Rape and Indian culture

The appalling gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi has created the usual, and somewhat predictable, divisions in the left commentariat.

On the one hand you have Owen Jones:

But, in the West, Damini’s death has triggered a different response: a sense that this is an Indian-specific problem. “The crime has highlighted the  prevalence of sex attacks in India,” says the Daily Telegraph; “India  tries to move beyond its rape culture,” says Reuters. Again, it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a  supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous.

On the other there’s Sunny Hundal:

I despair with well-meaning people who say India’s endemic violence against women doesn’t have cultural roots. Desperate attempt to be PC. The debate will go on into the night.  Nothing will be resolved, mostly because both are (only) half-right.

Owen is right to state the obvious – that violence against women remains a massive, under-recognised problem in Western Europe, but Sunny’s argument – that to ‘dilute’ the issue by suggesting that India is no worse than the UK, does a disservice to Indian women – is also reasonable.  (Like Sunny, I’ve spent plenty of time in Indian (and Bangladeshi) houses/shanties/huts and support his view that, quite simply, women have a lower status in many households).  Sunny’s probably also right to suggest a reluctance to pin the blame on Indian ‘culture’ stems, at least in part, from a wariness on the part of lefties of being taken as making racist assumptions about the cultural norms of brown people.

The problem with Sunny’s argument, though, comes in his essentialist use of the word ‘culture’.   For Sunny, culture appears to be a thing, which you have, or you don’t have.  Such a conception leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that, if the position of women in India is to be improved, Indians must lose a bit of their culture.   That, I suggest, doesn’t lead us very far.  Indeed it creates the condition in which the PC-gone-mad lefties like me, and maybe Owen, are tempted to reach for the safety of the ‘violence is everywhere’ argument.

I have a different conception of culture, and one which I think helps us through the current analytical impasse.

For me, culture is the product of a historical process of power struggle.  It is dynamic, and consistently evolving in response to those power struggles.   The biggest power struggle in the history of modern India was British Imperial rule, and this colonial rule had a very large impact on the position of women in India today.  The best analysis of this that I know of is in Varsha Chitnis and Danaya Wright, The Legacy of Colonialism: Law and Women’s Rights in India, 64 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1315 (2007), in which the authors argue that the unequal status of women in India today has its roots in the power struggle between

the native elites and the colonialists [which] was fought on the backs of Indian women because it was the alleged degraded position of Indian women and the barbaric actions of Indian men that justified the colonial mission in the first place. This brings into the picture a third group, British feminists, who claimed a moral imperative to reclaim for Indian women the dignity and rights of Western women (p.1318).

As a consequence, argue the authors:

The condition of the Indian woman, particularly within the home, became the battleground on which the contests of power between Indian and British men and between British men and women were fought…… [O]ne of the post-independence legacies of this complex tussle for power is that even secular laws for women today are either protectionist and patriarchal, or else modem Indian women are not in a position to exercise their legal rights in meaningful ways. Victorian notions of womanhood (chastity, innocence, self-effacement, and passiveness) continue to pervade some laws, and certainly the traditional training of lawmakers and judges in the British legal system allows them to bring their often patriarchal understanding of the historical foundations of these laws to bear as precedents and jurisprudential principles, even when the laws are facially egalitarian (p.1319).

Of course, blaming the unequal position of women in India on colonialism doesn’t get us very far in itself.  India has been independent for 70 years, and while the effects of colonialism are certainly longlasting and path-dependent, there are of course many other influences.  My point is simply that, if people in Britain are to support in any way, shape or form, the liberation of women in India and elsewhere in South Asia, it will be important to engage in any such action not on the basis of judgment about the inadequacy of Indian culture when compared to Western freedoms for women – that would be, after all, neo-colonialism writ large – but on the basis that we’re doing what we can to help Indian women gain the power Britain arguably denied them in the first place.


  1. January 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    To me the problem with an analysis based on culture is that the term is, at best, imprecise. Indeed I think that the idea that there is one single “culture”in any nation is questionable, and much of what is defined as “culture” is nothing of the sort. There seems to be a lot of muddled thinking about.

    I know little of India but I have no reason at all to suppose that the gang rape of a woman on a bus, with use of iron bars for penetration and with injuries so severe that the woman died, is a part of Indian “culture” any more than it is part of “culture” in the UK. Whatever the background assumptions about the position of women, I would hope and assume that a vast majority of people condemn such an action. It goes beyond anything which can be remotely accepted as part of the “culture” anywhere.

    It is true that the prevention of such behaviour rests to varying degrees on control of women’s behaviour, and constraints on women’s freedom: all over the world there is a default assumption that men will attack women given the opportunity, and in face of that fact there is no help for it: women must be limited and “protected” in ways which render equality an impossible dream. Many are sad about it, but they claim this is pragmatic. Since all men do benefit from this use of fear that is the first thing which has to be acknowledged. It is not true that “all men are rapists”; that is a shorthand for the true position, which is that some are, and that the problem for women is that we do not know which ones. The only safe approach is to assume that any man may be a rapist and that is what we are taught to do. Understandably men who are not in that minority are often offended, by their misunderstanding of that characterisation, and they are also offended by the charge that they benefit from the consequences of the underlying, and ever present, threat of violence. But they do, because all sorts of things follow from it which work against equality in social and employment terms and elsewhere.

    I agree with Owen Jones: this issue needs to be addressed by men as well as women. It puzzles me why men do not become very angry over it, since the insult to them is so profound. Why would you not wish to challenge a situation which ends up with every man being feared, at least some of the time? The benefits are easy to see, but not respectable.The costs to me are perhaps less obvious, but they are certainly there.

    I have heard men say that they hesitate to become involved in that challenge because they think that, in itself, perpetuates the problem: they fear it implies women cannot act as agents on the issue and that is patronising or patriarchal. But that rests on the premise that this is a women’s issue: it isn’t. It is an issue for all of us, even if you leave aside the fact that men are also raped. And it conveniently ignores pertinent facts: such as the self evident truth that a man who sees a woman as an object for his sexual convenience, or a living proof of his importance and power, is extremely unlikely to listen to anything she says. We do not further progress by pretending that is not true: it is a cop out.

    We have known all this for a very long time: yet men are, at least in this country, largely absent from constructive engagement. I am pleased to hear there are groups elsewhere who tackle it directly, but I wonder how many are involved in those groups

    One of the problems with conflating violence with “culture” is that it is implicit in such portrayal that is very much harder to change “culture” than it is to change law: Between a fear of “colonialism” (which does indeed have a nasty history of unthinking notions of “superiority”) on the one hand, and a rather inchoate acceptance of that same “culture” of control of women in our own societies we paralyse ourselves. And this is where it seems to me that both Sunny Hundal and Owen Jones are partially correct. Both features work in the same direction. But it is colonial in the extreme to imagine that rape and sexual assault are part of culture: the response to that evil is cultural, but nowhere is it approved, even when the victim is routinely blamed. Chinese foot binding was also “culture”: it was changed quite quickly and I do not see any prospect of a return to that barbarity. That seems to me to be an instance of “culture” which was not actually that at all: if by culture we mean those things which contribute to the sense of identity and cohesion in the society. It was not that: though it was supported through cultural consequences just as FGM is: and those consequences can change if the will exists.

    And that is another feature which betrays the mindset. Culture is a term largely applied to other people: and there is a tendency to talk of respect for that culture, as the basis for not imposing our own values or culture on other people. Well why not? Is not our culture worthy of respect as well? The issue was well summed up by General Napier

    “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well! We also have a custom. When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre. Beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

    Napier was an example of the worst of colonialism in some ways: but he was sound on this issue and it does not seem to me that much has changed in terms of what needs to be done. We are thankfully not in a position to act so directly in defence of our own culture: and it is not as healthy as we like to pretend, as Owen Jones points out. But this is not a matter of culture as I see it: it is a matter of criminality and of indefensible violence: decent people all over the world need to ditch any notion that this is like spicing your food or how you dress or conduct your religious rituals. Those are cultural and folk will die for those rights if they are threatened. As Napier discovered, they will not die in numbers for the right to burn women: I do not think they will die for the right to rape, either

    • January 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      Excellent quote from General Napier – I raise you one from Marx himself:

      ‘Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

      England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution’.


      What on earth would Marx and Engels think of their modern epigones and their ever more elaborate apologias for the perpertrators of unspeakable cruelties?

      • January 3, 2013 at 7:53 pm

        Also a good quote!!

        I do not think that Marx or Engels or Adam Smith or anyone else we might choose to respect from the past would have any time for that kind of apologia. What even those very different thinkers had in common was a desire to improve society and a belief it can be done.

  2. January 1, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    One thing in the comments to Sunny’s piece. I had no idea that so many Indian films featured the villain(s) committing rape, or that some actors (Prem Chopra, Ranjeet) have done literally hundreds of movie “rapes”. There are youtube clips of “bollywood hot rapes” – that kind of thing must I’d have thought have had some effect.

    • paulinlancs
      January 2, 2013 at 11:40 am

      Yes, that’s an interesting comment. I wasn’t aware of the extent of it either.

  3. January 3, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    I see a broader problem, a global lack of value for other people’s lives. In Ukraine earlier this year a teenage girl was raped and set on fire by her attackers. In Los Angeles a homeless woman set alight while sleeping on a bench within a culture where venture capital has the greatest leverage on democracy.

    http://economics4humanity.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/all-lives-have-equal-value/ .


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm

      I agree that there is a broader problem and surely that is what is at the heart of the OP: whether there is something peculiar to the “culture” in India or whether the issue is an instance of a problem all over the world. Your links seem to suggest the latter and although the Ukraine case was widely reported it does not seem to me to have elicited the same response. One may speculate as to why that is.

      I note that the Indian woman was in company of a male friend: so by the lights of the culture which legitimises violence against women she should have been immune. And the fact she was studying medicine has the same implication.

      The Ukrainian woman was portrayed as a slut, however: and the other woman was doubly culpable being both old and homeless: that one does not seem to have been reported here at all.

      It makes you think….

      • January 4, 2013 at 5:47 pm

        The issue I have with the ‘we are all guilty’ and ‘who are we to criticise’ ‘and ‘but what about xxxx’ line so beloved of the multiculturalist, post-modernist bourgeois liberals and pseudo-leftists is that rape is in fact still a national problem in that it can only be practically addressed by national governments, national media etc.

        States still do have the power to change their laws, to reform their police forces, to ban positive media depictions of rape, to combat the countless levels of institutionalised misogyny that encourages rapists and lets them go free.

        Of course there are limits on how effective those actions can be and cultures take decades and centuries to fully change – but the fact is they do change.

        And India culturally is not part of the globalised anglo-centric world – most Indians do not speak English, almost all of the mass media they consume is in their own languages and owes very little to Hollywood, their dominant religion is utterly unique to India and is still both hugely powerful and profoundly unlike our monotheist cults etc, etc.

        Seriously if India is not culturally sui generis then where the hell is?

        Rape is a huge Indian problem, it is very specific to India (although there are indeed rapists everywhere and probably always will be) bound up with complex and ancient misogynies and racisms unique to that culture and Indians can and must do something about it.

  4. Chris
    January 4, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    “The issue I have with the ‘we are all guilty’ and ‘who are we to criticise’ ‘and ‘but what about xxxx’ line so beloved of the multiculturalist, post-modernist bourgeois liberals and pseudo-leftists is that rape is in fact still a national problem in that it can only be practically addressed by national governments, national media etc.”

    Actually, it’s your views that are espoused by “multiculturalist, post-modernist bourgeois liberals and pseudo-leftists”.

    Real socialists know that no one has any responsibility whatsoever for this but the individual rapists. Real socialists also know that only action by Indian people can make any difference and that liberal moralists in the UK are only talking about this to make themselves feel better.

    • January 5, 2013 at 5:34 am

      We clearly have different definitions of who are the multiculturalist post-modernist bourgeois liberals and pseudo-leftists…..

      (To be fair I am probably using too broad a brush as here as in the Assange case there is still enough vestigial feminism and basic human decency left in some of those people to make them break ranks and admit that maybe there is a problem here rather than relativising it away).

      But isn’t what divides real socialists from pretty much everyone else that we look for deeper social causes for stuff that happens and don’t regard every rape or murder as simply a matter between the individual criminal and his victim or see the state’s role as primarily retributive?

  5. Edgar
    January 6, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    The first problem is that some so called ‘leftists’ would use things like this to support our ruling class in occupying another nation, under the laughable pretext of humanitarian intervention. We, of course, have first hand facts to back up this claim; they really have backed wars under these pretexts. Some sections of the left have gone to bed with the neo conservatives in their imperialist project. A project which has actually strengthened the hand of Islamists, and our pro imperialist leftists resolutely ignore this fact. Which goes to show that they are not concerned with girls going to school, but are simply servile apologists of imperialism.

    The second problem is judging a society from a perspective that is totally alien to the thing you are judging. It would be like Cristiano Ronaldo decrying the criminal tendencies of welfare recipients. I mean to some people in India, we may as well be a footballer on £100k a week, such is our wealth compared to theirs.

    On the culture of India, I am no expert here but one thing I do know, in this country if a street worker was gang raped you wouldn’t get thousands of men taking to the street to protest about it, but it seems in India you do. In some respects the Indians are more enlightened than we are!

    Let the Indians sort out their own problems, they seem to be capable of that, judging by the reaction to this incident.

  1. January 1, 2013 at 7:08 am
  2. January 2, 2013 at 7:04 pm

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