Back in 2015, I shivered as I watched the interviewed men – some of them convicted in the Nirbhaya gang rape case – speaking in support of sexual violence in India’s Daughter, a documentary. Gruesome details of the rape were brought up and expanded upon throughout the documentary. It brought back memories of the time when the details of the rape emerged in 2012, when I thought repeatedly that I could have been Nirbhaya.
The hanging of four men convicted of Nirbhaya’s rape on March 20 morning has been celebrated for providing justice to women around India. That Nirbhaya’s family succeeded in getting the justice system to name and convict those who participated in this violent act can indeed be considered a symbolic victory in the history of women’s rights. Yet, what kind of “victory of justice” does the hanging of the four men represent?
The politics of death penalty
Many women and men who describe themselves as feminists have voiced their support for the death penalty. One man, who goes by the name “GMANI” on Twitter, writes that “myself being a father of a daughter even suggest hanging of them in public or stoned to death is more appropriate for these bastards”. The core of their argument is that the act of hanging would deter men from committing such acts of violence, an argument that has negligible evidence in social sciences.
Can one be a feminist and call for the death penalty to be abolished? Many see a paradox in this view. If one were indeed a true feminist, some would argue, one should be celebrating the death of these men. That one does not agree to the use of capital punishment against those convicted of crime, including a gang rape and linked death, is seen by some as an opinion that makes an individual somewhat less feminist or not a feminist at all.
Yet, does one have to choose between women’s rights and the value of human life (including a criminal’s life)? Does this question have to be framed as a binary? Eric Fassin, a French sociologist, calls us to question the very terms in which certain debates are imposed upon us. When faced with such binaries, he recommends that we ask: What is at stake in this debate? And for who?
The death penalty is problematic in many ways. It gives the state a form of power over the lives of its people by allowing it to decide which of its citizens can die and when. The lower one is in the social hierarchy, the higher the probability that one’s fate is tied to the state’s decisions. This hierarchy is complicated in many different ways: one’s position in social hierarchy depends on one’s gender, caste, social class and religion among others.
Disparities in how the justice system treats the same crime committed by those from unequal backgrounds has been demonstrated in the case of the United States. For example, studies have emerged that show that “Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that are, on average, nearly 20% longer.” In our case, we can compare the trajectory of the Nirbhaya case with the Unnao rape case: in the former, those convicted of rape came from lower socio-economic class, while in the latter, it was the BJP leader Kuldeep Singh Sengar who was convicted. While the court hanged the convicts of the Nirbhaya case, the BJP leader received life imprisonment.
When lawyer and activist Abha Singh said that the hanging of the convicts is a “great victory of justice” in a televised interview, what justice did she mean? She said that the hanging itself has sent a “strong message to the country,” especially the criminals. But does this “justice” guarantee that there will be no future Nirbhayas?
Hanging did not kill patriarchy
Patriarchal structures remain strong in India. Yet, these structures remain unquestioned in the media debates around the Nirbhaya hanging.
India recently ranked 108 in the list of 149 countries in the Global Gender Gap index produced by the World Economic Forum. In the ‘economic participation and opportunity’ and ‘health and survival’ components of the index, it ranked 142 and 147 respectively.
Violence against women is widespread across our society. A National Family Health Survey (2015-16) report tells us that about a third of women in India have experienced some form of physical violence since age 15. What is shockingly glaring is that a significant proportion of women have experienced violence from within the confines of their homes: one out of three ever-married women have experienced spousal violence, be it physical, sexual, or emotional.
One might think that given the spread of social media awareness, the number of women seeking help from gender-based violence would go up. Yet, the survey data tells us the opposite story: “Only 14 percent of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence by anyone have sought help to stop the violence, down from 24 percent” in 2005-06.
The structural nature of gender inequality means that, in many cases, women themselves internalise (along with men) the patriarchal discourse of ‘women’s inferiority’. This has concrete effects. For example, the survey reports that around 52% women and 42% men surveyed “agree with one or more of the specified seven reasons for wife beating” (reasons included negligence of house or child, refusal to have sexual intercourse, bad cooking, and suspected adultery). As we face the next weeks of social isolation and extended lockdowns around the world, activists have warned that there may be an escalation in domestic violence against women.
Patriarchy and Hindutva masculinity
On conversations about government efforts to fight structural patriarchy, many point out policies like the “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” campaign. Yet, many of these policies centre around men rather than women.
Scholar Sujatha Subramanian uses the case of the “Beti Bachao” campaign to illustrate the relationship of the current administration with the challenge of gender inequality. Like the recent “Main Bhi Chowkidar” campaign, she writes, the focus of the current administration remains on protection as a male duty. The state never talks about women’s agency and empowerment. Rather, women have come to be defined as the object of protection. Women, in this vision, are to passively receive education or physical safety from men without questioning their power.
Subramanian links this state vision to the proliferation of what she terms as a discourse of “Hindutva masculinity,” an ideology of masculine superiority that marginalises women, Dalits and Muslims. Dibyesh Anand defines this discourse as one that “conflates nationalism with masculinity and violence”. The act of the hanging of those convicted by the state is a reiteration of this masculinity that is based on the discourse of protection through violence. The judicial system has come to equate justice with protection, which has to be achieved in some cases through violent means.
In addition, it has been pointed out that the popular anger produced through the heavy mediatisation of the Nirbhaya gang rape governed, to some extent, the trajectory of the case in the Indian court. The popular demand for harsh punishments for convicts in mediatised rape stories, writes Radhika Radhakrishnan, is itself “patriarchal in principle.” This demand for harsh retributive justice in rape cases “stems from the patriarchal fetishisation of sexuality as taboo and shameful.” Given that women face a societal loss of value and honour in the case of gender-based violence (unlike for victims of other forms of violence), “we feel compelled to want more justice for rape than other forms of violence.”
Where do we go from here?
Hanging rapists does not kill the structure that allows rape to occur. As Rituparna Chatterjee, who curates #MeTooIndia, writes: “Four men being killed eight years after a horrific crime does not make me feel safe.”
What we need today is policies that engage concretely to think about ways in which women can have agency over their lives. This requires that the state move away from focusing on the protection framework it has been employing to a framework that includes women in the decision-making process, be it political, social, or economic in nature.
Fighting gender-based violence requires that we have the social infrastructure where women can freely report about harassment without facing harassment and violence. We don’t have to go back too far in time to see how the police in India have refused to believe stories of violence, with a woman being forced to return to death back home. We need a society where women’s stories, including stories of gender-based violence, are believed.
Shreya Parikh is a sociologist studying race, religion and secularism in France. She speaks Gujarati, Hindi-Urdu, French and Arabic. She tweets @shreya_parikh.