16 December 2012. As the rest of humanity slowed down for the festive close of the year, in India, things were building up to a shocked crescendo. We lit candles, we stayed out in the cold and fog, we as a nation battled police brutality, all in support of the nameless victim of a horrying gang-rape onboard a moving bus in Delhi on the night of 16th December.
Nirbhaya we called her; the fearless one. We honoured her for her spirit, for her will to live. For her refusal to feel shame for other people’s brutality. Nirbhaya herself died a few days later, succumbing to massive internal injuries, but the fire she had lit in India’s consciousness continued burning.
Slowly change was affected in India. Nirbhaya’s attackers were caught and all – barring one juvenile – were sentenced to death. India’s sometimes shrill media took up a drum roll, announcing each new horrific rape to an increasingly horrified public. Police were galvanised by the nation’s scrutiny, and more often than before, the perpetrators of these crimes were cornered. New bills were announced, new police phone lines, more women cops.
Still, it has become clear in the two years that have elapsed since that horrific crime that Nirbhaya’s case is far from uncommon. Daily reports infiltrate our newspapers and TV screens of more depraved attacks on children and on women of all ages. And attitudes are proving hard to shift. There has been a flood of inappropriate – and frankly, offensive – remarks from India’s politicians. Boys will be boys, they say. It’s the woman’s fault. For being out late, for being alone, for wearing the wrong clothes. Or better still, the woman should have appealed to the aggressor’s better nature, should have called him brother.
The main point, in gaffe after retracted gaffe: so a woman is raped. What’s the big deal?
These insights into India’s politicians, often men from feudal backgrounds, shine a light on how much of India thinks.
And now, a filmmaker has produced a documentary that features an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of Nirbhaya’s rapists. His words are chilling.
Worse than his lack of remorse is his conviction that Nirbhaya richly deserved her vicious attack. “A girl,” he maintained, “Is far more responsible for rape than a man.”
For being out at night.
For not staying at home and doing housework.
For roaming around in bars and discos at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.
For fighting back.
The death penalty, he adds, will make matters worse for girls. They’ll now be killed after being attacked, discarded like so many unwanted dolls.
My initial reaction to reading his interview was to think of Mukesh as an aberration. We know that he was an immigrant. Perhaps he came from a troubled background. Perhaps he had seen violence as a child. Perhaps he was a monster, an evil deviant.
Some of the above might well be true. But the more I thought of it, the more I realised how very representative his attitudes were. Not in the major metropolises, maybe, not even in India’s fast growing towns and cities. But in India’s villages, in its rural, feudal heart, Mukesh Singh and his sentiments are the norm. They are utterly, scarily ordinary.
In village after Indian village, a patriarchal attitude prevails. Women are weaker, they must be protected. It is the men who go out and work. It is the men who provide. Women must stay at home, be demure, look after the family.
Girl children are not celebrated. They are kept away from school. They are given smaller portions of food. And in a twisted way, it is almost possible to understand this preference. In much of sexist India, girls won’t go out and earn money. They will have to married off at the cost of often ruinous dowries. Financially speaking, they are the less rewarding offspring.
And India is a country that prizes strength. We favour the Goliaths of this world. Historically, this strength has rested with the landowners, who claimed the poor as indentured labour. Who felt it was their right to take their serfs’ wives to their beds. It has rested with India’s holy men, who have taken advantage of the common man’s unquestioning faith and credulity. Who have relieved the poor man of his savings, who have sexually assaulted many in the name of spreading enlightenment.
These have always been the two planks of strength; wealth and information. And in India, the strong prey upon the weak. We allow our us-versus-them mindset to scornfully reject as much as the humanity of those weaker than us.
This makes India’s women sitting ducks. They are physically weaker, and they are remaining financially and intellectually weaker. They are discriminated against by their families, repeatedly abused, and their attackers find it natural to justify their actions. They find it hard to see the humanity in those weaker than them.
The evil is in our society. The evil is in denying girls adequate food and education. The evil is in being more lenient with a son. The evil is in calling India’s outraged middle class hysterical. The individual rapists and misogynists are simply the evidence of this rot. And unless we pay heed to this evil, girls will continue to feel unsafe across India. They will continue to be ignored, assaulted and discarded. When they survive, they will continue the cycle of repressing the weak.
We must heed the evil in our society. We must end the cycle of repression, or the evil of Mukesh Singh and his ilk will continue to flourish.