This article was originally published in New Left Review 99, May – June 2016. Read the full article here.
The paradox of rape is that it has a long history and occurs across all countries, yet its meaning can best be grasped through an analysis of specific social, cultural and political environments. Feminist writing on citizenship and the state has long noted the relevance of women’s bodies as reproducers of the nation; it is equally important to think about the uses of the sexed body in a political context. A consideration of gendered violence as part of a continuum of embodied assertions of power can not only tell us how masculine supremacy is perpetuated through tolerated repertoires of behaviour, but also help us to understand how forms of class, kinship and ethnic domination are secured—and what happens when they are disrupted. Rape, Joanna Bourke has observed, is a form of social performance, the ritualized violation of another sexed body. This is no less true for such apparently depoliticized though grievous forms of violence as the now infamous gang rape of Jyoti Singh, a young woman returning from a night out in New Delhi in December 2012.
In a country where complacency about sexual assault has been the norm, the uproar that followed suggested that an unspoken limit had been crossed. Mass protests across India expressed a very political and public anger with the institutional apathy and impunity of the establishment. The mobilization of feminist groups and youth during this episode succeeded in generating a momentum for change, not least by challenging the stigma associated with reporting rape. After 2012, reported rape increased, although that appears to have reached a plateau. A raft of laws, drafted in consultation with feminist lawyers and women’s groups, has expanded the definition of rape to include other forms of violence and harassment, such as stalking and acid-throwing. Yet the best law in the world cannot solve the problem without adequate institutional and cultural reform. In a country where, it is said, many women experience a ‘continuum of violence . . . from the womb to the tomb’, evidence of the systemic character of assaults ‘widely tolerated by the state and community’ suggests we need an understanding of the institutional conditions that normalize this violence. What locations do women’s bodies occupy within India’s systems of caste, kinship and state domination? How have neoliberalization and consumerism transformed older practices of sexual coercion and patriarchal norms? Given the highly ideological nature of Western representations of sexual violence in the Global South, what might we learn by placing India in a comparative frame?
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