yet, it finds contemporary resonance in daily Indian life.
As an individual an Indian woman has little value - her worth comes from her male linkages, as daughter, sister, wife, mother of sons. Which is why the wife of the man accused of raping a minor is attesting to his innocence despite being a thousand kilometers away when the crime was committed. This is because she knows that her status as the wife of a rapist is still higher than that as a divorcee, an abandoned, or a single, woman.
Save for some enlightened pockets, the only way for women to have power is by being co-conspirators in this system. Which is why a mother-in-law will harass a new bride for dowry, force an expectant daughter-in-law to abort a female foetus, and actively arrange another wife for her son if no male heirs have been forthcoming.
Why is it that nobody questions a system which debars menstruating women from entering a Hindu temple? (And just for the sake of consistency, shouldn't the temples dedicated to female deities also remove the deity from the temple for five days when presumably the deity is menstruating? Or do goddesses come with an in-built male-ordained menses-suppressing capability? ) Why is it customary to serve food first to men even as the women of the house patiently wait on them? Why is there a pan-Indian preference for sons over daughters which has led to a 100 million missing women in India ?
The facts are staring us in the face. With 940 females for 1000 males, we have a skewed gender ratio. Economic growth is bringing more women out of their homes as they seek greater opportunities in the 21st century. However, the dominant cultural mindset harks to medieval times. No wonder we are on a collision course.
Everyone wants a woman who is somebody else’s daughter. The Draupadisation of women - where one wife is shared by several men - is rampant in parts of India where gender ratios are biased severely in favour of men. This ‘epidemic’ of rape is another symptom of our structural flaw.
Why then are we not addressing that flaw?
Because it requires us to change our own self first. If we are serious about the safety of women we have to begin addressing the axiom that has engendered the belief that women are second-class citizens.
Improvements in police, law and judiciary will doubtless help but real change will come when each one of us challenges the underlying precepts of our misogynistic culture. Oh yes abhi. Right now. Pronto.