Using rape as an excuse for moral policing in India

February 12, 2014

The conversation has changed in India since that horrific night in December 2012 when a young woman returning home after watching a movie at the cinema was gang raped on a moving bus and left to die on the streets of the Indian capital.

The crime – which triggered outrage amongst urban Indians who took to the streets to protest – acted as a turning point, forcing many in India to face up to the widespread violence inflicted on women and girls in this largely patriarchal nation.

Discussions about rape, acid attacks, sexual harassment, molestation, dowry murders and female foeticide are now no longer just confined to civil society groups, feminists and academics but are being widely debated in the mainstream media and even amongst the usually apathetic political classes.

But while this has helped create greater awareness and social intolerance towards gender crimes, it has also led to a conservative backlash which has over the past year manifested itself through a series of disturbing incidents – some of which can only be described as an attempt at moral policing.

Last week, a female politician and member of the Women’s Commission in the western state of Maharashtra, told a public meeting that some rape victims – including the victim of the Delhi gang rape – may have invited attacks by their behaviour.

“Did Nirbhaya really have go to watch a movie at 11 in the night with her friend?” asked Asha Mirje, a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, referring to December gang rape victim who was given the name “Nirbhaya” – a Hindi word meaning “fearless” – by the media.

Mirje also commented on the gang rape of a photojournalist who was on assignment at a disused mill in Mumbai last year, asking why the victim had gone to such an isolated place.

“Rapes take place also because of a woman’s clothes, her behaviour and her presence at inappropriate places,” she said, adding that women must be “careful” and think about whether they are inviting assault.

While Mirje and her party, which is part of India’s ruling coalition government, have apologised for the remarks, activists say such comments demonstrate how age-old attitudes continue to jar with a fast modernising India which is bringing in more liberal views on women.

CRACKDOWN ON WOMEN?

While such insensitive comments from politicians have been widespread since the Delhi gang rape, an even more worrying trend has been the attempts to address sexual violence through cracking down on the freedoms and rights of women and girls.

In May last year, six villages in the northern state of Haryana decided not to send their daughters to school due to instances of sexual harassment of teenage girls. After much criticism, the decision was reversed.

Village councils in the same region had also earlier called on the government to lower the age of marriage of girls to 16 from 18, saying that it would stop rapes occurring.

More recently, Delhi’s law minister was accused of moral policing when he allegedly led a mob which illegally detained and harassed a group of Ugandan women on the suspicion that they were involved in a drugs and prostitution racket.

The women say the mob led by Law Minister Somnath Bharti threatened and intimidated them. Some said they were manhandled and beaten and forcibly taken to undergo medical examinations at a government hospital. One woman said she was forced to urinate in public.

The Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has defended the actions of his minister saying that “rape tendencies start from drug and sex rackets.”

And last month, a mobile police unit named after Nirbhaya – launched in the central state of Madhya Pradesh to protect women – was found to be targeting young couples and women wearing Western clothes.

“Raised a month ago, the unit … has become the city’s most feared law enforcement detachment,” The Hindu reported. “It is common to see youth flee on seeing the Nirbhaya vehicle arrive at colleges and tourist spots in the city.”

The unit raids bus stops, women’s colleges and tourist spots and dishes out punishments such as forcing young couples to do sit-ups and reporting them to their parents and educational institutions, it said.

The New Indian Express said the unit detained two female college students who were wearing high heels, sunglasses and Western clothes. They were only allowed to go after police had spoken to their parents.

An editorial in last week’s Sunday Guardian said such incidents created an image of India returning to the “hypocrisy and prudery of 19th Century Britain”.

“Those in the (Nirbhaya) squad need to appreciate that India is not yet Saudi Arabia,” it said. “The time for civil society to stand up and be counted in the face of such inexcusable moral policing is now. It was innocent Ugandan women or girls in Bhopal today, but could be the rest of us tomorrow.”

PHOTO CAPTION: A demonstrator holds a placard as she attends a candlelight vigil to mark the first anniversary of Delhi gang rape, in New Delhi December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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