“Rape Culture” and the Postcolonial Lens: A look at India’s Daughter

By Kaammini Chanrai

‘A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 per cent of girls are good.’

These are the words of Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted of the brutal gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey that occurred on 16th December 2012. A documentary entitled India’s Daughter aired last night on BBC4. It looks at the events that took place that night and the protests that followed in India.

Most are probably familiar with the events that occurred on that day in Delhi. Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in the Indian capital with a male companion. She was gang-raped and beaten by the six other men on board. She suffered from internal injuries to her abdomen, intestines and genitals and much of the damage was suspected to have occurred due to penetration by an iron rod. The bus passed several police checkpoints throughout its journey, but remained undetected due to tinted windows, which masked what was happening inside. The woman and her companion were eventually thrown from the moving bus, which allegedly attempted to run them over. They were initially taken to a hospital in Delhi but she was later transferred to a hospital in Singapore. She died thirteen days later, on 29th December 2012, due to the fatal injuries she received during this attack.

And Mukesh Singh believes that she was to blame.

This makes me sick to my stomach. But unfortunately this narrative of victim-blaming is not uncommon. And whilst Mukesh Singh’s accusations were blatant and conspicuous, an undercurrent of blaming victims for rape is still pervasive. In the documentary, he is not the only one that subscribes to such idiotic beliefs. A.P. Singh, a defence lawyer, states that if his daughter or sister ‘engaged in pre-marital activities’, he would ‘put petrol on her and set her alight’. M.L. Sharma, another defence lawyer, declares ‘We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman’. More broadly in the media, representations of sexual violence often do not explicitly blame the victim, but implicitly suggested that they were at fault, destabilising the certainty of rape. Although Mukesh Singh’s comments were particularly vile and anger inducing, victim-blaming is ubiquitous and should be chastised as such.

The Postcolonial Lens

Rape is a problem in India. But rape is not only India’s problem. Often, depictions solidify the perspective that sexual violence is embedded in Indian culture, which is not the case for other countries with a high prevalence of sexual violence. Kavita Krishnan stipulates films such as India’s Daughter must be careful not to fall into the trap of advocating a ‘civilising mission’. The name itself of the film and consequent campaign is a rather uncomfortable one. In the same article, Krishnan writes: ‘Hailing Indian women as “India’s daughters” is something India’s patriarchs including Indian governments and the most anti-feminist forces in India have always done. Why does a global campaign against gender violence do the same?’

This narrative is an ongoing problem in the British media, for example. In the aftermath of this horrific incident, an aura of Western supremacy was present in a significant number of reports on the case. An article written in The Times declared that the Delhi bus rape ‘should shatter our Bollywood fantasies’ and that ‘a benign cultural earthquake is necessary’ for India to be allowed in a ‘civilised world’. India was often viewed through a postcolonial lens (see this article for another example) and, whether intentionally or not, newspapers successfully ‘Othered’ India. As Uma Narayan wrote in Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism, it propagates the rhetoric that “Third World Women” suffer ‘death by culture’ whilst Western women are ‘immune’ to this phenomenon. A chasm is created between women in India and the West in this way because women in India are seen as victims, as repressed, whilst women in the West are portrayed as having the ability to exercise their freedom.

Rape is a universal problem and deflecting from this is nearly as detrimental as ignoring the issue. According to official statistics, around 85,000 women are raped annually in England and Wales and sexual violence is still a large concern in the UK as well as in India. Although statistics might be high in India, this should not detract from the fact that rape occurs universally at an extremely high rate. To criticise India for the pervasiveness of sexual violence is entirely fair, however to do this as if from a position of privilege is not.

Dismantling “rape culture”

India is regularly accused of fostering an endemic “rape culture”. And though “rape culture” is cited in some capacity for the occurrences of rape that happen in the West, it is not blamed for the frequency of such occurrences. Labelling another country as having a rape problem is not only hypocritical but can be damaging in efforts to eradicate the issue.

More generally, the term “rape culture” is, for me, problematic. Although the occurrence of rape and sexual violence in general is indeed universal, by embedding it into societal norms, we normalise it. It may be more prevalent in some contexts than others, but categorising it in this way dismisses preventative strategies as effective as this might reify sexual violence as somewhat inevitable. If it is spoken about in this language, not only is sexual violence more likely to be dealt with less successfully, but this is also likely to impact on the victim to accept defeat, perpetuating a cycle of acceptance towards rape and sexual violence.

In an article from last year by Caroline Kitchens, it was stated that “rape culture”, as a term, is largely damaging. Kitchens cited a statement from the charity RAINN addressing the term: ‘By blaming so-called rape culture, we implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialise the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible’. For the most part, “rape culture” is confusing, unhelpful and irresponsibly used – I would advocate forsaking this term altogether.

***

I’m not advocating a homogenous approach to sexual violence worldwide. I’m not denying the need for a more intersectional approach to sexual violence. I’m not declaring that abandoning the term “rape culture” is dismissing that rape in society is structurally entrenched.

But I am saying this: the rape and consequent murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey was barbaric, backward and uncivilised. Rape and sexual violence more broadly are significantly prevalent in India and this must be a priority for India to deal with. Practices do still exist in India and all over the world that subjugate women and treat them as second-class citizens. This is a story that should be told: not as an exercise to name and shame those responsible but to incentivise action to be taken against rape. For example, by encouraging the government to provide better education on the subject, better security to prevent rape from occurring and services to support those who survive such atrocities. ‘The only way you can change things is education’, Justice Leila Seth states during the documentary.

But categorising India as a homogenised nation is inaccurate. With a population of over 1.3 billion individuals, five major religions and a caste system, India is a country of great variety and to consider it in any other way is vague and arguably harmful. And, more importantly, this finger-pointing needs to stop because if we really want to face these problems in solidarity, we need empathy not a scapegoat.

I support the motives of Leslee Udwin, the British film-maker behind India’s Daughter, of why she decided to make this film. I support the film’s intention to honour and remember Jyoti Singh Pandey. I support its drive to educate the public on the facts of the event and the consequent protests and riots that followed.

But I do not support the “my culture is better than your culture” attitude that seems to often follow mention of the Delhi rape case around. This is not something that I found India’s Daughter guilty of, but I see attitudes of this infiltrate such conversations every day.

Following the incident, protests erupted around India, chastising the government’s failing to provide adequate support and security for women. Thousands took to the streets in a number of different cities. This was monumental. At the end of the day, Mukesh Singh’s comments are the barbaric words of an accessory to rape and murder. Why are we listening to him when we should be listening to those in India who protest against him and what he stands for instead?

Storyville – India’s Daughter can be viewed on BBC iPlayer through this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05534p0/storyville-20142015-19-indias-daughter

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One comment

  1. alyssa ordu

    Great word-choice and perspective on this Kaammini, difficult subject to tackle – and you did it care.

    Also, the range of scholars you drew from were insightful.

    Hugs!

    Alyssa Ordu x x

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