Dissecting the Role of Respectability in South Asian Violence Against Women
After the horrific rapes, beatings, and murders that have held the news headlines in India, the women’s college Indrapastha College created new rules. “Curfew for students living in campus dormitories has been brought forward an hour to 9:30 p.m.,” the revised rules state, “And girls are now required to seek permission from the college administration before going out with friends and provide details of the friends they are going out with.”
Faced with measures like this, feminists in India are valiantly fighting as women’s bodies are restricted in the name of their own safety. In order to “protect” the women of India, those in power have moved to confine the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. This represents a powerful and alarming double standard: while women are responsible for their own bodies when they are violated, this responsibility does not extend to the right to plan their own families or love whom they choose. The cultural and political battles surrounding the current rape crisis in India beg a more complex analysis of gender roles, requiring solutions that extend far beyond lawmaking and into the realm of restructuring a messy history of colonization, religion, and hybridization. While many Indian politicians blame Westernization and changing sexual mores for an increase in gender-based violence, we would do better to look to attempts to reassert Indian culture in postcolonial South Asia. The “purity culture” of this reclamation has hypocritically led to increasing gender-based and sexual violence in the name of respect and modesty.
According to Ratna Kapur in “A Love Song to Our Mongrel Selves: Hybridity, Sexuality and the Law” the religious right in India often portrays the sexualization of young Indian women as a “Western” phenomenon that has brought about the moral decay of the nation. In this fashion, the head of a right-wing extremist group in India claimed that rapes did not happen in rural areas of India in the same way they happened in cities because of Westernization. He was defended by the mainstream conservative party, the BJP, which went on record saying “Indian culture is about respecting women. Several sociologists have studied crime patterns and inferred that adivasi [aboriginal] regions have not had even two rapes in 25 years. I am not justifying anyone but everyone has the right to hold an opinion. Even if you go through police reports you will see most atrocities against women are happening in urban areas — Mumbai, Thane, Pune Nasik.”
There are several factors that may affect the sexual violence crime rates in rural areas, from underreporting to education of what constitutes a rape. Yet rather than considering these factors, politicians in parties like the BJP make their beliefs clear: Indian men respect women. This is not an Indian problem.
However, Kapur begs to differ: “Indian cultural values [are] deployed…by those in positions of power and dominance to legitimate dominant sexual norms in and through a stagnant, fetishised and exclusive understanding of culture,” she writes. By attempting to decolonize their culture, Indian postcolonial reformers have disavowed the sexual autonomy of women and thrust their modern problems onto an easy scapegoat—India’s colonial past.
To expand this argument geographically and theoretically, take a look at the oppression of women in the name of their “rights” and their “respect.” Take the practice of Sati, in which widows immolate themselves along with the bodies of their husbands, something the British outlawed during colonization. Sati, in Sanskrit, means “good wife”—and a good wife’s purity lies on her husband’s funeral pyre. Particularly in Pakistan, acid attacks are becoming increasingly common practice as a way of publicly punishing and shaming women for transgressive behavior, such as when wives “dishonor” their husbands by asking for divorces or even when a young girl looks at a boy. In a similar vein, honor killings are perpetrated against women to protect the honor of families with disobedient children who do not conform to the gender roles and regulations of their society. In order to protect the virtues of the women of South Asia, the men in their lives have taken to destroying them.
Colonization, then, cannot be blamed for the rapes, beatings, and murders that plague the women of India. Instead, we should look to a culture of feigned purity and the erasure of South Asia’s rich sexual history to explain the destruction of women under the mandate that they demonstrate national loyalty by upholding oppressive cultural norms. In attempting to recover their country’s values, Indian men have sent their women to the frontlines of cultural battle, making them the figureheads of morality. When postcolonial Hindu reformers attacked the institution of sex work in order to reclaim India as pure—both reacting to and adapting Victorian sexual norms—the formerly sacred devadasi was degraded. While the devadasi had been a sacred sex worker who offered her sacrifice to the gods, reformers reacted Victorian colonists’ mocking of the practice by debasing the institution of the devadasi and redefining sexuality for Indian women.
These practices were not confined to India. In Sri Lanka, Tamil women were asked to do their part in the thirty-year civil war by dressing conservatively and preserving their culture, as noted in Yasmin Tambiah’s “Sexuality and Sex Work under Militarizaiton in Sri Lanka.” When a woman’s role is to protect and preserve, her responsibility to uphold standards of morality, cultural transgression is the ultimate form of betrayal of one’s country. In return for this betrayal, women are served with violence in the name of the national honor they were supposed to uphold.
By protecting female purity, we deny women ownership of their sexuality, restricting their bodily autonomy. This means more than a limit on sexual liberty; it means a limit to women’s rights to coexist with men as free and equal human beings. When postcolonial traditionalists blame the West for sexual violence, they deny their own responsibility to the women of India. It is a responsibility that goes deeper than the need for new laws against rape. Indian women deserve more than just protection: they deserve progress. They deserve a cultural shift, an affirmation from their politicians and religious leaders that they should be able to make choices about their bodies and behavior safely and without judgment, that they can walk outside without sexual harassment, and that they do not have to be respectable in order to not be raped.