The 2012 Dehli gang rape, also known as the Nirbhaya case, was reported around the world as an example of horrific violence against women.
This was a truly horrifying case that became very public especially after the rapists were put on trial and attempted to justify what they had done. The victim was a 23 year old physiotherapy intern called Jyoti Singh who was travelling on a bus with her male friend when she was attacked and rape by the other six men on the bus (including the driver). She died of her injuries 13 day after the assault.
A lot of the international coverage after the rape centred on how dangerous India is as a place to be a woman. Dehli in particular was singled out for its record on sexual violence – and many articles were written exploring India as a place to be a woman. India regularly ranks as one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to be a woman. But with the Nirbhaya case, something else happened. It almost seems that the coverage from the west looked to point out how India was uniquely awful and plagued by backward mindsets when it came to women.
An article in The Guardian by Emer O’Toole noted this phenomenon. O’Toole observed how western outlets covered the case by framing their responses to what had happened in terms of outrage and shock. Looking at low rape conviction rates in India, UK and American platforms might express condemnation; but this doesn’t change the fact that western countries also have extremely low conviction rates for rape and sexual assault. In the UK, for example, we can see how resourcing and budget cuts have led to procedural changes which have reduced women’s safety and the legal repercussions for assault. Some have alleged that this is because the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) has cut the number of rape cases it prosecutes in order to manufacture a higher conviction rate.
If this is genuinely the case – and evidence suggesting how the threshold for prosecutions has got higher indicates it may well be – then we can see not only how women in the west are equally failed by inaction in the face of their plight but also how western institutions attempt to cosmetically improve their image when it comes to demonstrating social concern for the issues which specifically affect women.
O’Toole also examines in detail an article in The Times by Libby Purves, who claimed that westerners had romanticised India and failed to duly note the ‘murderous, hyena-like male contempt’ that characterised men’s attitudes towards women in India. This was perhaps one of the loudest manifestations of a current of commentary that ran alongside coverage of the Nirbhaya case. As part of this, Indian culture was classified as inherently violent towards women – and Indian men were seen as uniquely vicious in their attitudes towards the women in their life.
It should be possible to accept that Indian society is a very dangerous place for women without resorting to crude cultural commentaries. As O’Toole notes, Purves has made no mention of the other social factors of poverty and poor education which often combine to lead to social conditions where women are denigrated. Instead, Purves treats what happened in the Dehli gang rape almost as if it were stereotypically Indian. Purves urges readers in the west to rethink their ‘frillier’ feminist concerns because these are nothing compared with what our Indian sisters have to deal with.
This is exactly the sort of deflection which attempts to whitewash the west’s treatment of women. The insistence that the concerns UK feminists have are unimportant compared with the issues women face in India undermines the notion that we need a strong feminist movement here in the UK. At the same time, it casts a non-western country as the apex of evil for women, creating a dichotomy between western and non-western countries through the issue of women’s rights.
What Purves seems to forget is that all issues of gender inequality are linked. Sexual assault happens to women everywhere around the world and is the result of patriarchal attitudes which exist in all our societies. In some places, the manifestations of gender inequality may be particularly harrowing and brutal, but all such manifestations stem from a similar place. There is no room for moral superiority in the fight to combat violence against women as all of us around the world are facing the same challenges with attitudes and ingrained assumptions/behaviours.
The only thing that moral superiority will do is allow us to turn a blind eye to the true causes of gender based violence – ultimately failing women everywhere.