“It wasn’t as if the demonstrations were coordinated,” says Indian feminist writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia, recalling the mass protests that erupted across India in December 2012 after the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey. “A lot were spontaneous and separate. Different political formations demonstrated, and there were moments of tension between groups.”
But the protests cut across gender, age, caste and geography. In Delhi’s centre, on 16 December 2012, the protest hub of Jantar Mantar played host to people gathering throughout the day and night, demanding state action. Further afield, in suburbs and rural villages, small candlelit vigils took place. And the protest action continued for many weeks after Pandey’s murder; Butalia recalls driving home from work and seeing a group of doctors marching with candles to mark the second or third month after her death.
Butalia, who was in Cape Town last week at the invitation of the Heinrich Boll Foundation to meet with South African activists, is quick to note that there have been horrific instances of rape before and after Pandey’s murder in India, which have not sparked the same kind of public outcry. India does have a vibrant history of political protest, however, and Butalia suggests that two series of demonstrations over the last decade paved the way for the unprecedented public involvement in the December 16th protests.
The first was the 2006 acquittal of a politically-connected man accused of murdering a young model called Jessica Lal, and the second was a series of mass protests launched by activists against government corruption in 2011 and 2012. During both protests, Butalia notes, “people from all walks of life came together to raise their voices,” demanding state action. But what made the 16 December demonstrations different was that it was unprecedented to see people from such diverse backgrounds united in protest against a “women’s issue”: sexual violence.
As a South African woman listening to Butalia describe India’s public outpouring of grief and anger, it’s hard not to feel a peculiar sense of envy. The brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen in South Africa, just over a month later, won media headlines and expressions of horror. But at no point did South African citizens take to the streets in their masses, saying “enough is enough”. Our Jantar Mantar moment never came.
“I don’t think we have lost our rich history of activism,” says South African feminist researcher Joy Watson. “If you look at the volume of service delivery protests, it’s clear that people certainly mobilise on practical matters. The problem is that the issue of women’s bodies is not seen as a ‘bread and butter’ issue.”
Why did Jyoti Singh Pandey’s rape and murder in particular inspire protest from across all sectors of Indian society? Butalia suggests that Pandey represented the aspirations of many Indians: her father a baggage-handler, a mother a housewife, the family had left the village for the city to seek a better life. Her father had sold some land to finance her studies.
“She belonged not to the wealthy privileged class, nor to the really poor class or caste, she was not fully rural, or urban,” Butalia has written on the matter. In this way, one can speculate that perhaps she was more widely “relatable” than other victims in this manner.
Watson and Vivienne Lalu, coordinator of the Shukumisa Campaign, suggest that the South African media possibly did not do enough to tell the story of who Anene Booysen really was. They have commented on the difference in media attention paid to Booysen and another murder victim who would dominate headlines a fortnight later: Reeva Steenkamp. “[Booysen] was interesting only insofar as her body was a site for brutality and for the courtroom dramas than ensued after her death,” they have written.
“I don’t think our media reported on the Anene matter like [Indian media] did on Jyoti,” Lalu said last week. “I think our media is seriously influenced by race and class in how they report.”
Butalia agrees that the media played an important role in the December 16th protests, and particularly in helping to exert pressure on government to take action. “India had been presenting itself as a model growth story: India shining, open for foreign investment,” she says. Government concern about the country’s public image was a major incentive to take rapid action.
But beyond this, Burtalia says the Indian media treated the Pandey murder in an unusually responsible manner. “A number of talk shows involved feminist activists, rape survivors who were willing to speak out were encouraged to do so, politicians who responded in their usual prejudiced ways were put on the spot and questioned, serious editorials appeared in the papers,” Butalia writes.
“The legal bar on mentioning the name of the rape victim was adhered to, her family was left alone to grieve, especially after the victim died, and some media also took the trouble to visit the homes of the rapists and examine the social and economic conditions there that could have led to the men becoming so violent.”
There’s little doubt that this latter aspect – an attempt to seriously interrogate the contexts that give rise to sexual violence – is often absent from South African reporting. But the responsibility for galvanising and mobilising social outrage about rape cannot be laid solely at the media’s door.
“There’s a kind of sensory fatigue in South Africa because violence is so endemic,” suggests Watson. A further issue is that these kinds of protests are seen as the task of the “women’s movement”: a movement which is hugely overstretched and depleted.
“The NGO sector [in South Africa] does a lot of the work of the state with dwindling donor funds,” says Lalu. “At Shukumisa we’ve been looking at how many Violence Against Women NGOs have had to shut down, leaving gaps in an already inadequate service delivery. And the state is not plugging the gaps.” It’s a problem we’ve touched on before in Daily Maverick.
Butalia says Indian civil society is beset by similar problems. One is a distrustful attitude from government to NGOs, with a report commissioned by the government finding that large NGOs are causing a loss to the exchequer and harming economic development. They are claims that Butalia calls “atrocious”, baseless, and designed to protect big businesses that Indian civil society often finds itself in conflict with. The amount of international donor funding that Indian NGOs can now receive is subject to the approval of government. “A company can receive any amount of foreign direct investment, but NGOs are subject to constraints,” Butalia says, shaking her head.
In the wake of the Pandey murder, however, the state had to listen to female activists who had long been demanding changes to the law on rape and greater security for women on the street. A committee set up by the state to look into the rape problem consulted widely with women’s organisations, and consequently produced a report which Butalia calls “the most progressive document about women to come out of India since independence”. One result of the committee’s findings was the drafting of new legislation on rape.
The new rape law was not viewed with unalloyed joy, since it introduced something women’s groups had been largely opposed to: the death penalty for rape. Butalia explains that their concerns were that rapists would be more likely to kill their victims if the death penalty was on the cards if they were exposed; and that the reporting of rape within domestic settings (where most rape takes place) would fall. But the law also introduced other positive aspects, like criminalising a wider range of crimes – like stalking – under the ambit of sexual assault.
The law also made provision for new fast-track courts to deal with rape, though Butalia notes that one unintended result has been that justice in other criminal matters has been displaced as a result. “Like in South Africa, Indian justice moves very slowly,” she says.
South African legislation around sexual violence is still more progressive than India’s in some ways: South Africa recognises marital rape as a crime, for instance, whereas India still does not. But we did not see the same kind of decisive political response to the Booysen rape and murder as India experienced eventually – and not without sustained lobbying – in response to Pandey’s. In the aftermath of Booysen’s death, the government committed to expediting the roll-out of Sexual Offences Courts. In May 2013, it was promised that 58 “dedicated” sexual offences courts would be “fully operational” by September. 10 months later, this is still not the case.
The wider problem in both countries is that despite expressions of outrage, legislative changes and judicial progress, sexual violence remains a huge problem. Butalia says, in fact, that there has been a 31% rise in reported rapes since the new law was introduced – but she attributes this partly positively to a new openness among women towards reporting rape.
Changes in law, or court process, also cannot address all the deeply-entrenched root causes of sexual violence. What is it about these two countries that give rise to their terrible rape problem? It’s the million rupee, or rand, question.
“In India we see a potent mix of tradition and religion and cultural belief in the superiority of the male,” Butalia says. “This moment in our history is a moment of tremendous flux and transition. Women are coming out to demand rights, moving into the formal work sector. Jobs are few and far between, and there is competition with women for resources. There’s a blurring of lines between the city and the village, causing changes which are hard to quantify. Class boundaries are being constantly questioned. Modernity is encroaching and setting up lots of tensions.”
Then there’s the inequality problem. “India is quite rich in many ways, but there’s a creamy layer at the top and huge gaps between the poor and the rich. We haven’t dealt with poverty and the brutalisation of the poor, and we know that finds expression in increasing violence against women,” says Butalia.
South Africa has many of the same issues at play – together with a particular construction of South African masculinity that Watson suggests valorises testosterone-loaded aggression.
“What we’ve been seeing is that the family is the site of violence,” says Lalu. “It’s where young males learn to be violent. Why are families so violent? There are theories about the inter-generational transmission of trauma and dispossession, seen in a country like ours with a long history of colonialisation, dispossession, emasculation. But why does it get expressed on women’s bodies?” DM
Photo: A boy places a candle as demonstrators hold placards during a candlelight march for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi January 16, 2013. A 23-year-old physiotherapy student was raped and beaten in Delhi on December 16, prompting millions of Indians to take to the streets demanding the death penalty for her attackers and official action to reduce the number of assaults on women. The student died in a Singapore hospital from internal injuries, two weeks after the attack. Five men have been charged with her rape and murder. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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