The Delhi gang rape which has shocked the nation and the public protest which has exposed the ruling government and administration as inept and outdated has also raised some impossible questions about us as a society. The sheer brutality of the assault on the young woman and her male companion is so shocking, that it cannot be a subject of discussion for us. The shortcomings of the government, the excessive force used by the police on protestors in Delhi, the mewling of the prime minister and the mysterious mutterings of the Union home minister are easier to talk about than a woman being raped and injured to such an extent that her intestines had to be removed and she is barely hanging on.
One of her first questions on regaining consciousness was whether the perpetrators had been caught. Because if that question is not answered, then what is the life of a woman worth in India? That she is killed before she is born we already know since some communities cannot stomach the idea of a daughter. That she is ill-treated after she is born we also know, since many communities in India would rather focus on and feed their sons. It is a matter of some good fortune that she is no longer automatically killed when her husband dies, but there are still some instances where the death of a husband is akin to the end of a woman’s life. That she cannot always earn the same salary as a man we sort of accept grudgingly. That she can be a sex object and a commodity from any age from a few days to any number of years we learn as we go along. But that she cannot walk on the roads, sit on a bus, be out by herself or with a friend? What does that tell us about ourselves?
The worst of it is that this particular Delhi rape is just one more in a series of ghastly cases which have made the news this year. From Kolkata to Haryana to Mumbai – to name just some parts of the country – stomach-turning stories have been recounted. Usually, the first reaction is one of horrified helplessness. Evidently, the people of Delhi felt they had had enough this time – the national capital averages about two rapes a day, far above the rest of the country. However that sounds as a statistic, in real life terms it is an abomination.
The search for answers though shows up the complications. Yes, there have to be some changes in the police reporting and investigating systems. Yes, the judiciary has to work faster and the conviction rate for rapists has to go above a dismal national average of 26 per cent. Yes, there has to be more “gender sensitivity” among officials – what a polite term for what is in fact gross chauvinism and discrimination against women. Yes, women have to feel secure in public places.
But at the bottom of it all, it all comes back to us. It comes back to using women as receptacles and servers. It comes back to lack of respect. It comes back to every little way – whether by time-honoured custom or by current prejudices – that women are belittled and humiliated. It comes down to that fact that regardless of religion, caste, community or colour, it is still women who are second class.
And there are all those confusions about rape itself. Is it about sexual attraction and frustration or is it an act of domination, power and humiliation? To women and to most men (hopefully) it is not the former. Rape is an invasion, an assault, the basest attempt to dehumanise a woman by using force to discount her voice and her choice. The immediate solution is to get the police and the courts working. The long-term solution requires much more hard work.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona