Gender inequality remains widespread in India. Women could combat it by asserting their rights © Getty Images
The horrifying tragedy that befell the young Indian woman Jyoti Singh, who was brutally gang raped in a New Delhi bus in December, and later died in a Singapore hospital, has led to spontaneous outrage. That Indian women face terrifying risk when they venture into public spaces, as they must do in cities and towns and will do even in villages, is a fact that few had appreciated earlier; this is no longer so.
Nor must one discount the fact that the somnolent, indifferent and at times hostile Indian political leadership in New Delhi has been forced into awareness and action. One would have thought that Sonia Gandhi, a woman totally in charge of the Congress party (India has astonishingly backed into the old Soviet model, where the party chairman is the real boss and the prime minister has no real power) would make an immediate address to the nation, much as President Barack Obama did with passion and tears after the shocking slaughter of young children in Newtown, Connecticut. As a female leader, she should not have taken almost two weeks to speak to the women of India. She needs to abandon the “culture of silence” which she has long embraced.
But the reactions have varied greatly—much like the diverse perceptions of an incident filmed in Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, from short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. They range from thoughtless calls for drastic punishment for rape to expressions of sentiments by men that betray the deeply offensive cultural attitudes of even educated and “liberal” men towards women, which must be confronted.
Perhaps the most widely shared reaction, inevitable in such cases not just in India but everywhere, was that draconian punishment was in order. Many seeking revenge or believing that deterrence increases with the magnitude of punishment reacted by demanding capital punishment for the accused in this and future rapes. Capital punishment has, however, become rare; and even in India, liberal opinion has swung increasingly to endorsement of the celebrated dissent in 1982 against capital punishment by former chief justice Prafullachandra Bhagwati (transparency requires me to disclose that he is my brother).
True, it is hard for politicians to take this enlightened position. Michael Dukakis, a US presidential candidate in 1988, fell a victim to his anti-capital punishment views when asked in a televised debate whether he would oppose capital punishment even if his wife was raped and murdered. He should have said, which he did not, that though he might have wanted to wring the neck of the rapist with his bare hands, a civilised state cannot do this.
Some have even suggested public hanging which would take us back to the medieval displays that we have fortunately banished from civilised societies. Others have demanded castration. That is a mutilation that modern societies cannot accept though unfortunately some countries such as Saudi Arabia continue even today to indulge barbarian practices and will cut off the hands and feet of thieves.
But if these demands, expressed in the heat of the moment, are to be rejected, India can certainly profit from enhanced enforcement and forensic advances. Assaulted women must be assisted by female police officers whose numbers are woefully small and must be greatly augmented. DNA samples must be collected.
Instead of cases dragging on for years, fast-track courts must be set up for rape cases, though the fast track must nonetheless not be so rushed that the police and prosecutors are under pressure to get convictions and will therefore fabricate evidence and force confessions that lead to unjust convictions. Remember the case of the Central Park jogger in New York, who was assaulted and raped on 19th April 1989, where the pressure on the police to find and convict the culprits, driven by public outrage, led to five teenagers from Harlem being convicted on the basis of false confessions obtained after lengthy interrogations. Later in 2002, these convictions were set aside when a rapist already serving a life sentence for murder confessed to the crime.
I hope that cooler heads will prevail on these rape-related issues of prevention and redress. But the attitude of men who reacted adversely to the female protestors, and also of the victim who told her mother “I am sorry” as she lay dying, reveal a culture that lets men indulge sexism and encourages women to assume guilt for prejudice directed at them. This wider focus is equally important if India is to reduce, if not eradicate, the widespread phenomenon of gender inequality.
Thus, a Congress member of parliament Abhijit Mukherjee, who is the son of the current president of India, described the protesting young women as “dented and painted”—a comment he later retracted—implying that they were dolled-up prostitutes and also damaged goods. This reminded me of the time many years ago when I was on a panel at the Indian Planning Commission with a high-level bureaucrat who remarked that scarce foreign exchange should not be spent on importing lipstick. So, instead of demolishing his argument on economic grounds, I responded: “I must tell the women in the audience that, even as my fellow panelist says that foreign exchange should not be wasted on lipstick, I can smell the Brylcreem in his hair!” What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander—but then men would have to treat women as equals.
These attitudes are carried by men into employment practices in India, where women are often passed over in favour of less accomplished men. As it happens, in American universities which offer tenured posts, I often go out of my way in appointment committees to say that women are handicapped, in a way that should be taken into account, because the tenure decision comes up far too soon when they are often having babies and cannot do as much research as men.
But the attitude of women, in India and elsewhere, to accept blame without a semblance of justified guilt, also needs a corrective. I remember two teenage nieces telling my wife that she was responsible for my success: that behind every successful man was a woman. They thought they were being feminists. But they were not. They should have turned this around and said: in front of every woman is a successful man blocking her way!
Women really have to be careful to assert their rights. Sometimes they promote the wrong role models by taking the easy way out, piggybacking on successful men and sacrificing their autonomy. Can we really condone, for example, a woman who abandons her career and buries herself instead in her husband’s career, or a woman who becomes the director of a university programme which she is not qualified for but is part of her father’s fiefdom? The men are surely to blame; but equally so are the women, who should know better.
We know enough today about how gender discrimination is not just bad in itself but also deprives us of the benefits from engaging half of humanity into gainful employment—often the better half. Once, I was in Finland as a member of a UN Group of Eminent Persons and President Tarja Halonen had supplied each of us with the services of a foreign service officer. When I asked the president why all of them were women, she said that women candidates were so successful that they had to introduce an affirmative action programme to bring some men into the foreign service. My amused reaction was that this showed why we men had to suppress women to date: we simply could not compete with them on equal terms.
If the tragic rape case finally focuses our attention on the wider cultural factors in India and the ways in which they insidiously undermine the quest for gender equality and fulsome respect for women, the young victim’s death will have served a larger purpose.