In New Delhi last December, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a physiotherapy student out to a late movie with a friend, boarded a bus in which she and her friend were attacked by a group of men. Brutally gang-raped, Pandey succumbed to her injuries a few days later.
The case evoked unprecedented resonance among many groups, especially Indian students, who reported having become fed up with daily public harassment. In numerous marches, the case became a rallying cry for state accountability and the demand for safe public spaces for women.
Last week, the trial of the accused rapists concluded in short order, with four men receiving the death penalty and the fifth, a juvenile, receiving a short prison sentence. [The sixth accused allegedly committed suicide in jail.] New marches and passionate responses from people have followed, with two particular reactions: celebration that the four rapists had received ultimate punishments, and disappointment that the fifth man (boy) was excluded from the death sentence. Indian feminist leaders, lawyers and scholars have been loath to join these arguments, however, and not just because they might oppose capital punishment. Here are some of their questions and qualms:
1. Does the death penalty for the rapists make us feel safer? Rape happens every day, on the street and in labor sites, schools and homes. It goes overwhelmingly unreported, whether because of threats, distrust in the law or notions of shame and dishonor. The death penalty hardly deters rape culture.
2. Does the death penalty make us feel that India has become more vigilant against rape? Only certain rapes merit state alacrity (20 of 23 rape cases prosecuted in the same court as the Delhi rapists ended in acquittals). While the Delhi case was represented as the attack on an aspiring bright woman by a group of uneducated out-of-control thugs, numerous equally violent cases since have been stonewalled by the police—typically by casting aspersions on the sexual conduct or political motives of the raped person. Incest, marital rape or systematic use of rape by the military to intimidate would certainly never be prosecuted.
3. Death penalty cases make it harder to secure rape convictions. The shadow of capital punishment tends to deter police and judges from pursuing charges. The real challenge is to overcome police corruption and apathy as well as prosecutorial prejudice and judicial attitudes. It would be far more radical to consistently enforce existing laws against rape, no matter the socioeconomic status of the parties, their sexual history or their alcohol intake.
4. Who acquires more power, and who loses control, in the prompt and punitive response to such rapes as Pandey’s? Following the Pandey rape, numerous communities responded with more stringent restrictions on women’s mobility, clothing, cellphone use and romantic/marital choices. Note that the circumstances of the rape have nothing to do with these markers, but the rape helped feed patriarchal control of sexuality. Even politicians’ calls for chemical castration, tougher laws and fast-track courts replicate the logic that law is about eye-for-an-eye revenge, that castration is just punishment because it is ultimate emasculation . Rape foments patriarchal fantasies here rather than empowering the raped.
5. In likening sexual penetration to killing, are we reinscribing the shame and humiliation that rape tries to wreak? Aren’t we helping enhance the penis as a powerful weapon? To see a raped woman as a zinda laash, (a living corpse), as one Parliamentarian put it, incapable of resuming her life, is to accept the power of rape to determine not just our sexuality, but our lives.
6. What do we want? No rape. And no sexual harassment, for that matter. Being in public space as a basic entitlement. Even-handed enforcement of laws. Rape viewed as a violation of bodily integrity, not of shame or honor or virginity. Jyoti Pandey’s death has become the catalyst for a movement that emphasizes not protection but autonomy, thriving everywhere, remaking masculinity and motherhood (“Why not stop your son from going out [rather] than keeping your daughter home?” is a common sign), choosing will over fear. The voices of the people help avenge rape far more effectively than the satisfaction of four deaths.
Photo by the author of a rally by several women’s groups in Kolkata, January 2013