Rape and the city: misogyny in New Delhi

The Eyes of the city are everywhere. They follow each of her moves; eyelashes dressing down saris, burqas, pants, brushing modesty off; eyelids widening as though coercing the strength of the stare to expose, AAs or DDs, width no barrier so long as there’s a vagina somewhere. They are sons, fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. They come from every walk of life and every income group and permeate every inch of the sidewalk with the cat-calls and “eve-teasing”. Bollywood doesn’t help, with A-list actresses enticing men to devour them with alcohol in the same manner as they would a barbequed chicken. Nothing wrong with a delicious barbecued chicken, except when we associate a living, breathing woman with feelings and thoughts to a dead chicken with no feelings or thoughts, we dehumanise her. In dehumanisation lies justification of increasingly rampant violence in an economically burgeoning India.

A steep increase in violence against women has haunted northern parts of India, especially in the capital city of New Delhi. This heightened in December of 2012, when a 23-year-old paramedical student was brutally and fatally gang-raped by six men in a school bus. Her crime was “[B]eing indecent enough to roam around at 9 ‘o’clock with a male companion”. This scene is disturbingly frequent in modern India’s landscape, a country caught in the crosshairs of regressive prejudices under the guise of a proud religious and cultural dogma and progressiveness masquerading as economic growth.

The seeds of misogyny lie in patriarchy; its seedling taking root in mothers-in-law beseeching gods to bless pregnant daughters-in-law with sons, the stalk growing further when young boys are educated while girls are kept home due to presumed higher economic returns, and the poison reaching fruition as it bestows dowry to the beneficiaries, whose sole achievement is having a penis. A newly-wed wife, having survived the arduous life cycle of being herself, now prays to the many female goddesses in the Hindu-majority country for redemption via birthing a male child. Within this toxic amalgamation of religion-cloaked sexism, fear-fuelled subservience, and (pseudo) economically-justified internalization, a vicious cycle is created; honour killings, wife-battering, rapes, genital mutilations are tools to keep up the status quo. 

Since India opened to economic liberalisation in 1991, the government has pursued market-oriented policies to encourage private and foreign investment, resulting in one of the highest rates of economic growth in the world. Privatisation has further led to more exposure to the Western media world, ideologically conflicted against an Indian patriarchy that finds security in conservatism. Factors including economic opportunities, relief from traditional (and arguably overbearing) joint families and villages, and the promise of freedom have resulted in young people migrating from rural to urban locations. The phenomenon of rural to urban migration is increasing because of globalization, economic, and demographic disparities. In terms of the volume of migrants, rural-urban migration stream is currently the second largest type of migration in India.

While this movement has resulted in more economic freedom and opportunities for women, the patriarchal mind-set remains deeply imbedded amid the younger generations of rural migrants; generations that are both the products and perpetrators of the cycles of misogyny. Throughout their lives, these young men have seen the women in their lives as inferior; their mothers beaten by alcoholic fathers, grandmothers berated for not giving birth to a son, sisters not sent to school. However, these women are now not only their counterparts in the workforce, but might even be earning more, gaining economic freedom and the confidence that accompanies autonomy, as liberal feminism explains fittingly. The status quo has dented, and sparks are arising from this conflict.

Antidotes to this poison are slowly but surely spreading in the form of increased awareness of the prevalence of harassment, activism and demonstrations against the rampant misogyny. Changes in policy might be a lofty albeit imperative aim, but it can be broken down into more tangible and measurable goals. Involvement of men as partners and stakeholders of the status quo is imperative to the achievement of gender parity.

The Eyes of the city should be everywhere, watching out for hunters waiting to prey, calling out misogynistic practices in life and online, appreciating and assisting in equal distribution of domestic labour, accepting “no” and enforcing it, and understanding the difference between loving protection and hegemonic superiority. They are our sons, fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. They come from every walk of life and every income group and have agency to make a difference.