Let’s leave ‘Indian culture’ aside and focus on the real problem

One of the luxuries of maintaining a blog is being able to write when I fancy it – no filing deadlines, no pressure to publish before the issue becomes ‘stale’. And in my view, the protests that took place in India following the gang rape of the 23 year old student should not be subject to the crassness of time-sensitivity in news anyway. So, this post that I started writing quite some time ago is being published today in the hope that the issue is still and remains very much alive.

I don’t want to cite statistics since I don’t find numbers to be the best indicators, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that sexual violence, including rape, is a daily occurence in India. The saddest part of the recent gang rape of the 23 year old in Delhi is that it’s not an unusual case. What is unusual is that it’s provoked such a response. I won’t go into details of why I think it’s caused such an uproar, I can only be exhilirated by the mass protests, a silver lining in the grim reality that women face everyday. Until now, rape was just something that happened, these protests have made rape something that we can all be legitimately and collectively outraged about. Probably for the first time, the issue of rape in India has been covered so prominently by international (and national) media. While a plethora of excellent articles have appeared in the national press discussing the issue, the debate has taken a slightly different turn in the UK with a question mark over whether India has a specific woman problem.

The question has of course been riddled with much use of the word ‘culture’ with ‘Indian culture’ getting the blame for continued and persistent violence against women in the country. The first I came across the debate was with Owen Jones’ article in the Independent, in which he argues that rape and violence against women are endemic everywhere, not just in India, and with Sunny Hundal’s subsequent response to Owen Jones which he posted on Liberal Conspiracy, entitled ‘Yes, it IS right to point fingers at Indian culture for its rape epidemic’. I had a Twitter conversation about this with Sunny Hundal, but it is difficult to untangle the meaning of ‘culture’ in 140 characters. Following this, an article appeared in the Guardian, in which Emer O’Toole argues that the pervasiveness of rape in the West should not be minimised.

I have been struggling a bit with this debate – firstly, because it seems a bit detached from what’s going on in India, a hugely significant wave of retaliation and resistance, and secondly, because it feels somewhat like a spray painting – a bit about this, a bit about that. So, I’m going to try and clear it up a bit.

Let’s start with this overused word ‘culture’, a word almost inextricably tied with the ‘Orient’. When a rape takes place in the UK, nobody so much as mentions ‘culture’ because culture, in common understanding, is something alien, implying that Western societies are ‘culture-less’. This is why I find it problematic when somebody claims that India’s culture is responsible for sexual violence against women in the country. If ‘culture’ was to be used in the widest sense possible – to mean attitudes, media, education etc. – and not just traditions, ritual, practices and conservatism (maybe even backwardness), it would be much more acceptable. However, that is not the case, hence, the ubiquitous use of the word in dicussions about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and such like, and its absence in the discourse on the West.

When I asked Sunny Hundal if he’d use the word ‘culture’ in a similar discussion about the UK, he responded in the affirmative and cited the oft-used term ‘rape culture’. But surely, he must realise that the connotations of ‘rape culture’ and ‘Indian culture is to be blamed for rape’ are completely different.

This brings me to the second aspect of this debate – does India particularly have a ‘woman problem’, to put it in Foreign Policy’s words. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are, sadly, common occurences all over the world. The protests in India have given us an opportunity to discuss these issues worldwide. To then miss this opportunity and instead focus on whether India is especially demonic to its women, is to miss the wood for the trees.

This is not to deny that there may be particularities specific to such issues in India. For example, I can’t think of a lot of countries where police officers and politicians can openly suggest marriage between the rape survivor and the rapist or where rape survivors are subject to the ‘two fingers test’. Then again, in India it would be extremely rare to come across a school football team gang raping a drunk teenage girl carrying her from party to party, as happened in Steubenville. The point being that some responses to rape or sexual violence may be particular to India and yes, they are indicative of a problem (rather, many problems). But on what scale would we measure this against specific problems in other countries, including, as many would like to believe, the ‘liberated’ West.

The reality is that sexual violence is prevalent all over the world. Statistics may indicate more cases in country X than in country Y. Or that there are more convictions in country A than in country B. But no statistics can lessen the impact of the fear of sexual violence most women live with all over the world. At least in India it’s finally causing outrage – it’s much preferred to the deafening silence we have been used to so far. It’s time to join in without deflecting what the protests in India stand for.