Violence against women and collective guilt in India

How can women victims of violence get justice when the whole system is the perpetrator?

India violence protest Reuters
A protestor wearing a blindfold takes part in a protest in solidarity with rape victims and to oppose violence against women in India, in New Delhi, India December 7, 2019 [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

On November 27, a 27-year-old veterinary doctor was raped, murdered and dumped by the side of a highway in the Indian state of Hyderabad.

A week later I woke to the news that police had shot and killed the four men wanted for her rape and murder. Phones across India lit up with hashtags like #JusticeDelivered. Politicians and celebrities lauded the police for taking justice into their own hands and mainstream media channels ran reels of victory celebrations and hero-worshipping.

I was forwarded a Whatsapp message that read: “Simply shooting them is not justice. They should have been made first impotent then blind, tongueless and so on”. This after a week of members of the upper house of Parliament openly discussing castration, lynching and the death penalty as somehow reasonable, valid ways to address rape in India.

Meanwhile, feminist activists tirelessly kept sharing statements and organising protests for the right to a life free of violence for all women in this country and for due process in dealing with perpetrators.

I can not help but reflect on how the voices of those of us who work to end violence against women never get forwarded around in the family Whatsapp groups of our fellow citizens. We are inconvenient voices because we talk about our collective culpability in creating an enabling environment for sexual violence – a rape culture that goes as deep within India as our culture for selective outrage.

To watch this unfold as a woman in India today is as familiar as it is exhausting. Despite the supposed progressive changes in legislation in 2013, which criminalised stalking and acid attacks, and expanded the definition of rape, justice and accountability for survivors have not been delivered, especially for the most marginalised.

The new law has not led to faster or better justice. If anything, it has only helped to increase the backlash against women who do report. Just a few days ago, a survivor was set on fire by a group of men including one accused of gang-raping her. She died the next day. Due process has failed, and will continue to fail, countless women in India.

Beyond the justice system, bizarre “solutions” to violence against women drive a male-dominated industry of uninformed do-gooders. Inventions of everything from safety apps to rape whistles all put the onus on women to “avoid” violence and take the focus from the perpetrators themselves.

The problem is in the simplistic understanding of what causes sexual violence, assumptions about victimhood and systems of patriarchy and cis-heteronormativity which ignore the deep-seated norms that continue to drive gender-based violence. For marginalised women, trans and gender non-conforming people who do not fit the moulds of the “ideal” survivor or victim, on the other hand, it fertilises the ground for impunity, selective outrage and victim shaming.

We cannot talk about justice without acknowledging this culture of acceptance and normalisation of violence. Social norms – the unwritten rules of what behaviour is normal and acceptable – play a powerful role in fuelling violence. Patriarchal social norms are upheld by those who benefit from the actions, behaviours and attitudes that arise from them. They dictate which survivors and indeed which perpetrators “deserved” it or not.

In a study of 12 countries last year that looked at common patterns in the social norms that drive violence against women and girls, some of the most dominant were linked to male entitlement, domination and control over women’s bodies.

They included male entitlement to sex, the use of violence against women as a punishment for not delivering on their perceived responsibilities, and heterosexuality as the only acceptable sexual orientation.

The study recognised the importance of taking a feminist, intersectional approach to challenging these social norms and instead promoting positive norms around non-violence and gender equality. However, unless these efforts are “mainstreamed” we will still end up with well-intentioned but gender-blind initiatives that reinforce existing negative norms.

Shifting social norms is about creating totally new ones and this can only happen if we all continuously challenge what is considered “acceptable”. This is not easy, especially given the influence of misogynistic, anti-rights and patriarchal media that peddle narratives celebrating rape culture. Nor is it safe – not everyone has the privilege of being visible in challenging norms about gender-based violence as the backlash comes strong and hard.

But many young feminists in India and beyond continue to be brave and assertive, going outside and online, resisting, claiming space, demanding action. A young Indian spoken word poet had publicly refused to accept the normalisation of violence. Trans rights activists across India have protested against the passing of a law that polices trans bodies and refuses to recognise their right to self-determination.

We must continue to make visible these struggles. We must continue to amplify the voices of those who are challenging mainstream narratives of violence, that paint woman within a monochrome of mother/sister/daughter/wife, and stigmatise gender non-conforming people. In all our diversity, we do not accept these labels.

We will continue to shift norms and challenge violence in ways that create new conversations that lift off from the simple, profound understanding that women’s lives and bodies are our own, and they matter. I personally do not take this task lightly. Everyone is part of the struggle, even if they don’t yet know it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.