Delhi gang-rape: the debate in the West

The continuing protests over the rape, sexual torture and death of ‘Damini’ have made headlines around the world – the reports and commentaries have been near-unanimous in their support of protesters. In Britain the debate is fierce. Because Britain claims to know India so well, it appears to have been taken by surprise by the ferocity of the protests.

Predictably, the UK debate is divided along political lines between the Left and Right. The London Times newspaper fired the first salvo with a strongly-worded editorial that called for “cultural change” to address the “epidemic of gang rape and the misogyny that inspires it.”

In the mainstream British press, Damini’s killing has led to a row over whether gender discrimination and violence in India is a culture-specific phenomenon. Libby Purves, veteran journalist, author and radio presenter, sought to analyse Indian gender violence by taking a critical look at British stereotypes (these are also Indian stereotypes, but that’s a blog for the future maybe).

“We in the West enjoy an image of India: industrious ambition, rising economy, colour and vigour… There is a bitter irony in learning that the young woman and her male friend had been out to see the Life of Pi, which the cinema-going world watches a brave Indian boy crossing an ocean, exploring the exalted spirituality of the three religions of the subcontinent while suffering the inability of animals to coexist peacefully…”

India, she says in her angry piece, cannot pin “the whole atrocity” on a few bad boys. “A benign cultural earthquake is necessary if the country, one of the world’s four big boom economies, can be allowed to hold its head up in the civilized world.” She adds, “There is unignorable statistical evidence of this cultural rottenness.”

Not much to argue about there, many Indians might think. But Purves was taken to task in the Left-leaning Guardian newspaper by the academic Emer O’Toole. Her column, Delhi gang rape: look westward in disgust presented the view that the problem of extreme gender violence was not restricted to India.

“There’s something uncomfortably neocolonial about the way the Delhi gang-rape and subsequent death of the woman now known as Damini is being handled in the UK and US media,” says O’Toole. “Attitudes towards women in the east were once used by colonialists to, first, prop up the logic of cultural superiority that justified unequal power relations (the “white man’s burden”) and second, silence feminists working back in the west by telling them that, comparatively, they had nothing to complain about.”

A piece in The Independent, a liberal newspaper, offered a global view by giving statistics of rape in Western countries: Sexual violence is not a cultural phenomenon in India – it is endemic everywhere.

An Australian working at ASHA, a Delhi-based NGO, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “If we as a nation are to embrace India fully – as I think we ought – we must disavow any form of cultural relativism when it comes to this issue. We must apply pressure, in whatever way possible, to call for change…. As a nation, we can call for change on behalf of the women of India, and we must.”

These differences reflect a wider debate on culture and gender – at its most basic, situating Damini in the context of culture seeks to give it a very specific, local and Indian colour. On the other hand, those who emphasise gender say the problem cuts across cultures and societies, regardless of economic development.

There was also a short attempt at an economic analysis in The Times, headlined ‘Old government fails new India.’ It spoke of the “large, mostly urban, youthful and educated middle class” flexing its muscle in post-liberalisation India. This aspect of the debate – emphasizing economic and social change – is something the UK is familiar with, and holds up a mirror to similar injustices.

Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was murdered by white youths in 1993, symbolized aspirational black Britain – not very different from Damini. Both came from ordinary lower middle class backgrounds and both aspired to become professionals by making use of fresh opportunities offered by their rapidly changing societies.

There also are parallels too in the response to the two murders: racist violence had been widespread in the UK before Stephen’s unprovoked killing, just as gender violence, including rape, is endemic in India. In both countries, politicians and police ignored the problem for years. As a result, the killings fuelled popular anger. (A second, possibly closer parallel from Britain is in last summer’s widespread rioting, arson and looting following the shooting of a black man in London by police).

The British inquiry in Stephen Lawrence’s death accused police of “institutional racism” and police were forced to make changes, although much remains to be done still. Whether Damini’s rape, torture and murder prompts such open, frank and self-critical societal scrutiny remains to be seen.

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