India’s Sexual Violence Crisis Is Symptomatic of Global Rape Culture

A prominent Indian politician is facing intense criticism for his recent insistence that rape “is a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong.”

Babulal Gaur, the Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh, India’s second largest state, located in the heart of the country, holds that a rape can only be considered a crime if it is reported to the police. “Until there’s a complaint, nothing can happen,” he maintained.

The first of these statements is the most despicable and ridiculous of them all. Saying that rape is “sometimes right” is one of the most extreme forms of rape apologism imaginable. There is not a single circumstance in life in which sexually assaulting another human being or making sexual advances on a person without their consent is ever “right.” Period.

Madhya Pradesh state Chief Minister Babulal Gaur

Babulal Gaur, Chief Minister of Indian state Madhya Pradesh
CREDIT: AP/Gurinder Osan

The latter statement is absurdly hypocritical, considering the incredible double standard fails to take into the failure, at all levels, of the Indian justice system to protect survivors and punish rapists. Just last week, a 14- and a 15-year-old girl were brutally gang raped and then hanged. Reuters reports that the father and uncle of one of the teenagers indeed informed local police about the horrific crime, yet their report was ignored.

Countless horrific examples abound, up to and including death; a new, yet painfully similar story, appears in the press essentially every few days. Last December, a 23-year-old student died, after being gang raped on a moving bus, in India’s capital. Less than two weeks later, a 16-year-old survivor was burned to death by her alleged rapist’s friends; many speculate she was killed in revenge for reporting her attackers to the police. Instead of assisting her, the police rehashed rumors that she was a prostitute. On the way back from reporting the crime, she was gang raped again.

This is how rape culture works. Survivors are blamed for supposedly “bringing it upon themselves,” called a “slut” or a “prostitute.” Young girls are chastised in, or even suspended from, school for wearing shorts; the young boys who sexually harass them aren’t punished, implicitly reaffirming the fundamentally misogynist idea that women, even young teenagers, are mere sexual objects, propagating rape culture.

Instead of blaming the rapists responsible for attacking them, instead of supporting survivors after such terrifying experiences, patriarchal culture blames them for speaking up, for merely existing. Survivors must struggle to dispel absurd myths that they somehow “brought it upon themselves.” Survivors face intense social ostracism. Religious fundamentalists often see them as “soiled,” in some cases leading to suicide. They themselves are often accused of making false accusations in order to “get back” at people, even though (in the US), it is estimated that less than two percent of rape accusations are false.

For many survivors, the easiest thing to do, although still excruciating, is to merely stay silent about the crime. According to Babulal Gaur, however, because these survivors never reported their attacks, they never happened.

Prime Minster Narendra Modi

Prime Minster Narendra Modi, of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
CREDIT: AP/Dharmesh Jobanputra

Babulal Gaur is by no means alone in his rape apologism. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi has refused to comment on the rape and murder of the two young girls. Both politicians are members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the second-largest party in India. The BJP has faced criticism for what are seen as its hyper-conservative social policies. Prime Minister Modi, who proudly calls himself a “Hindu nationalist,” is a member and a strong supporter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist group.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu nationalist organization, parent organization of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Supreme chief Mohan Bhagwat is second from the left.
CREDIT: AP/Aijaz Rahi

Early last year, Mohanrao Bhagwat, supreme chief of the RSS, blamed Western culture for the increase of gang rapes in India. He (erroneously) argued that rape is only a problem in India’s urban areas, not in its more traditional rural areas. India Today, however, notes that “police records and women’s rights groups have enough statistics to suggest that rapes in rural areas largely go unreported.” The publication also added that “Bhagwat’s comments follow a slew of other insensitive, prejudiced and some downright sexist and patriarchal statements by leaders from various political outfits.”

ABVP anti-Muslim protest

Students from the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Hindu nationalist organization RSS, at an anti-Muslim protest
CREDIT: AP/Bikas Das

The RSS is often directly involved in anti-Muslim hate crimes and riots, demonstrating the numerous ways in which misogynist, patriarchal sentiment is linked to racism. Now Prime Minister, Modi was Chief Minister of the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when massive anti-Muslim riots broke out, of which the RSS were a large part. At least 1000-2000 Muslims were killed, thousands more injured. Several human rights organizations criticized the Modi administration for doing little-to-nothing to stop the attacks.

Gujarat riots

Aftermath of the anti-Muslim 2002 Gujarat riots
CREDIT: AP/Manish Swarup

Many scholars have argued Modi only fanned the flames, referring to the riots as a state-supported anti-Muslim pogrom. Scholar Martha Nussbaum, member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a board member of the Human Rights Program, wrote, in 2008,

AP Photo

Nathuram Godse, the Hindu nationalist, and former RSS member, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi
CREDIT: AP

There is by now a broad consensus that the Gujarat violence was a form of ethnic cleansing, that in many ways it was premeditated, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the state government and officers of the law.

In 1948, Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, and former member of the RSS, murdered Mahatma Gandhi because of the figure’s support for India’s Muslims. The current prime minister of India is part of that same organization. (It should be mentioned that, although almost never discussed in the West, Mahatma Gandhi’s social justice legacy is quite problematic. Historian Vinay Lal indicates that the peace leader did support Muslims in a time of turbulent, anti-Muslim politics, and he did advocate for better treatment of the Dalit, “untouchable” caste. G. B. Singh argues against Gandhi’s positive legacy, however, revealing the peace leader was virulently racist, and still wanted to preserve the caste system from which he benefited.)

Indian human rights activist and Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy has noted the RSS’s historic ties to fascism. We “call them fascists because they call themselves fascists. They, in their books, admire the fascists,” she explained in a March 2013 lecture, “Field Notes on Democracy: A conversation with Arundhati Roy.”

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy, Indian human rights activist and Booker Prize-winning author
CREDIT: AP/Rick Rycroft

Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, supreme chief of the RSS (the same position occupied by Mohanrao Bhagwat today) from 1940-1973, spoke highly of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. In his 1938/1939 book We: or Our Nationhood Defined, he speaks of “that evil day, when Muslims first landed in Hindustan,” what he calls India. He calls Muslims “despoilers,” and maintains that “foreign races in Hindustan … may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment-not even citizen’s rights.” The RSS paramount’s leader insisted that Hindus are the only true citizens of India, stating “All others are traitors and enemies to the National Cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots.”

In 2006, the RSS “disowned” Golwalkar’s book, but critics are skeptical, holding that the organization only did to manage its image, not to illustrate some kind of significant change in ideological disposition. Golwalkar’s ideas are believed by many to be fundamental to RSS Hindu nationalism.

Some might wonder what racism has to do with this. We’re talking about rape culture, not racism, right? Well, for starters, if you’re talking about a social issue, racism is always relevant. But, more fundamentally than that, the patriarchy responsible for rape culture is always inextricably linked to racism. This is what led early civil rights leader and feminist Claudia Jones to speak of “triple oppression” (racism, sexism, and class) and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to coin the term “intersectionality.”

Historically speaking, a rise of nationalism is very often accompanied by a rise of racism. Some kind of hypothetical danger to one’s country unites otherwise disparate groups in order to defeat, in some cases even exterminate, a perceived (often imaginary) threat. This threat could be external, as is common in times of war; the threat is just as often internal, however, leading to the spread of rampant xenophobia and anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry across Europe, in just one recent example.

It is this close connection between sexism and racism that led Indian village elders to order that a woman be gang raped for dating a Muslim man. Closer to home, it is this intersectional oppression that leads to the hyper-sexualization of women of color.

Indian Dalit women at a sit-in protest

Indian Dalit women at a sit-in protest, on Human Rights Day, 2013
CREDIT: AP/Altaf Qadri

That a large portion of India’s rape survivors are of the Dalit, low-caste group, makes significantly more sense when seen in the light of increasing Hindu nationalism. That Muslim women are are large target of sexual violence makes significantly more sense when seen in the light of increasing dehumanizing, anti-Muslim bigotry, in light of the fact that the Indian prime minister is a proud member of a right-wing group whose former leader referred to Muslims as “evil” “despoilers.”

A rape is reported every 21 minutes in India—although the estimated incidence is thought to be much higher. Many are quick to jump to the conclusion that such a high incidence of rape is uniquely linked to India’s past history, and still present struggle, with caste discrimination. In India, it is indeed true that many survivors of rape are of Dalit, low-caste backgrounds. Rape culture, however, is a global phenomenon. It is a symptom of patriarchy, a problem virtually every country in the world faces.

The prevalence of rape and sexual assault in India is an enormous problem… but it’s even worse in the US. According to a 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, an American is raped every 90 seconds. According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an American woman is raped every 29 seconds.

More tangibly, a given American is more likely to be a survivor of rape than a smoker. According to numerous studies, one in every four (or in every five, in some studies) women will be raped in their lifetime, as will one in every 33 men. In perhaps the most ghastly statistic of all, 97 percent of rapists will never see jail time. (For a collection of statistics about rape in the US, Soraya Chemaly compiled, and cited, a shocking collection of “50 Actual Facts About Rape“).

RAINN infographic

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) infographic on rape statistics in the US
CREDIT: The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)

We should be absolutely unforgiving in our criticism of Indian rapists, yet we should be even more relentless in our opposition to rape culture in the US, namely considering… well, we are American. It’s much too easy to blame another country for a problem while failing to look at the same, and perhaps even worse, problem in your own. And to do so is, frankly, racist.

Much of the rhetoric around Indian rape culture falls into this very same trap. Instead of critically looking at rape culture at home, many white Americans criticize sexual violence in India as if it were an isolated phenomenon. Racist, orientalist arguments abound, insinuating that the systemic sexism in Indian society is somehow singular. The same white men who insist that rape is “exaggerated” in the US, and who adamantly argue that we live in a supposedly “level playing field” (or, even worse, that we live in a world now where men are now supposedly “oppressed), often justify their preposterous position by lazily pointing to the Western corporate media’s orientalist fascination, and grossly exaggerated emphasis on, genital mutilation, forced marriages, and honor killings.

One is reminded of Lila Abu-Lughod’s observations that American neo-conservatives, anti-choice and misogynist in their policies at home, exploited feminism to justify the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak noticed the parallels of such a tendency to those employed by British colonialists, writing ”White men are saving the brown women from brown men.” Too often, Western rhetoric about rape and sexual violence in India reflects this “white man’s burden.”

We must remember patriarchy, rape culture, and violence against women is a global issue. In the word’s of the UN Women, it is “one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world.”

UN Women ad

A 2013 UN Women ad series, revealing widespread global sexism
CREDIT: UN Women/Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai

Babulal Gaur’s comments are horrible beyond belief, but we should not think they are somehow unique. These filthy ideas are surprisingly common. They are not dissimilar to right-wing US politicians comparing rape to car accidents, forcing American women to buy “rape insurance,” pseudo-scientifically arguing rape can’t cause pregnancy, telling pregnant rape survivors their unwanted child is a “gift from God” that ” God intended to happen”and to “make the best out of” it, differentiating from “genuine” and… non-genuine (?) rape, calling rape survivors and prevention initiatives a “distraction,” insisting that husbands have the right to rape their wives, and oh, so much more.

Rape culture in India is not unique, and we should not talk about it as such. Rape culture in India, like rape culture in the US, is symptomatic of a global rape culture. It is only by challenging patriarchy worldwide, and dismantling forms of structural sexism, especially economic structural sexism, that it can ultimately be eradicated.

Indian activists, dressed as Lady Justice, protest sexual violence and impunity for attackers

Indian activists, dressed as Lady Justice, protest sexual violence and impunity for attackers

Even if police in were to respond to reports of rape, even if rapists did not have almost complete impunity, if the fundamental problem behind rape culture—that is to say patriarchy, sexism—is not dealt with, there is only su much progress that can be made. At present many survivors are too traumatized by their horrific experience to even report it. Survivors who report their attackers too often face intense, violent harassment for doing so.

This doesn’t mean survivors shouldn’t report rape, by any means. Many survivors are haunted by the fact that they didn’t report their attack. What it does mean is that, while working to create a culture in the long-term in which rape ceases to exist, we must create a culture in the short-term in which survivors can report crimes without fear of retribution from attackers. Given men are the vast, vast, vast majority of rapists, globally, it is largely up to men to stand in solidarity with survivors, feminists, and activist groups who organize against sexual violence.

Police harass SUCI protesters

Police harass SUCI activists
CREDIT: AP/Saurabh Das

If there is one consistency in history—aside from Heraclitus’ questionable insistence that “the only thing that is constant is change”—it is resistance to injustice. In India, given the widespread systemic impunity for attackers, large and powerful popular movements have emerged, led by feminist, human rights, and sexual and domestic violence organizations and leftist political parties, especially the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI).

The draconian degree to which anti-sexual and -domestic violence protest and civil disobedience has been repressed by the Indian government evinces that the movement is gaining ground. Speaking of Mahatma Gandhi, his insistence “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” rings clearly here.

Protesters sprayed with water cannons by police

Protesters sprayed with water cannons by police
CREDIT: AP/Saurabh Das

The creation of the Gulabi Gang has been one of the more optimistic developments. An example of true grassroots activism and community organizing, the Gulabi Gang (“Pink” Gang) emerged in one of the poorest regions in India as a form of resistance against a deeply patriarchal culture (again, we should note the innumerable ways in which economic disadvantage intersects with sexism). Women wear bright pink saris and wield bamboo sticks to defend themselves against sexual and domestic violence. They create communities of support, teach one another methods of self-defense, and are even “increasingly called upon by men to challenge not only male authority over women, but all human rights abuses inflicted on the weak.” Founder Sampat Pal Devi says, “We are not a gang in the usual sense of the term, we are a gang for justice.”

Gulabi Gang

Members of the Gulabi Gang
CREDIT: AP/Saurabh Das

Demonstrating the truly intersectional nature of feminism, the Gulabi Gang has too engaged in the struggle for other forms of justice, writing on its website

Whether it is ensuring proper public distribution of food-grains to people below the poverty line, or disbursement of pension to elderly widows who have no birth certificate to prove their age, or preventing abuse of women and children, the Pink sisterhood is in the forefront, bringing about system changes by adopting the simplest of methods – direct action and confrontation.

Stop rape

CREDIT: AP/Rafiq Maqbool

Countless feminist, human rights, and sexual and domestic violence organizations in the US, India, and around the world are doing similar work, if not as directly. The solution to India’s sexual violence problems is ultimately the same as the solution to the US’ sexual violence problems: it is not to teach women how not to get raped; it is to teach men not to rape.