Can India's new laws stop rape?
This week the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent to a law that many regard as a victory for women's rights. The law, framed in response to the horrifying gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, seems like an important first step. In addition to harsher sentences for rape and acid attacks, and for rapes in police custody, it criminalises "eve-teasing", the coy and euphemistic name for the sexual harassment – the stalking, groping and lewd comments – that every Indian woman is forced to navigate every time she walks out of her home.
The new law, passed in a hurry, ignores the glaringly obvious: that marital rape, for instance, is indeed rape. The language is not gender neutral: it does not address the rape or sexual harassment of men and boys. Further, it links the age of consent to the legal marriageable age, 18, in a bid to discourage premarital sex, a ridiculous morality-driven move that ignores changing social mores and the reality of teenage sexuality.
Formulating suitable laws is an important process in a democracy; one that sets the tone for public discussion and lays out intent and promise; the discipline of laws is the very basis for the many other freedoms that a democratic society enjoys.
India is rather keen on framing laws. It is, alas, in the following of laws that things tend to fall apart. And this is where the fight against sexual violence against women is most threatened – and where the new law can lose its potential as an agent of powerful change and instead be no more than an ineffective political Band-Aid.
This is the ultimate Indian irony: an obsession with pronouncing upon human behaviour and codifying it in official edicts, sometimes hurriedly, not always wisely or compassionately, frequently for political expediency – in a country that makes a mockery out of following the law.
In India, we have a regrettable tendency to treat laws as mere suggestions, like worthy advice from a grandmother – to be followed in theory and ignored in practice. If the law suits our interests, we follow it. If not, there are many ways of working our way around it.
The first, of course, is simply to ignore it. Driving on an Indian road is the best example of this: road rules are there to be disdained; lanes are a waste of paint; the difference between a red light and a green one is entirely a matter of opinion, and pavements – where pavements exist – are used by pedestrians, with cycles, scooters and sometimes even tiny cars squeezing past.
The second, famously, is to bribe our way past it. The deplorable collusion of officialdom is essential to this. No basic government service is provided without palms being crossed in sweaty rupee notes; any breaking of the law carries with it two implicit options: be penalised – or pay a bribe and go free.
Then there are the untoward consequences of righteously following the law and penalising the law-breakers. Take someone to court in India – and the case is sure to get mired for years, even decades, in an overcrowded, weighed-down court system that seemingly exists only to prove over and over the axiom that justice delayed is justice denied.
Where does that all of that leave the new law that is supposed to tackle the problem of violence against women? On a rather scary footing. In a world where laws can be ignored or bribed away, what security do they provide?
The real solutions, I believe, lie elsewhere. Social pressure in India is far more powerful than any law.
India, the saying goes, lives in many centuries at the same time. Most Indians exist in a state of uneasy compromise: eager to embrace the future but also reluctant to let go of the past. People with a 21st-century job and education may quite easily have a 10th-century approach to matters of caste or gender – and vice versa. This is a society in a state of change, conflicting pressures and all the attendant confusion.
Women experience this in extraordinary measure, for even as they are encouraged to embrace professional goals, they must usually keep an eye on their traditional social duty as well, like the chief financial officer I know who routinely cooks the day's food for her entire joint family before leaving for her high-powered job.
The prevalent regressive Indian government approach, of protective chauvinism and punitive laws, will not keep women safe. It merely reduces women to the status of incompetents and traduces all men as potential criminals.
Real change in India begins and ends with social pressure. This is the force that must be harnessed for true change. Mindsets are impossible to legislate for or against – but they can be altered.
Indeed, they are changing. The tragic Delhi gang rape brought forth that most amazing and thrilling of things: the thundering roar of the vox populi. The sound was of women tired of harassment, angry at police and government indifference, who want better for themselves, their daughters, sisters and friends, and all the men who support them. That, more than in any law, is where hope lies.
Sex in other places