The crisis in our community


(Published by The Hindu on April 22, 2013. To read the final edited version with comments, please click here.)

Why “stopping rape” isn’t possible unless we change the way we tackle and think about ordinary violence.

Some images stay branded on your mind. The brutality visited on three young girls, before their bodies were found in a well; the pain of a five-year-old whose rapist used candles and an oil bottle to violate her further; the anger of the Dalit rape survivor in Uttar Pradesh who was told by a policeman, “Who will rape you at your age?”

Since the brutal gangrape and death of a young woman in December 2012, the Indian middle class has made its collective discovery of the fact of rape. For many, the instinctive compassion, sadness and empathy they feel at the atrocity of the day is matched only by a growing despair.

Television anchors asked, with touching naivete, why the protests, demonstrations and new laws of the last few months have not “stopped rape”. No laws anywhere in the world has “stopped” rape, any more than laws have stopped murder. But better laws, changes in policing, and societal change have sometimes combined to bring both sexual violence and homicide rates down, in several countries.

Behind the outrage, there is the very real danger of compassion fatigue. There is only so much in the way of traumatic news that anyone can stand to hear or see. We’re cutting through decades of mainstream denial about the extreme violence that women in India often experience. But there’s a risk that we’re setting up a weighing scale of horror, deciding which rape deserves our empathy. (So far, collective compassion has been able to slice through class barriers, but not necessarily caste.)

The routine gang rape of Dalit women, the brutal rapes of children too young to have learned the word for “vagina”, the everyday rapes of women in major cities: which one of these gets the candlelit vigil of the week? There might be a tipping point, as there was with dowry deaths. We don’t really “see” dowry deaths any more, and we don’t respond to the terrible suffering inflicted on women who are killed in those cold calculations the way we used to some decades ago.

Why aren’t we outraged by the miscarriage and death of the pregnant woman who was beaten with bamboo staves and iron lathis by her husband and in-laws? Saima, 21, died in Uttar Pradesh last week. Or the woman who was strangled by her in-laws in Navi Mumbai –Madhu Yadav, 28, was allegedly killed over dowry demands in 2012. Because we haven’t been able to stop the roughly 8,000-plus recorded dowry deaths that show up on the NCRB statistics every year. Keep the spotlight focused on rape in India long enough, and people will turn away. Compassion can swiftly become helplessness, and then apathy.

It doesn’t have to be this way.We’re only beginning to understand the extent to which violence is tolerated, and found acceptable, across wide swathes of India.

Most Indian men experience a frightening amount of violence as they grow up. Indian boys are just as vulnerable as Indian girls to being abused as children (54 % of boys had experienced physical or sexual violence, according to a landmark 2007 study).

Boys are slightly more vulnerable to being hit or beaten by their male relatives. And as adults, they will often join communities, colleges and professions where they experience both verbal and extreme physical abuse as a matter of course. If violence looms as a threat over the lives of women, it is so tightly woven into the common experience of Indian men that it is rendered invisible.

Some years ago, Steven Pinker wrote a remarkable book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline of human violence over the centuries. Better reportage might make us think that we are still as violent as our ancestors, but the truth is markedly different. We have relatively fewer wars, and a very modern refusal to countenance acts of torture that were once considered acceptable.

Most countries today prefer co-operation (trading, for instance, instead of waging wars for goods) to the high cost of armed conflict. Crucially, we no longer see human life as cheap and expendable. Pinker argues that as we evolve, we learn to draw more and more people into the circle of empathy; we shift from caring only about our own families to caring about the well-being of entire communities.

If anything, Indians today show a decreasing tolerance for violence, and a new willingness to question old verities–for instance, the belief that women invite their own rapes, or that men have the right to rape. The debates over rape tend to mirror the debates over sati that happened some decades ago over the Roop Kanwar case, with both sides slugging it out. A “progressive” or liberal point of view demanding more freedoms for women is countered by a “regressive” or conservative point of view suggesting that women bring violence upon their own heads by acting provocatively. But if there has been a slow shift, it is towards the idea that sexual violence is unacceptable, with more and more Indians expressing anger and sadness over crimes against women, now that these are more visible.

As a society, though, we still have a very high acceptance of everyday violence—and much of this is violence experienced by men. In a key 2006 study of domestic violence in North India, Michael Koenig, Rob Stephenson, Shirin Jeejeebhoy and others made a fascinating observation.

Domestic violence, they argued, is transmitted—almost like a disease—from one generation to another. “Even after control for the effects of other risk factors,” they write, “husbands who had witnessed their fathers beating their mothers as children were 4.7 times more likely to physically beat their own wives than men who had not witnessed such violence, and they were three times more likely to sexually coerce their wives.”

What is missing from India’s current obsession with rape is an assessment of what Indian men have experienced or witnessed in the way of violence. Few studies examine the impact violence has had on their lives, as either victims or perpetrators. Just as an example: in all our talk of police reform, we have no data on how many of India’s police officers have witnessed violence in their own homes and communities, or what impact this might have on their ability to respond to reports of rape, domestic and sexual violence.

We want the police to stop blaming victims for the violence done to them, to stop trying to silence those who report rapes by either bribing or threatening them. In that case, we need to understand how to undo the beliefs surrounding violence—especially violence visited on women—that the police might carry into their workplaces from their personal lives.

If we’re serious about “stopping rape”, or at least bringing down the high incidence of sexual violence in India, we should start with the violence we can attempt to control. That implies tackling our own homes and communities.

This requires long-term change, though, and what most Indians want right now are easily implementable solutions. The suggestions for solving the problem of sexual violence are many. Some want the death penalty–highly problematic given the slow and unreliable justice system. Some suggest keeping women corralled at home, which ignores the reality of changing migration flows, and the fact that many more Indian women join the workforce each year. Some demand castration of rapists, though there is little evidence to suggest that castration is a deterrent. And there are regular calls for more and better policing, or for the establishment of rape crisis centres.

What actually works? The answer might startle Indians. The economist Steven Levitt* wrote a brilliant paper in 2004, based on research he’d done in 2001, asking why crime rates dropped sharply in the US in the 1990s. One sobering conclusion is that it’s unrealistic to expect just one kind of crime to lessen. In the case of the US, according to Levitt’s data (and in several parts of Europe, according to Pinker), crime rates dropped uniformly, rape cases dropping along with homicides and other kinds of violent crime. Significantly, the drop in crime rates was universal—crime went down across geographical areas and across different economic classes.

Factors that had, in Levitt’s opinion, little or no effect on the fall in crime rates ranged from “better policing” to “capital punishment”, to “shifting demographics”. But a rise in the number of police personnel, irrespective of whether they were better trained or not made a big difference. So did a rise in the number of people in the prison system. The other two factors Levitt cites are particular to the US—the receding crack cocaine epidemic, and the legalization of abortion, because unwanted children were found to be far more likely to engage in crime, chiefly because of neglect or cruelty from their families.

In India, there is little data on what has actually had an impact on crime rates, in the few areas where they might have dropped. Do we need to increase the number of police officers, along with pressing for better training? If imprisoning perpetrators has an effect on crime rates, we might want to consider that many crimes, including rape, have poor conviction rates. Given the length of time rape trials take and the flaws in the process, most Indian rapists would not consider imprisonment a serious deterrent.

There must be other factors, particular to India, that influence crime rates. Koenig’s paper hints, for instance, that if domestic violence is transmitted between generations, we should work on reversing the lessons some men learn from witnessing violence in the home. A range of other factors might combine to send crime rates down—and to prevent at least some rapes. But we have to stop seeing rape in isolation. It is part of a bigger problem, linked to the casual Indian acceptance of violence in our homes, schools and clans as natural and inevitable.

Tomorrow’s headlines will bring their raft of despair, the almost unbearable pain of violence and rape forced on the innocent and the unwilling. Instead of giving in to that despair or that apathy, it might be more useful to start looking at crime and violence as something that should be tackled in the same way as polio or malaria, or any other disease. If studies from the US and Europe demonstrate anything at all, it is that the violence we take for granted is not inevitable. Find the right levers, and change could happen faster than we currently believe possible.

* The Economist has a neat summary of the criticism of Levitt’s 2001 data: Several studies over the mid-2000s challenged Levitt’s conclusions, notably his argument that an increase in police numbers has an impact on crime rates, causing them to fall. Recent research suggests, however, that while it is not the sole factor affecting falling crime rates, an increase in police numbers has had a positive impact, bearing out Levitt’s original study.
In this analysis of data from US cities taken over a 50-year period, for instance, McCrary and Chalfin suggest that increasing numbers of police personnel has had a positive impact on crime rates. They note: “The estimates confirm a controversial finding from the previous literature that police reduce violent crime more so than property crime.”
McCrary and Chalfin’s study:

Speaking Volumes: A woman alone in the forest

Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.(Image found on
Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.
(Image found on

(Published in the Business Standard, 8th January 2013) 

In times of trouble, turning to the great epics is always useful: their ancient bloodstained lines are reminders that we do not have a premium on violence, rape and corpses.

Over the centuries, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have become India’s default epics, eclipsing the Rajatarangini, the Cilapatikkaram and other equally powerful legends in the mainstream imagination. While this is a loss, both epics offer an insight into the way rape works in India.

Five stories of rape and sexual assault from the epics are particularly useful. The Ramayana has the abduction of Sita by Ravana, and running parallel to it, the disfiguring of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana—two atrocities, not one, that trigger a war. The Mahabharata has the public assault on Draupadi at its heart, the abduction and revenge of Amba, and and the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika by Ved Vyasa.

The tale most often cited in the aftermath of assaults on women, such as the tragedy of the young woman who died this December after being gang-raped and injured by six men, is Sita’s abduction. This is raised explicitly by pseudo-Hindus, usually as a warning to women to stay behind a Lakshman Rekha, an arbitrarily drawn line of protection. It echoes the widespread views of many who blame women for being sexually assaulted, saying that they should not have gone out in public.

Sita, though, is not a passive victim, as Namita Gokhale, Arshia Sattar and others argue. Gokhale points out that Sita is the first single mother. Sattar sees Sita as a woman who exercises complex choices, leaving a man who once loved her above all, and a marriage where she is no longer treated with respect. (This episode, Sita’s rejection of Rama and her building of a life without him, is seldom raised by guardians of the purity of Indian women.)

Draupadi’s story is rarely referenced, though it is powerfully told in the Mahabharata. Draupadi’s reaction, after Krishna rescues her from Dushashana’s assault while her husbands and clan elders sit by in passive silence, is not meek gratitude. She berates the men for their complicity and their refusal to defend her; instead of the shame visited on women who have been sexually assaulted, she expresses a fierce, searing anger.

She will wear her hair loose, she says, as a reminder of the insult; she does not see herself and her body as the property of the clan, least of all as the property of the husband, Yudhisthira, who has gambled her away to the Kauravas. She demands justice, and is prepared to call down a war that destroys the clan in order to receive her due. It is no wonder, perhaps, that those sections of conservative India who will cite Sita’s “transgression”—her crossing of the Lakshman Rekha—as the reason for women’s rape, will not speak of Draupadi. Panchali, with her five husbands, her proud sense of ownership over her own body and her quest for vengeance, represents everything about women that terrifies a certain kind of Indian, who prefer to be more selective about the myths they wish to follow.

Amba is again, silenced in popular discussion, and yet her story remains both remarkable and disquieting—the woman who will even become a man in order to wreak revenge on the man who first abducts and then rejects her. There is nothing easy about her story, as anyone who has tried to rewrite the Mahabharata knows; or about the way in which we gloss over the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika, one so afraid of the man who is in her bed that she shuts her eyes so as not to see him.

That leaves Surpanakha, the woman who roams alone, without need of protection or owner, in the forest. Different versions of the Ramayana are uneasy about her looks—in some, she is an ugly rakshashi; in some, she takes on a deceptive, beautiful form; in some, she is beautiful to begin with. But what we know about her is that she is Ravana’s sister, and by extension, probably as learned as her brother; that she feels free enough to express her desire for the brothers Rama and Lakshman; and that she is indeed free, to roam the forests without fear. The story of Surpanakha is filled with tangles and diversions—how much deception does she practice, does she merely terrify Sita or actually attempt to attack the other woman? Do Rama and Lakshmana toy with her, or are they more polite, or are they consistently hostile, before they cut off her nose, her ears, and in some terrible versions, her nipples?

The ending of the story remains the same, and it’s in line with the contemporary warnings handed out to women in India: if you assume that you are free to roam everywhere, even in the forests, you will be hurt by the most ostensibly chivalrous of men.

There is a punchline to that ending, though: if you hurt the wrong woman, prepare for war.

Other readings and retellings of the epics:

Namita Gokhale on the search for Sita, and her strength:

Arshia Sattar on rediscovering Rama, his great love for Sita, and the burden of kingship:

Mallika Sarabhai, ‘Dance to change the world’, on “this feisty feminine feminist”, Draupadi:

Shreyasee Datta on portraits of women from the epics, including Sarabhai’s reworking of Draupadi’s story:

Amit Chaudhuri’s short story, Surpanakha:

Many Surpanakhas–Kathleen M. Erndl’s essay:

(Tailpiece: This column drew, as you can see from the comments, strong reactions, many of them actually abusive. Many women identified with the point I was making; most of the vocal critics appeared to fall into two camps, one questioning these readings of the epics, the other asking whether this was all I had to find in these two great books. On the readings: I have read several versions of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and everything in here, including my reading of the sanctioned practice of ‘Niyoga’ as forced sex, is taken from those multiple readings. On whether this was all I had to find in these two great books: of course not. But an article on rape and assaults on women in the Ramayana  and the Mahabharata is just as valid as an article on, say, the battles in the epics, or on the forests and animals represented in the epics, or indeed on any other aspect of the books. I do not feel the need to stand up and declare my love for these books, books that I have been reading all my life, in one fascinating version or another. (The quality of these critics can be assessed by some of the comments they’ve made on the Internet–@SandeepWeb suggested that I was exercising lesbian fantasies about Surpanakha and then went on to make comments about my marriage and my husband. I wondered why he felt it so necessary to comment on my gender, and my presumed sexual orientation/ habits, but then that’s just another common way to cut a woman down to size on the Internet.)

What I find interesting is the unwillingness to grant anyone space to also examine what these two books say about violence against women, as if that was not an acceptable subject, and the unwillingness–which seems to me to go against the spirit of the epics–to grant the Ramayana and the Mahabharata their ambiguity. Women have agency in the epics; they make the storyline as much as they are part of the story, and we must explore all of what they face, not just the parts that suit us. Almost all of my critics missed a key point: the article critiqued not the epics so much as the present Indian tendency to quote with immense selectivity from the epics, taking for granted Sita’s sacrifices and her demure nature, but missing the point of that final meeting with Rama, where instead of submitting herself yet again to an ordeal of purification, she calls upon the earth to swallow herself up, ending their love story.

If we accept the Lakshman Rekha, we must also look at the woman who disappears into the earth, rather than be judged again; if we accept meekly the right of Satyavati to order Ambika and Ambalika to sleep with a man who scares them, for the good of the clan, we must also look at how little meaning “consent” had in the epic. None of my critics have so far had an answer to Surpanakha, who still stands in the imagination of many women, injured in the forest, dripping blood from her scarred face. As much as I love Kunti, Draupadi and yes, also love the many men of the epic, I think we must all, for ourselves, look also at the epic’s more disquieting stories. Not all of them are to do with women: in the Mahabharata, for example, there is the episode of the house of lac, where the Nishada woman who has befriended the Pandavas is burned to ashes along with her sons, their bodies left there to add verisimilitude to the idea that the Pandavas have perished in the fire. The Mahabharata is, famously, uncomfortable about this; a key section records that this was not a good act. If the epics themselves admit of ambiguity, we are free to read and re-read them. As I have done and will continue to do.)