On 16 December, 2012, a student travelling home with a friend in South Delhi was raped by six men on a bus. Everyone who reads the news knows this story: the bus was a private one, possibly taken on a joyride for this express purpose; the six men involved have been arrested and are in the process of being tried; in the days following there was outrage in both houses of parliament, with the Lok Sabha setting aside its daily business to address the issue; there were protests outside India Gate participated in by thousands of people; there were snap suspensions of Delhi police said to have been on duty of the night of the incident; there were riots in the streets. On 29 December 2012, the attacked woman died.
Why does this outrage matter? Not because of anything it contains on the surface.
The news media is talking about what outrageous and brutal penalties that the men who did it are due; they’re getting interviews with the woman’s family, trying to construct the details of her life; they’re talking about whether women should go around alone at all. One government minister in Andhra Pradesh noted that India’s ‘freedom at midnight’, Nehru’s words to an India awaking free of colonial rule, did not extend to young women going around after dark. He’s going to hell.
We’re all going to hell. This is hell: because as long as we are distracted by all of these things, by what outrageous, unhelpful punishments we can dream up for the perpetrators; by what fresh spewing bile comes out of the mouths of our misogynists in office; by talk of the ‘rape victim’ (always referred to as a ‘victim’ although what she did was survive) and by how her life is the canvas on which the sordid record politics is written so she becomes ‘Amanat’ or ‘Nirbhaya’, a saviour and symbol rather than a human being, as long as we are distracted by all this, we are distracted from how we all belong to the society that made this possible. We are distracted from the subtextual narrative beneath it all: this terrible crime, a woman tossed onto the roadside in the middle of a capital city, this is deserving of our deepest rancour and our utter condemnation. Come to us with your vicious gang-rape, come to us with internal injuries, come to us with your stories of perfect Indian womanhood that will save us all: because if you don’t tick the brutal boxes, we don’t give a damn. If a rural woman is raped, if a woman goes out late in a short skirt and is raped, if a woman is raped at home by a husband, brother, friend – then we are not outraged.
Manmohan Singh informs us that he ‘feels strongly’ about this case, because he has three daughters. What if he hadn’t? One American feminist, Catharine McKinnon, has asked a question throughout her writing: are women human? If we belonged to a society in which women were undisputedly seen to be human and not objects, perhaps the Prime Minister could have found it within himself to condemn a crime against a fellow human being even if he had no daughters, wife, or sisters to engage his empathy.
Tehelka, a major left-wing voice in the Indian press, has taken the opportunity to remind its readers of a sting they conducted earlier in the year: undercover reporters secretly filmed senior police in the capital region, publishing “shockingly ugly” views on rape victims. “A girl who gets into a car with boys is never innocent,” says one. “How can you call it rape when she is drinking with them?’ asks another. Rape is ubiquitous; the structures within society that perpetuate rape are ubiquitous. If they were not, respectable people would not go on television, would not write for the newspapers, would not post online speaking about the character of women, about their morals, about their clothes, about their habits, about their education, about their bodies and their minds. If you are not good enough, women – if you are not traditional, if you do not wear salwar kameez, if you do not listen to your elders, if you do not listen to your men – you will be raped and you will deserve it.
This is why the public outrage following this rape matters. When it is over, it is not over. Do not be complacent; do not sit down; do not shut up. When these men are justly punished, the society that gave birth to them will not cease to exist.