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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 13, March 16, 2013

Patriarchy and the Rise in Sexual Assaults in India: An Explanation

Wednesday 20 March 2013, by Gilbert Sebastian


“We must understand that [they] have committed a crime, but the source of this crime lies in society. It is true that [they] themselves carried out this crime; but a great part of the culpability was transmitted to them by society.†—Mao Zedong1

For all their silences and misgivings, the unprecedented mass protests in Delhi and elsewhere against the ghastly gang-rape of a 23-year old girl in a Delhi bus on December 16, 2012, has helped awaken social consciousness and provided an occasion to focus attention on the larger issue of the alarming rise in violence against women in India. Even as this round of mass protests was urged on by 24/7 coverage in the corporate media, the puzzling silence and passivity on similar other incidents cast a reflection on the character of Indian society.

In this piece, we want to indicate the limitations of legal and security-centric solutions to curb rape and the need, more importantly, to view it as a cultural and political economy question as related to neoliberal globalisation. We need to give primacy of attention to the violent masculinity of imperialist patriarchy corresponding to the predatory and commodi-fying propensities of neoliberal capitalism as against confining attention on legal measures demanding sure and stringent punishment to the perpetrators. The violent masculinities of imperialist patriarchy and the home-bred semi-feudal caste-based patriarchy have a meeting ground. We argue that the import of the US rape culture through the ascending trend of imperialist patriarchy which commodifies women could, primarily, be responsible for the massive rise in rape cases. A caveat is to be added that we do not mean to condone the largely unrecorded savage violence under semi-feudalism to put women in place. While exploring solutions, we also point out certain undesirable trends within the women’s rights movement. We further indicate female foeticide as taking the biggest toll in violence against women in India. As against the pseudo-liberation of imperialist patriarchy and the pseudo-protection of semi-feudal patriarchy, we need to embark on a path of equality and dignity that socialism had promised a century ago.

It is said: ‘Politics is too serious a business to be left to professional politicians.’ We could apply this saying in this context: Women’s rights is too serious a business to be left to professional feminists because it is women who ‘hold up half the sky’ and take up multiple roles as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, lovers, girl-friends ....

This is a concerned layman’s reflections on the rising incidence of rape and other kinds of violence against women in India today.

The Crucial Questions

In the context of the unprecedented mass protests against the bestial gang-rape in Delhi, the question that arises is: ‘Why is our society producing more and more rapists in recent decades?’ Apparently, the crucial question on women’s rights today is: ‘Why is violence against women alarmingly going up in India?’ It comes in the forms of female foeticide, dowry murders, rapes, domestic violence, honour killings, witch lynchings, female infanticide etc. Sexual assault of vulnerable sections, such as sexual minorities (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, intersex people) and sex workers, is seen, by and large, unproblematic in Indian society and by the police. Serious discussions on the issue of marital rape have been few and far between in India.

There has been an estimated 50 million ‘missing girls’ in India during the past century owing mainly to female infanticide and foeticide.2 The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported 10,068 rape cases in 1990 which rose to 24,206 cases in 2011. Rape cases marked a stunning rise by 873 per cent during 1971-2011. New Delhi itself accounted for 25 per cent of the total cases.3 During the two decades of neoliberalism (1991-2011), there has been an accelerated growth of rape cases in the country with an increase of over 230 per cent.4

Mass Protests and their Silences 

The mass protests against the incident of the murderous gang-rape in Delhi where ‘the criminal poor assault a middle class girl’,5 may not be viewed as entirely innocent especially for its silences. Never has such a mass protest occurred against the regular sexual assaults on Dalit women who are being violated on a day-to-day basis (for example, at Khairlanji in Maharashtra, the rapes and murders of Dalit girls at Chidambaram and Vaanur in Tamil Nadu even as the protests against the Delhi incident had been going on), the mass rapes of Muslim women in Gujarat and elsewhere during communal riots, and rape as a ‘weapon of war’6 used by the armed forces of the state in the frontier nationalities of India (for example, the alleged mass rape of at least 53 women by the Rajputana Rifles at Kunan Poshpora in Kupwara district of Kashmir on February 23, 1991) and in the regions of Maoist insurgency in the geo-political mainland of India. The hegemonic values of caste society, communal majoritarian sentiments and age-old notions of Raj dharma, respectively, could have been behind the lack of public ire against these rapes.

A Confluence of Patriarchies and their Masculinities

Let us put it in perspective: Is the rising violence against women not a result of the confluence of imperialist patriarchy with pre-existing semi-feudal-casteist patriarchy? By imperialism, we mean capitalism in the stage of oligopolies both in its economic and cultural dimensions. Imperialist patriarchy objectifies women’s body, beauty and labour as saleable commodities in the market. It commodifies women as sex objects, as objects of enjoyment. To understand the character of imperialist patriarchy, we just need to look at the vital statistic of rape in the United States (US). As per the estimates of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, one out of six US women and one out of 33 US men have experienced an attempted or completed rape. This is despite the official admissions of gross under-reporting of rape in the US.

Going by the United Nations statistics of police-recorded incidents of rape7 (defined as “sexual intercourse without valid consent†), there were 27.3 rapes per 100,000 population in the US in 2010. The corresponding figures for the UK—England and Wales—is 28.8 and UK—Northern Ireland—is 27.7. There are also extreme cases of incidence of rape in southern Africa—in Botswana at 92.9 (in 2009, the 2010 figure is not available) and in Lesotho at 82.7. The corres-ponding figure for India is modest at 1.8 even if we account for the lack of reporting, especially in case of younger victims, owing to the severe social stigma attached to rape victims. What is alarming is the rise in incidents which cannot merely be passed off as a rise in reporting. Are we witnessing an import to India of the rape culture of the US which enjoys cultural hege-mony in the world today?

The pre-existing semi-feudal caste-based patriarchy in India sought to confine women, especially of the privileged castes, to their homes and hearths whereas capitalist patriarchy liberated them for ‘social production’, that is, outside work. Semi-feudal caste-based patriarchy guarded the honour of the women of privileged castes and equated it with the honour of the family and caste, accorded ‘protection’ to them and envisaged the severest of punishments to men of underprivileged castes for even mild sexual offences against the women of privileged castes. The repulsive images of Bheem’s ravages against Dussasana in the Mahabharata war, for the sake of the honour of Draupadi, epitomises the ideal of patriarchal justice in Indian mythology. At the same time, a lot of unrecorded controlling violence, such as domestic violence, honour-killings and witch-lynchings, was carried out against women of the privileged castes who did not conform to the prevailing patriarchal norms. On the other hand, it was a regular phenomenon for the women of underprivileged castes to be violated with impunity and one could seldom imagine mass protests against it. During the Delhi mass protests “[s]urprise has been registered that [the victim] was not even a Dalit†8. The low participation of women in ‘out-side work’ and the designation of women engaged in ‘outside work’ as ‘working women’ in Delhi and most of North India and elsewhere are indicative of the wide and continued preva-lence of semi-feudal, caste-based patriarchy. The sexual repression and emotional disconnect brought on by semi-feudal patriarchy, owing to restricted interaction between sexes, could give rise to incidents of rape.

As against the pretences of protection by semi-feudal patriarchy, the decadent imperialist patriarchy leaves all women, particularly those of the deprived classes, vulnerable to sexual assaults. There are meeting points of these two modes of patriarchal culture. The violent mas-culinities of imperialist patriarchy and semi-feudal caste-based patriarchy have a meeting ground. Nevertheless, it is apparent that imperialist patriarchy is on the ascendancy especially with neoliberal globalisation. At places, semi-feudal caste-based patriarchy also seems to be on the rise as in the case of the honour killings by the khap panchayats in Haryana.

While no person with a minimal sense of justice can condone the gory sexual assault as happened in Delhi on December 16, we cannot but hypothesise that it is the relatively new trend of violent sexual assaults against the female members of the privileged castes/classes by the ‘criminal poor’ that provokes public outrage in a society where the hegemony of the privileged castes/classes is deep-rooted.

Commodification and Sexual Violence

Are not women viewed merely as sex objects, not only in the proliferation of an underground ‘blue-film’ industry, but also in the unrestricted access to (sometimes violent) pornographic material on the internet to teenagers and in the mainstream visual media channels like MTV, VTV and in the ‘infotainment’ (‘information+ entertainment’, as they claim) promoted by ‘national toilet papers’ (a coinage by V.T. Rajasekhar of the Dalit Voice) like The Times of India (ToI)? Rape reporting in ToI has been following a pattern of viewing the incident from the viewpoint of the culprit—how he achieved it—rather than focusing on the agony of the victim.

Harassing a woman into submission is considered an early stage of courtship in many Bollywood and Mollywood films. The so-called ‘item numbers’ in commercial films clearly portraying women as sex objects is a pheno-menon which is of recent origin. The Punjab Kesari newspaper has had a naked woman’s picture right on the front page everyday as if it is the big news of the day. There have been clearly anti-women popular numbers on the internet, passed off under the name of pop singer Honey Singh. Why are there no curbs on all these in public interest?

Portrayal of women merely as sex objects or objects of enjoyment undermines the dignity of women as human persons and makes them vulnerable to sexual assaults. Towards curbing sexual violence against women, it is said, an ‘attitudinal change’ has to take place in society towards viewing women as persons with human dignity. But how can it come about in the context of the violent, ‘predatory growth’ promoted by the state under neoliberal reforms? The large-scale dispossession of millions of people from land-based livelihoods of jal,jangal and zameen (water, forest and land) for the sake of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and mining is an instance of the pattern of ‘predatory growth’. As Vandana Shiva says in her article, “Violent economic ‘reforms’ and the growing violence against women†,9 “An economics of commodi-fication creates a culture of commodification....â€

Violence and Eroticism in Rape

Daniel Goleman (1991) says:

In years past rape was seen as the expression of an overwhelming sexual urge, one that women could invite by provocative dress or behaviour; more recently, it has been widely described as simple violence against women, expressed through sex. Now new findings suggest that there are many kinds of rapists and that violence and eroticism hold sway to differing degrees in each.10

One cannot easily disregard the aspect of sexual desire in incidences of rape. Eroticism seems to have primacy in less aggressive rapes (at least, 48 per cent) and also in sadistic rapes (eight per cent). The vindictive woman-hater rapists (32 per cent) and those motivated by anger towards the world at large (11 per cent) are far more violent than the first category mentioned.11 In political analysis, Arundhati Roy makes a very important distinction between rape by the “criminal poor†and rape as “a means of domination†by the upper castes or by the Army and police.12 The former is a reflection of criminal pathology while the latter is primarily used as a weapon of war to instil an abject sense of defeat and humiliation in the people under attack.

Equality versus Liberation 

The traditional notion linking women’s dressing habits to sexual violence—that the victims ‘asked for it’—has been keenly contested. A rapist, if at all he is swayed by sexual urge, seems to choose vulnerable targets. No doubt, women have every right to dress the way they like and yet be free from violence. The right to self-determination by women themselves is the key in this respect. Yet, one cannot overlook the fact that a notion of liberation—wherein women are portrayed and women portray themselves as sex objects—is a false one. Insightfully, Paula Rothenberg compares the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s that emphasised on equality as against the third wave feminism that empha-sised on liberation.13 The notions of liberation as espoused by the latter, she argued, were quite consistent with the fact of subjugation of women as objects of commodification within a market-driven society.14 We could add that the third wave also suffers from “the problem of exclusive-ness†/sectarianism, which acts as a serious impediment to the unity of the oppressed masses against the macro-structures of de-humanisation such as imperialism. On the other hand, the second wave feminism, as represented by Simone de Beauvoir et al., was clear that ‘she does not crave spring for herself alone’.

The open challenge to patriarchal norms led to violence against women under both semi-feudal and imperialist patriarchies. It is also quite plausible that the notion of ‘liberation’ under imperialist patriarchy makes women more assertive, leading to a rise in retaliatory violence from men socialised under semi-feudal patria-rchy.

Exploring Solutions 

While exploring solutions for the issue of violent sexual assaults, the radically innovative sugges-tion from Germaine Greer may be seriously considered. She recommends “to abolish the crime of rape altogether, and instead to expand the law of assault to include sexual assault in varying degrees†. A rapist in case of a “petty rape†may be sentenced to “100 hours of community service†whereas “mutilating assaults on children would be recognised as many times graver than penetration of a grown woman†. Greer says: “Historically, the crime of rape is not an offence against women†, but an offence committed against “the man who has control of a woman†by “the man who makes unauthorised use of her†. Ambitiously, she argues for “the right of all individuals†to “sexual autonomy†.15 Other innovative suggestions may also be considered such as the one to shift the burden of shame from the victim to the perpetrator.

It is a welcome development that the panel headed by J. S. Verma has rejected the demand for death sentence in rape cases and even the hasty government Ordinance has confined it to the rarest of rare cases of sexual assaults. Moreover, instead of the earlier focus on rape per se, there has at least been a formal recognition of varying degrees of sexual assaults in both. The Verma panel’s recommendation to bring under the purview of ordinary law sexual assaults covered under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, strikes at the roots of impunity in such cases. Moreover, it is unprecedented in India that the Verma panel makes punishable marital rape during the period of separation. It is heartening that the Verma panel has also envisaged victim compen-sation although we, in India, are yet to think on the lines of the provisions in New Zealand which provide for social security to a person who says that she has been raped, until she is able to get on with her normal life. It has been rightly pointed out that the failure to address “communal and caste-based violence against women†is the one glaring omission of the Verma panel submitted within an amazing time-frame.16

Apparently, in a bid to cover up its failure to incorporate these provisions, the government has hastily promulgated an Ordinance enhancing sentences for the convicted. In the context of low conviction rates, this can only be seen as an eye-wash. The criticism of the Ordinance from sex workers justly pointed to the failure to tackle “coercive prostitution†through trafficking and for continuing the criminalisation of sex work instead of providing relief to those already trapped in the profession.17

For a Course-correction

Unlike in the past, much more serious attention has to be devoted to the issues of regular sexual assaults on Dalit women, sexual assaults during communal riots and crucially, the issue of rape being used as a ‘weapon of war’ by the armed forces of the state in the frontier nationalities and regions of Maoist insurgency in mainland India. As was rightly mentioned in the documentary, Unlimited Girls, ‘If you oppose one kind of oppression not the similar others, the logic remains incomplete. It leaves the circle you are drawing an incomplete one, with a gaping loophole in the middle.’18

We would like to flag that female foeticide takes the biggest toll in violence against women in India. Given the magnitude of the issue, it deserves much more attention in popular protests and public policy than it has so far received. The deficit in female-male ratio would be 28 million in less than a decade from now.19 Apparently, the hidden violence of female foeticide takes the biggest toll of human lives in the country today. If we also bear in mind the already missing 50 million girls owing to female foeticide and infanticide, there can be no understatement of the girl child’s ‘right to be born’.20

Certainly, it is very important to make the provisions against rape in the upcoming Criminal Law Amendment more effective especially to substantially enhance the conviction rate. However, if the government is keen to see an ‘attitudinal change’ taking place in India, serious measures have to be adopted to address the material causes underlying the alarming rise in rape incidents in the country. The government could begin by expediting the cases of 76 (14 per cent) MPs accused in heinous offences such as dacoity, rape and murder in the 2009 Lok Sabha (as against 58, that is, 11 per cent in 2004).21 There is an urgent need to seriously promote sexual education towards gender sensitisation in schools. There is also the crucial need to impart value education in general and, in keeping with the nature of crime committed, to different categories of prisoners in the Indian jails.

Teeth should be lent to theIndecent Represen-tation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986. Some of the urgent measures towards promoting respect for women could be: banning paedophile and pornographic material, especially violent pornography, and making it inaccessible especially to teenagers; taking stringent measures against the production and distribution of ‘blue films’; initiating action against the pro-culprit reporting of rape cases in the mainstream media and curbing all depictions of women as sex objects. As against the decadent culture of imperialist patriarchy wherein ‘liberation’ implies subju-gation to the market and commo-dification of the body and beauty of women, social conditions have to be created that men view women as human persons quite like themselves rather than viewing them as sex objects.

The ire of the women’s rights movement should be turned against the predatory and commodifying propensities of neoliberal capita-lism which has, apparently, resulted in an import of the US rape culture into India. On the other hand, as against the selectively protective, yet restrictive, repressive and domineering culture of semi-feudal caste-based patriarchy, it would be worth recalling one of the promisesof the Soviet Revolution of 1917 towards achieving gender equality: Erotic liberty should be recognised by custom but no woman should be required to provide sexual services for a living.22 The socialist path to women’s rights steers clear of the ‘liberation’ of imperialist patriarchy and the ‘protection’ accorded by semi-feudal patriarchy and stands for equality and dignity of women and men [and sexual minorities].

[I thank Sreelekha Nair and Kaustav Banerjee for their remarks on earlier drafts of this article— G.S.]


1. Mao Zedong, 1919: “Miss Chao’s Suicide†, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/1919/miss-chao.htm Mao was speaking about a suicide owing to the woman’s lack of “the freedom to choose her own love†.

2. The Guardian, UK, 2011: ‘Worst place in the world for women: India’, June 15, http://www.guardian. co.uk/world/interactive/2011/jun/15/gender-afghanistan

3. Vandana Shiva, 2013: “Violent economic ‘reforms’ and the growing violence against women†, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/20131192034265193.html

4. Anand Teltumbde, 2013: ‘Delhi Gang Rape Case: Some Uncomfortable Questions’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 48, no. 6, February 9.

5. Channel 4 News, 2012: Arundhati Roy on India’s Rape Culture, December 22, http://blogs.outlookindia. com/default.aspx?ddm=10&pid=2927

6. It has been widely and most infamously used in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

7. United Nations, 2010: “Rape at the national levels, number of police-recorded offences†, http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/statistics/data.html

8. Suzanne Moore, 2012: “Delhi gang-rape: in India, anger is overtaking fear†, December 31, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/31/delhi-rape-india-damini

9. Vandana Shiva, 2013: January 1, http://www.aljazeera. com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/20131192034265193.html

10. Daniel Goleman, 1991: “New Studies Map the Mind of the Rapist†, New York Times, December 10.

11. Robert Prentky, 1988: in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences as cited in Goleman 1991.

12. Channel 4 News, 2012: Arundhati Roy on India’s Rape Culture, December 22, http://blogs.outlookindia. com/default.aspx?ddm=10&pid=2927

13. The first wave in the US was the suffrage movement of the 19th century that culminated in women’s right to vote in 1920.

14. Paula Rothenberg, 2007: “Snatched from the Jaws of Victory: Feminism Then and Now†, May 9, http://www. counterpunch.org/2007/05/09/feminism-then-and-now/

15. Greer, 2006.

16. Economic and Political Weekly, 2013: ‘Setting New Standards’, vol. 48, no. 6, February 9.

17. The Hindu, 2013: ‘Sex workers want Pranab to reject ordinance’, February 3.

18. Paromita Vohra (director), 2002: Unlimited Girls, documentary film produced by Sakshi/94 minutes/India.

19. Data from Kanti Bajpai, 2013: “The Nirbhaya Case and ‘bare branches’’’, The Times of India, January 5.

20. Curiously, while India and China have high rates of female foeticide, it is rather unheard of in many Muslim-majority countries despite the low social status accorded to women in these countries. This is, probably, owing to cultural reasons like respect for human life.

21. Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEW), 2010: “Executive Summary for Candidates and MPs†, 22 and Lyngdoh, J.M., 2010: ‘Foreword’, 1 in ‘PDF of the National Level Analysis’, http://adrindia.org/sites/default/files/0.9%20final%20report%20_%20lok%20sabha%202009.pdf.

22. As cited in Simone de Beauvoir, 1993: The Second Sex, David Campbell Publishers Ltd., London, first published 1949: La Deuxieme Sexe (French), p. 760.

Dr Gilbert Sebestian is a post-doctoral researcher based at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. He can be contacted at gilbertseb@gmail.com

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