The 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped on a Delhi bus on 16 December 2012 has died in a Singapore hospital. The details of her case were so horrific that it brought widespread reaction across India and around the world: angry protests were held in Delhi against the Indian Government's failure to protect women, and countless people abroad vented their frustration on Facebook, Twitter, and in blog entries. Anti-Government ire escalated daily after it instituted a curfew at Delhi Gate – the site of the most notable protests – and particularly after it decided to move the woman from a Delhi hospital to Singapore for further treatment.
Now the woman is dead, and in their white-hot anger, everyone is looking for someone to blame. They will invariably point in the right direction. Blame is everywhere. The Indian Government has failed to protect its citizens through the proper application of the law by those responsible for upholding it, and there is an undercurrent of misogyny and the subjugation of women in Indian society (particularly in Delhi, according to this blog post and many others).
As I watched the responses to the announcement of her death roll in on Twitter – responses which continue to flow as I type this, and which will continue for days at the very least – I wondered what I could possibly add to the conversation. A few things seemed to invalidate whatever I might be able to say:
1) I am a man. The worst sexual harassment I have ever been subjected to was when a drunk young woman grabbed my penis as she walked by me on Cuba St in Wellington. She continued walking with her friends, laughing at what she had just done, and I continued on my way home. I've never worried about being molested in public and have no idea what it feels like to fear the streets. To deflect a gaze that mentally undresses you, and more. To not just anticipate the possibility of rape, a sharp object always near your hand, but to expect it and prepare for it. This is what Indian women go through all the time. Their freedom is constantly infringed – if not by an immediate physical threat, then by years of mental conditioning.
2) I am a foreigner. My attitude to the world and other people is informed chiefly by my upbringing in New Zealand, however much I might identify with India and Indians. As such, I can observe and listen, but anything I attempt to contribute will carry some gap of understanding.
3) I probably think the same things as you. Examples: violence against women is unacceptable. A female in jeans or a skirt is not inherently provocative. Enjoyment of alcohol or dancing does not imply a willingness to be touched inappropriately. And a government that presides over a society unsafe for women (228,650 incidents reported in 2011) is failing in its duty.So, what could I say – from my white male perspective – that hasn't been said before?
Well, there is one thing, and it's about men. Hopefully it can be evaluated without concern for one's background, and if it has been said before, hopefully it is worth repeating.
There appears to be a common belief in India that men cannot control themselves when they see a woman. Perhaps she is dressed in figure-hugging clothes, or is pursuing higher education and a career outside the home. Perhaps she has been out to a nightclub. In any of these situations, and in some even more ridiculous cases, it seems the blame for a rape or molestation can be shifted to the woman because the man just couldn't help it.
Lydia Polgreen reported on this for The New York Times last year. “If these girls roam around openly like this, then the boys will make mistakes,” said the mother of two accused rapists in one case. Mistakes. Like dropping a bottle of milk on the kitchen floor, or missing an open goal in a football match. There is no doubt in my mind that by and large, women in India are not given the respect they deserve as human beings, and every person should check themselves when they are about to pass judgement on a woman needlessly. However, if Indian men are viewed as id-driven beasts concerned primarily with the most primitive sexual desires, then they are not adequately respected either.
I know that it's possible for a man to control his urges when confronted with an attractive woman because I seem to manage it without a second thought. Further evidence is apparent in all of my male friends – Indian or otherwise – who, as far as I know, have encountered thousands of women throughout their lives and not molested any of them. This is no miracle, though it is probably a result of good parenting, good friends of both sexes, and conscious rejection of certain popular attitudes towards women.
So, here's my impractical, probably inadequate attempt at wisdom: men should be treated with respect, just as women should. This does not mean placing men on a higher plane than women in any way. It means holding us in some kind of esteem, at the very least to the degree that we are not assumed to be rapists-in-waiting. I say this as much to men as to women: many of us, in the wake of learning of the 23-year-old rape victim's death, openly decried our gender and, in some cases, expressed a crude desire to castrate ourselves. Some men are dangerous, sure, but most of us are not. And it's my belief, as I've written before, that most men who molest girls in public know that they're doing something wrong.
A culture of respect is obviously not something that can happen in an instant, and for India, it may be decades away. Another rape victim has died, and more such crimes will inevitably take place. The Indian Government bears heavy responsibility and absolutely must act to make the streets safer for women. But if things are to change, there has to be some belief that men are better than this.