By Saswat Pattanayak
I understand many of us, Indians, are ashamed these days. And it is true that protests and placards do not educate the rapists. And that the students came out on the streets only because it is New Delhi. But we should not miss an important aspect of it all – most protesters clearly defying governmental bans are demonstrating an important tactic in the struggle for women’s rights anywhere in the world. This is a strategy that should not be discouraged, rather used everywhere – be it in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Manipur.
Or for that matter, in London, New York and Stockholm. Because last checked, India is as unsafe a country for women as are the United States, United Kingdom and Sweden. Statistically speaking, there are more rapes taking place per hour in the US than in India. Whereas in India the number of rape cases amount to over 20,000 a year, the number well exceeds 90,000 in America with third of the population. The unreported cases of rape and ridiculously low conviction rates are also common and comparable across the modern capitalist nations.
It is necessary to fight for women’s rights, but why should the drive stop at the borders? Those of us who refuse to adequately acknowledge the protest movement in Delhi by citing the relative silence in Gujarat and North-East also commit similar fallacies when we fail to protest against abuse of women elsewhere in the world. Why should a “safe Delhi” narrative be replaced only with an equally jingoistic, “safe India”? The fact is protesting against social injustice anywhere should be encouraged, not spurned. No matter the intensity, no matter the limited purpose, no matter the viability. True, that the goals go astray when people demand for death penalty instead of conviction, and true, that some reactionary elements at times also end up hijacking the movements, but it is also true that inaction, silence and skepticism are not going to help the principled oppositions to the status quo, that takes place in any shape, way or form.
Violences on women are rising everywhere, in every corner of the globe. But that is only because more cases are being reported today than it used to be the case earlier. The journey from feudalism to capitalism in the case of India is a journey of advancement, of progression. More women today than ever before are aware of what comprises sexual harassment. More women understand their reproductive rights today than in the “good old days”, which some Indians are craving for by citing the “vulgarization of Indian culture” as the prime factor behind the rape statistics.
Rape culture is a necessary culmination of capitalism, only because it is acknowledged as thus. In the days of slavery and feudalism, women were not even counted as human beings with needs and demands. Certainly there was no hue and cry about “rape” and in the days of the past, the ruling classes comprised kings and landlords – for whom total ownership of women was not something to be ashamed of, but something to take pride in. “Conquest” of women used to be the prevalent culture and rape was never treated as an exception or aberration. Young girls used to be “gifted” to the royals before they could be married off during their childhood days. In many a cultural settings of the past, the “virgins” were first offered to the rulers. It is no wonder that the sanctity around virginity is a result of feudal structure and its remnants today aid the common men in craving for virgin women.
The Good Old Days Fallacies
Any romanticization of the brutal days of the past must end immediately. Neither India nor any other country in the world can claim to have provided for a safe society for women during their feudal stages of developments (barring probably the tribal and other matriarchal phases, which anyway suffered from other malaises). The reality today may not be any better when other factors are taken into consideration, and I shall dwell on that shortly, but uncritical assessment of the days of yore are grossly regressive and we cannot afford to model a future society after such heinous past.
When serfdom gives in to the rise of modernity and capitalism, there are bound to be struggles, but recognition and knowledge of such struggles empower women and other oppressed sections in unprecedented manners. A growing challenge to narrow nationalism helps borrow and reproduce cultural imports, including some progressive ones – and this becomes a step in the right direction for the traditionally oppressed. Thanks to the growing cosmopolitanism, more Dalits and more women are finding for themselves avenues for education and empowerment today. These are by no means small achievements. Indeed, these are the only justifiable achievements a country like India can boast of in its long “glorious” history.
With advent of capitalism and industrialization, more women find themselves at the workplace, and such a shift is bound to challenge the male hegemony. Through empowered outlooks, more women begin to challenge patriarchy, and that too disturbs the traditional males. Through more involvement in decision-making process, more women begin to exercise their rights to have a child – or to abort one, to marry – or not to marry, and finally they begin to articulate as sexual beings, and not just as sexual objects. Of late, India has witnessed a LGBTQ “pride” movement that could not have surfaced without the present consciousness. Through “Slutwalk”, another movement of solidarity among feminists is shaping up globally and Indian women have joined the cause, despite some obvious flaws in conceptualization and appropriation of the word “slut”. Defying the moral police that run ruckus all over the country during “Valentine’s Day”, women in India are now openly flaunting their love interests in the public. Suffice it to say that such liberated outlooks have started to cause a crisis that is about to shatter the status quo and challenge the norms of capitalism.
Capitalism replaces feudal society, but the wealth still remains concentrated along the lines of traditional privileges. Although education and empowerment is ushered in through capitalism, they are properly utilized only by the families of the former landowners. Slaves get emancipated, but they have no way to compete as equals. Capitalism establishes the “old boys networks”, thrives on favoritism and establishes a meritocracy whose rules are defined by the traditionally privileged which go a long way in sustaining the class society. Capitalism firmly enforces the class divide and this in turn plays right into the hands of the traditionally oppressive gender, the male.
Be they Indian men or North American men or European men or Australian men or Arab men or Hindu men or Muslim men or Christian men or Buddhist men – the men typically and automatically advance faster than the women under capitalism. Male advancement invariably accompanies brutal competitiveness that characterizes such individualistic societies. At the same time, they are constantly challenged by more women and children – a development for which men, owing to their historical and superconscious makeups, remain clearly unprepared for. Gender violence is akin to class war and racial struggles in the sense that the historically privileged social location retaliates against those it had oppressed whenever it faces a challenge to its dominance.
It will be a wishful thinking to suggest that we go back to the “golden era” of Indian culture. Wishful only because that is clearly not going to happen. Even the societies where feudalism still remains intact will have to advance to capitalism sooner than later. And with contradictions of capitalism – which are of a very different nature than the struggles within feudalism – are going to pave way to even more advanced forms of struggles – the class war. But we have not reached a stage where majority of people are class-conscious and we must go through this essential period of struggle to duly recognize variety of social locations such as caste, race, gender, ability among others, and allegiances such as nationality and religion – the factors that hinder critical social justice education from empowering everyone.
The cultural contradictions
It is necessary to understand that the protests against rape in Delhi have two basic components – one that cries out for death penalty or stricter punishment, and another that demands equality of women. While the former is an endorsement of feudalism and a reinforced belief in the status quo, the latter is an unqualified call for socialism. Delhi Police long infamous for being sexist has hired a renowned Bollywood actor-director Farhan Akhtar to entice men into becoming more “man enough” to join them in protecting Indian women. This is not just a crude display of macho tendencies that make the world an unsafe place to begin with, what is even worse is such artistic collaboration lends credence to a law and order system that is inherently oppressive – Indian police and military system systematically brutalizes countless poor through rape, murder and torture as tools to suppress any dissenting voices. No wonder then, despite the advertisements claiming that Delhi Police is interested in protecting women, once the people gather to register their protest on the streets, the state power unleashes its menace through violent suppressions.
But it would be wrong to especially focus on Delhi Police. Same calls for feudalistic past are being made by leading women leaders of India as well. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal has commented on the increasing number of rape cases thus, “The way media is cooking up rape stories, it would be difficult to believe a genuine rape case.” Sushma Swaraj, the leader of opposition in India has dehumanized rape survivors as “living corpses”. Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi has advised women “not to be adventurous”. In each of such assertion lies the firm refusal on part of ruling class women, along with their men, to break away from India’s feudal past.
Just as the struggle continues in modern India to destroy the last remnants of feudalism, so also the struggle must continue to recognize the early symptoms of Indian capitalism. As the traditionally privileged males – the landowning, slaveowning and women-owning – fail to understand the historical advancements made by women today in almost all spheres of society, their resistance against this upheaval is going to emerge all the more. Traditional men are puzzled over the emerging idea that women no longer need to be bound by traditional family roles, and that such a shift also extends to women’s prerogatives to choose sexual partners whether or not they are married. A major resentment against the sexual freedom for women represents itself through variety of censorships, sexist laws and moral dictates on clothing patterns. Even as rapes continue to be condemned by the society which is ready to shun feudalism, various factors and societal excuses leading to rapes are being deliberated upon by the same society that is struggling with capitalistic values.
A substantial section of the men who oppose rape also are quick to offer the dress codes and time limits for women as well as raising objections against “clubbing”, “smoking”, “extra-marital affairs”, and a general sense of “cultural degeneration” that apparently make women “easy prey”. At the same time, they refuse to acknowledge that men have continued to indulge in every such “vices” without hindrances for centuries. Patriarchy is just not open to letting women join the scene at equal footing, because that would end the system as we know it. And since capitalism provides for the “opportunities” for women to either reject – or, conversely, accept – the terms of objectification, disgruntled men then hold “cultural corruption” accountable as the convenient culprit.
Not only have upper caste Hindus started quoting Manusmriti to reduce women into symbols of “worships”, even the Bahujan Samaj Party which represents Dalit mainstream interests has found itself embarrassed over calls for feudalism as a method to “protect” women. Rajpal Saini, a BSP member of Parliament recently was quoted saying, “There is no need to give phones to women and children. It distracts them and is useless. My mother, wife and sister never had mobile phones. They survived without one.” BSP supremo Mayawati likewise has joined the right-wing ideologues in calling for “stricter laws” as a deterrent to rape. “It is not enough to just arrest them (the rapists), but action should be so strict that no one should dare to act in such a manner.”
What is to be done?
The reality is conviction rates in cases of rape are abysmally low. Not just in India, but around the world as well. In the United States, there are an estimated 400,000 “rape kits” (just in case, that’s the situation for 400,000 women) currently backlogged. And by the time the kits are tested the statute of limitations expires and the rapists no longer get charged. Only 24 percent of rapists are arrested in America. The statistic is not any more encouraging in the United Kingdom either. The British government acknowledges that as many as 95% of rapes are never reported to the police, and the country has roughly 6.5% conviction rate.
Precisely because of the nature of patriarchy and the way it engulfs feudal/religious societies as well as capitalistic/liberal societies, the need of the hour is to recognize the war against women as a systemic feature of the world, and to collaborate with every progressive force looking to replace such a status quo. Harking back to the past is not the solution. Looking forward to dismantle the forces of feudalism/capitalism is the approach we must adopt. Let there be no surprise or disappointment in the increasing number of rape cases being registered. More the number of women report assaults, more certain are we to become that the political economic system within which we seek solution is an inherently evil – and fragile – one. Arundhati Roy recently spoke about the fact that the rich people used to oppress women exercising a certain amount of discretion in the past, while thanks to the cultural shifts and movie culture today, their disdain towards women is becoming more apparent. While that is true, we also need to acknowledge this as an evolution for the better. The more racist and sexist people expose their real colors, the greater will the need be felt to overthrow the existing system. Just as in the similar vein, the greatest challenge to racism are not the avowedly racists, but those that deny their race privileges.
What is happening in India is truly remarkable. The collective disdain towards the system may not last forever, since right-wing moralists are going to take it over with sheer power of wealth and media distractions, just as the Occupy movement in America got co-opted by the liberal Democrats for their political aspirations. And as such, the dissenters do not always represent the best interests of the most oppressed in such outbursts, where Dalits, blacks, and the poor often do not find themselves represented. But these outbursts, howsoever temporary, do provide for a recipe of non-cooperation and of civil disobedience. As Howard Zinn reminds us, gradual reforms take place not because of good laws suddenly finding their way in, but because of dissenting people compelling the bad laws out of the system through mass movements. The truth is dissenting voices against the ruling classes world over are increasing phenomenally with more people ably aided by critical education and alternative media. Majority of the world is still too poor, and underprivileged to exchange a wage-earning day in favor of a placard-holding session. And that is precisely why oftentimes in history, progressive sections of the society across classes form larger alliances and go against the grains. And towards that extent there is a need for all of us to collaborate with resistance movements that aim to challenge the ruling order no matter if the causes immediately impact us or not, or if the causes are too narrowly framed by taking on specific agendas. Warmongering against Iran must be opposed just as we should protest massacre of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, and demand for rescue of Palestine from the reactionary Zionists. Role of the revolutionary is to recognize that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
In Indian context, some of us are protesting against communalism in Gujarat, some of us are raising voices against militarism in Manipur, some engaged in defending lands in Orissa, some protesting against the rape in Delhi. Each of these movements has the potential to be hijacked, infiltrated, and demolished. And yet, each also has the potential to collaborate with fellow resisters all across the globe, and to encompass the ethos of revolutions that will annihilate feudalism, smash down patriarchy, and shatter every iota of capitalism that is inherently exploitative. Eventually, what capitalism produces are its own “grave-diggers”. And its fall and the victory of the revolutionaries are equally inevitable. And there is never a better time than now, to emerge united with the working women and men, the world over – regardless of the prevailing challenges and, because of them.
(Originally published by Radical Notes)