A recent project by Indian photographer Sujatro Ghosh- illustrating women in cow masks - has once again questioned the distressing status of violence against women in India. According to Ghosh, putting women in masks in the context of daily life addresses the disturbing fact that a slaughtered cow receives justice faster than a victim of sexual violence. Cow protection groups take only hours or days to find the person accused of killing the cow, whereas it can take years before a court punishes a woman’s assaulter.
The 2017 Human Rights Watch Country Report on India stated that the Supreme Court deemed it “unacceptable” that gender discrimination exists. Yet, despite an increase of sexual violence persecutions, Indian women do not receive the prompt investigation and safety services promised by the government. The stigma on reporting sexual violence deters women from punishing the guilty.
Additionally, statistics on crime against Indian women highlight how the problem is far from being controlled. In January 2017 alone, there were over 350 rape and molestation cases reported, and almost 50 percent of these cases remain unsolved. The Delhi police reported proactive measures taken to lower crime rates, but there was still a total of 2,155 cases of rape filed in 2016. There is an average rate of six rapes a day, highly indicative that the Indian government lacks attention on the subject.
It is no surprise that Ghosh’ photography brings about harsh criticism and threats from Hindu nationalists as his project is described to be an indirect comment on the BJP. For someone like Ghosh who strongly believes in transforming Indian society’s attitude on women, these threats are not enough to disrupt his project’s powerful message. As a nation that has coined itself a “rape capital”, India cannot afford to keep ignoring a persistent oppression against its female population. Especially when it is published by surveys that 40% of Indian women experience sexual violence before the age of 19. The only way to interpret why the problem still exists on such a large scale is to look at a history of gender discrimination.
Indian society’s oppressive nature towards women roots itself in the ideological beginnings of the country. From the time of India’s independence in 1947, only men were recognized in the fight against the British, wrote the constitution, participated in government roles, provided for their families, and continued to deform and subjugate women. Even as the nation welcomed its first female prime minister, there was no inch to back away from traditional gender roles. Today, in a land that is home to some of the world’s top female CEOs, political figures, and journalists, gang rapes, domestic abuse, and female infanticide still exist.
Men remain at the pinnacle of Indian society and have been taught to use their masculinity as a defense mechanism. According to a study on India by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in 2014, a large majority of Indian men agreed on the notion that exerting dominance on a woman and controlling her was a true sign of masculinity. Additionally, the study also reported that certain male gender norms - particularly being expected to provide for the household - greatly contributes to violence, as men often use women as outlets for household stress. Because so, the normalization of oppression against women within the Indian male population makes it increasingly difficult to change the situation.
The 2012 Delhi gang rape marked the grave reality of the modern sexual violence problem. Not only did the case receive such widespread attention because of the incoming wave of new, Indian voices targeting the government’s inability to punish the guilty, but the brutality experienced by the victim and the idea that she was a simple, middle-class girl who worked towards a promising career angered international populations, putting heavy pressure on the Indian government to reform rape laws immediately and effectively.
While domestic and international advocates were vital in addressing the 2012 case, the sad reality is that this type of backlash does not exist on a day to day basis. There can only be so much expectation for an entire population to change mentality when Indian feminism itself is flawed.
Why is it that feminists are angered by the rape of a woman in South Delhi, but do not share similar sentiments towards the gang rape of a Bihari woman? The answer lies in how the value of life changes based on urban and rural settings. Women who are victims of sexual violence in more underprivileged areas will never be able to experience marches and demonstrations in their names because their stories are merely facts on paper. Their hidden identities only add to the increasing number of cases in country reports, whereas the 2012 victim has her own Wikipedia page.
More so than flawed feminism, these protests and pleas for reforms in India’s judicial system can only prompt institutional changes. For an ideology ingrained so deeply into the culture, a significant decrease in violence has to come from within the population. This is not to say that the government should not encourage initiatives like expanding economic and educational opportunities for women, but without transforming the discourse, India should never expect to witness an eviction of its sexual violence problem.
The standard of life has improved for many Indians, but their mentality remains stagnant. Instead, women are now being taught how to survive a patriarchy. Women describe survival techniques such as avoiding parks and alleys at night, changing travel routes, and working towards a career despite the psychological consequences that emerge after an attack. The tragedy of India’s sexual violence problem continues because efforts are focused on women instead of men. Rather, Indian society needs to teach its men to disassemble the social system of dominance and oppression.