Rape Culture In India
The Best & The Worst Of Everywhere
You never truly know a person or a place until you have loved and loathed them in equal measure.
As a traveller I want to know about a given destination as much as possible and want to see its best and its worst. My sunglasses are black tinted, not rose-tinted and I’m a big brave boy who can handle the truth. At least I like to think so…
Whilst in Venezuela I became fascinated by the country’s notorious crime wave of robbery and homicide. In fact, I was forced to confront these issues head-on having them thrust upon me, firstly by the well-intended naysayers imploring me not to even visit the country, and also through the anecdotal tales of the locals and backpackers, I met who had either been robbed or shot at.
For me, the problems in Venezuela were pretty easy to understand. The formula was economic shortages and deep inequality meeting with an abundance of firearms and visibly poor law enforcement. The crime was just about money, whether fueled by genuine desperation or simple greed, and the bandits were just taking what they otherwise could not get. All too often, this had bloody and even fatal consequences.
India’s criminal phenomena, rape and in particularly gang rape, is a whole lot deeper, darker, and harder to even begin to get a handle on. I mean, WTF? just how does an entire country acquire a reputation for been a hotbed of gang rape?
The Delhi bus incident of 2011 highlighted the rape problems in India by shocking & sickening the entire world. Unfortunately, though it was not an isolated incident and since then, several more equally barbaric cases have made international headlines. The rape problems in India are still making headlines as recently as this week after scores of women were assaulted in New Years eve in Bangalore; this is in fact what caused me to write this piece today. Indeed, I initially thought about writing this article when I first visited India in Spring 2016 but decided against it not wishing to wade into such a complex and controversial date without all the facts but fuck it.
Experts are still fighting amongst themselves about the exact statistics, about just how bad the problem really is and how this really compares to other nations. What was made clear to me though, from speaking to Indian women, female travellers and observing what I saw myself, is that the country has real serious issues regarding relations between the sexes and the place of women in society.
I am a travel writer and not a criminologist so why concern myself with this? Well because as a true backpacker I try to understand and get beneath the fabric and underbelly of every single country I visit; warts and all, for good or for bad. The Taj Mahal tells you absolutely nothing about contemporary India so if you want to know a culture then acquaint yourself not only with its history and monuments but with its aspirations, its hopes and equally as importantly, its fears; in India, this means confronting the rape problem.
Upon arrival in India I was immediately struck by how few women there seemed to be. I would walk down crowded streets in Mumbai, eat at busy Dhabas in Delhi and ride on packed trains all populated entirely by men. It frequently felt like a nation made up entirely of guys.
There are reasons for this. India is still a deeply traditional, conservative society and women often stay indoors lest the outside world corrupt and taint their purity. If a woman goes outside too much or talks to men in the street then she may well struggle to ever find a husband. I heard this of countless Indian women most of whom I met outside of India where they felt safe to talk to me about these things.
There is also widespread institutional segregation where men and women are sometimes even educated separately right through to University. Trains too have male and female carriages although these were of course set up in response to the problems female passengers were reporting. One time I accidentally boarded a, mostly empty, female only carriage and upon realising my error laughed playfully to conceal my embarrassment. The other passengers, on the other hand, looked anything but amused, they seemed at best confused by my fleeting presence and at worst downright terrified.
Statistically speaking there is actually a shortage of women in India and an unbalanced male to female ratio. This is because in some parts of Indian society, female children are seen as an expensive burden who will someday need a husband “buying” for them and consequently they are all too often aborted or even killed at birth. The Government is attempting to mitigate this situation by banning the payment of wedding dowries but for now at least the practice still persists. Perhaps this status as a “burden” suggests a deep, under-seated lack of respect for women in general and for their place in society.
When riding trains in Mumbai (in the packed-out male only carriages) I was stared at continuously for the entire duration of any journey. I found this extremely disconcerting and can only imagine how unsettled a female passenger must feel. Whilst I was assured that the staring was not badly intended and that I was simply “interesting” to the other guys, it suggests to me a universal unawareness or indifference to a concept of personal space.
Many women travellers I spoke to had sorry tales of been touched or groped by Indian men, particularly on public transport. I witnessed first hand on several occasions what I can only term as a sickening level of “creepiness” from groups of Indian men towards my western female friends and when travelling with my friend and his partner we both felt our stomachs turning and fists tightening on a number of occasions.
Of course, this is not all Indian men. I met many who were respectful and lamented the conduct of their countrymen. I have also encountered lechery all over the world and appreciate that sex crime is a universal problem. Rape statistics on North American college campus are also apparently very high. However to quote the words of one very experienced, mature female traveller I met; “India is unique. I had no problem Couchsurfing in Latin America, there, the men will try it on with anything but I can handle them. I just couldn’t risk couchsurfing in India though”.
In India, I also saw far more Bollywood films and Indian pop videos than I would have ever wanted to and many of them seemed to tell a very similar tale which goes something like this;
Boy meets Girl, Girl spurns Boy and then Boy engages in what can only be termed “stalkerish” behavior waiting outside her house and following her around. However, rather than being served an injunction and referred for counseling, Boy is eventually rewarded for these behaviors when the object of his obsession inevitably falls in love with him.
Maybe it’s just harmless, escapist fantasy or maybe it does subliminally send out some kind of unhelpful message. Afterall, I do have at least one friend in the UK who decided to get into Heroin after watching Trainspotting a few too many times.
What we have is a society where the sexes are segregated and do not know how to interact, where men learn about women from ridiculously romanticised Bollywood films or from pornography. We have a society where sex is suppressed, seen as taboo and something to be practiced only in marriage but then of course, statistically speaking, it is not actually possible for every man to find a wife as there are just not enough women to go around.
The Government has long been accused of not taking the problem seriously by classifying rape as a “social problem” rather than a crime and by perpetuating an attitude whereby rape is seen as shameful upon the victim and not the perpetrator. This is now changing, law enforcement and judiciary services have been reformed and severe sentencing is now been widely implemented. Whether this alleviates the problem, whether the country has had its rock bottom and reached a turning point, remains to be seen. The Major of Bangalore’s recent comments that women essentially deserve to be molested suggests to me that there is still a lot of work to be done.
For me, India is like no other country I have visited. I loved and hated it in equal measure. It has wonderful things and terrible things, it has light, dark and all shades of grey. For all of its problems though, I would still recommend it as a truly essential backpacking experience and one which you will never forget. I would also, however, recommend that female travellers grow a very thick skin, be very assertive and take very special care.