January 18, 2013

Interview by Caroline Hanna

Like many, Amherst faculty members Amrita Basu, the Domenic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies, and Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Krupa Shandilya reacted with shock, horror and anger at the recent news of the gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in New Delhi. They cheered the tens of thousands of Indian citizens who have angrily demonstrated against such misogynistic violence, and they watched, dismayed, as the Indian police used tear gas and batons on the protestors. Feminist scholars and teachers of a course this spring called “The Home and the World: Women and Gender in South Asia,” the pair spoke with the college’s Public Affairs office about the situation in India and discussed the possibility that the country may have reached a turning point. (They also wrote an op-ed on the topic that was published on Jan. 10 on the Al Jazeera website, and Basu was interviewed about it on the Asia Pacific Forum radio program.)
Krupa Shandilya, left, and Amrita Basu

Sexual violence is an insidious, terrible problem that happens all over the world, every day. This was a particularly horrifying incident that galvanized many in India and beyond. What do you two see as some of the biggest issues at play here?

KS: One of the biggest problems is the government’s failure to recognize India’s feminist voices and to listen to their suggestions about what could be done to make the situation better. The women’s movement in India has been protesting violence against women, specifically the rape of women in police custody, since the 1970s. Perhaps if people had been listening to their ideas, the country wouldn’t be in the state it is in today. The steps the government is now taking are just quick-fix solutions. The Indian government should really be working to change the much deeper, systemic problem of how society as a whole treats women.

AB: I agree with Krupa. Sexual violence is symptomatic of the larger devaluation of women in India that’s manifested in daily life through harassment, groping and stalking that are all trivialized by the commonly used term “Eve-teasing.” To adequately address rape requires addressing these deep-seated prejudices towards women.

How would you describe the state’s response?

KS: The initial reactions of the chief minister and the prime minister were abysmal. It was only because of these protests that they decided to change their stance. The prime minister went on television and gave a speech that was completely off the mark, urging the protesters to stay calm, rather than advocating for justice. He also noted that he understood the outrage that people are feeling, since he has three daughters; if he did not have three daughters, does this mean that he wouldn’t be able to understand the injustice of the situation? It’s totally absurd.

AB: Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of the Indian president and a member of Parliament, referred to protesters as “dented and painted” women who “go to discotheques,” implying that “frivolous” women invite violence because of their demeanor. There were many other galling statements by Indian officials. There was a long lapse in making the arrests and providing the woman who was raped with adequate medical treatment, which might have saved her life.

How would you explain the growing incidences of rape in India?

KS: A big problem is that women don’t report these cases. There is a huge stigma attached to women who come forward, and often women are raped by the police when they are in custody. There is no real legal redress for most women. What role is the government going to play in protecting the women of the country? Women need to feel encouraged and safe to come forward.

AB:  The law also defines rape very narrowly and doesn’t recognize rape within marriage. The courts are backlogged and cases are not tried for years, so the laws do not deter rape.

Did the caste system contribute to this situation?

KS: I think the caste system is more salient in rural areas than it is in the cities. In this specific case, we feel that class, rather than caste, was at play.

Do you worry about the way the world is now viewing India?

AB: Media reports sometimes identify rape as a “cultural” problem or a “traditional” cultural problem in India, ignoring the huge cultural differences between North and South India. This recent gang rape has more to do with globalization than with tradition, and more to do with cultural change than with continuity. 

Many incidents of sexual violence are taking place in very global, Westernized cities. In New Delhi, sexual assault has skyrocketed in the past few years. The women who are victims of these attacks are often educated, employed and upwardly mobile. These women are considered Westernized and have become the targets of resentment, envy and anger by men with lesser means. Several of the men who were arrested for this gang rape, for example, were migrants from rural areas living in the slums and struggling to find lucrative employment. This gang rape, like many other rapes in Delhi, expresses growing class and cultural tensions amidst globalization. Many forms of violence against women have grown in recent years as India has become more “modern.” They include the use of amniocentesis to [allow expectant parents to find out the sex of their unborn child so that they can] abort the female fetus and “dowry death,” the murder of a woman by her in-laws and husband on the ostensible grounds that they did not receive a sufficient dowry at the time of marriage.

How do the two of you, as scholars of gender and women in South Asia, see your own roles in addressing this question?

AB: As Indians living in the States, we want, on the one hand, to express to our students our horror and outrage at what happened and, on the other, to discuss this in the context of rape in the United States. Steubenville, Ohio, [where high school football players face charges of raping a 16-year-old girl] provides a disturbing counterpoint to the gang rape in India.

KS: We’re teaching a class next semester, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to get students to see: that this happens everywhere. Otherwise it is simply a reiteration of neo-orientalist ideology of “let’s save these brown women.” We don’t want that happening at all. Our course talks a lot about sexual violence, but now, given what’s happened, this is probably something that will run through the class as an anchoring political and intellectual question.

Do you feel as though this could be a turning point in India?

AB: Perhaps, because the scale of these protests against sexual violence is unprecedented. What isn’t clear is how fruitfully the government will address this problem. Some state officials and civil society groups are advocating chemical castration or capital punishment for rapists. A group of women lawyers believe that the men who were accused of this gang rape should not be given legal representation. These proposals undermine democratic processes and create a more punitive, rather than a more just, society. We hope that [the protests] will create more opportunities for dialogue about the weaknesses and strengths of proposed remedies. We hope that feminist voices will be heard.