Ranjona BanerjiA woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle was one of those taunting slogans of the feminist movement long gone. And suddenly, it seems like we’re slap bang in the middle of it again. The rape in Delhi on December 16, 2012 has opened many fissures long forgotten and exposed many faults long ignored. Indeed, this has been one of the most depressing starts to a new year in a long time.

There is one welcome difference between the then of the 1970s and the now of 2013 — many of the people calling for gender equality in India are men. In the West at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, men felt threatened and under attack. Now many of them are at the forefront of those calling for change. While so much needs to be done, as we have discovered, much has improved as well.

Turning tide: There is one welcome difference between the then of the 1970s and the now of 2013 — many of the people calling for gender equality in India today are men

But dealing with rape and dealing with women’s rights are not quite the same thing, even if they are connected. There can be no doubt that gender equality needs some more attention in India and education about this equality is sorely lacking — at official, governmental and societal levels. The constitutional rights given to women are ignored and flouted with impunity. And sometimes they are not even as accepted as we have seen with conservative groups like khap panchayats or hard-line Muslim organisations. Many women’s organisations have grown old pointing out that sticking to personal laws for religions only perpetuates the discrimination of women.

Rape however does not diminish with equality. That violent assault of domination, invasion and violation exists in all societies and nations, regardless of their record on women’s rights. What some nations have done is to try and ease the victim’s pain and make every effort to nab the accused so that justice is not perverted. It is here that we in India have failed the most.

Police reforms have become like a worn out mantra that everyone parrots, but no one remembers what it means any more. A rape victim — as we have been reminded over the past few days — if she ever gathers the courage to report the assault has to then be even stronger to withstand the assault of the police force. If you are lucky, the police will be indifferent but on a bad day, they can be as bad if not worse than your assailant.

If you get past the police then you might even get to the courts. Here you could meet a judge who may perhaps decide the defendant deserves continuances for a few decades, by which time your case could be all but forgotten. But if you are very unlucky, the judge could decide that you are better off marrying your rapist. This way, society’s shame has been neatly covered up and the woman has been put in her place. A woman’s lot is to suffer, as that other judge recently reminded us.

The cynic will tell us that all this public anger will soon die out and we will go back to the way we were. The cynic is right in the sense that is how we normally behave. But there are times in history where we have bucked the accepted and forged a new path. Is that the point we have reached today?

Dr Ambedkar is supposed to have said: “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” It is a test that all of us Indians, cynics and idealists alike, might apply to Indian society to see how far we have progressed. And tragically, if all else fails, there’s the evergreen and dismal wisdom of George Santayana which tells us that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
That’s a horrific thought to start 2013 on.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona