India’s Political Institutions Grapple with Misogynistic Culture as Sexual Violence Persists in the Country

Delhi protests We Want Justice scaled

The fatal gang rape of a woman in 2012, later to be known as the Nirbhaya case, horrified the nation and sparked national protests. These protests spurred a long overdue national discussion on the state of sexual violence in India. The government promised change at the time, vowing to implement legal reforms and initiatives that would improve the safety of women. 

However, activists say that little has changed since then. The gang rapes of two women in separate incidents in September 2020 fueled national outrage once again and highlighted the reality of violence that women still face in the country. [1] In 2016, India reported 106 rape cases a day, although the actual number may be even higher as many rapes often go underreported. [2] In 2018, a Thomas Reuters Foundation Survey ranked India the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence [3]. 

The public has called upon lawmakers and India’s judiciary system to address the persistent issue and bring perpetrators to justice. However, it may be difficult to achieve the change Indian women desperately need women through the government. India’s political leaders and institutions face deep-rooted problems of their own when it comes to sexual assault and especially misogyny.

Misogyny in Indian society is rooted in a long history of patriarchy which has shaped the political institutions as well. In the months leading up to the 2019 National Elections, many male members of parliament made sexist comments to female politicians, which were often about degrading their appearance [4]. “Misogyny is much deeper in politics than in any other profession. That’s because politics is harsher than any other calling. A woman politician exercises the same power as a misogynist imagines a male politician alone can exercise. That makes sexism deeper,” Mahila Congress President Sushmita Dev told the Tribune India. [5]

These attitudes exhibited by male political leaders only serve to exacerbate the sexist culture rooted in a country that experiences some of the highest sexual assault cases. Many activists have pointed to political leaders perpetuating the victim-blaming mentality when dealing with these cases. In 2014, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member and then-Home Minister of Chhattisgarh stated that rapes do not happen on purpose and that they happen “accidentally” when asked about a gang rape incident in a neighboring state. [6] The leader of another political party in India was quoted in 2014 saying “boys make mistakes” when talking about why he opposed a recently-introduced death penalty for gang-rapists. [7] Women’s groups have criticized politicians for being unable to take any meaningful actions on issues such as sexual assault because the politicians themselves “lacked respect for India’s women and were ignorant of the issues.” [8]

Even worse, rape allegations exist against many of India’s ruling BJP’s own members. The BJP had at least 12 lawmakers charged with crimes against women, and a former BJP lawmaker has already been jailed for life for raping a woman in 2017. [9] The ruling party has often refused to address the issue and has been accused of trying to protect the alleged rapists. 

The victim-blaming attitudes continue to persist in the courts as well. Until 2003, India even had a law that often allowed accused rapists to get off scot-free if the victim appeared to be of “generally immoral character”. Although the section was later taken out, victims continue to face these prejudices. In 2017, a High Court in the State of Punjab and Haryana awarded bail to three men accused of gang-raping a fellow student. In the court order, the two judges went on to label the victim as “promiscuous” and castigated the woman for actions such as drinking beer and smoking. [10] 

One of the reasons such a culture has still been able to exist may be due to a lack of female representation in the country’s political institutions. India has had women in many prominent roles (including the highest office of Prime Minister) earlier than many Western democracies. Women also turned out in record numbers to vote during India’s last election in 2019. [11] However, the number of women in the country’s Parliament remains low. In the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, a record number of 78 women legislators were elected to be in the parliament. [12]  However, when compared to the 542 seat parliament, women only make up 14% of it although 48% of India’s population is female. 

Even when women do occupy positions, many times it may be simply to cater to voters and provide token representation instead of giving real power. As women began demanding more rights, institutions like the Women’s Commission and Ministry for Women’s Welfare were created at both the state and central levels. However these institutions ultimately remain under administrative control by other male-dominated administrations and do not have financial autonomy over minimal budgets. [13]

The big changes that are needed to address the issue of sexual violence “are dependent on women pushing for their share of power, given men’s failure to tackle the problem effectively…” Kumari, the Director of India’s Centre for Social Research told TIME Magazine. “…As long as these men are sitting in power nothing will happen.” [14]

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made some attempts at policy reform, such as a stated zero-tolerance policy towards violence against women and vowing in 2014 to reform the criminal justice system. A bill was also proposed which would have allocated 33% of the seats in Parliament to women. However, the bill failed to pass the lower house and rape against women has continued to increase. It is questionable whether true change can occur without first addressing the misogynistic culture of India, especially in the political realm.  


References

[1] Mujib Mashal and Suhasini Raj, “In India’s Election, Female Candidates Still Need Men’s Blessing” The New York Times, May 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/15/world/asia/india-elections-women-voters.html

[2] Shivam Vij, “India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has a rape problem” Quartz India, Sept. 25, 2019, https://qz.com/india/1715615/kathua-unnao-up-cases-show-modis-bjp-has-a-rape-problem/

[3] Belinda Goldsmith and Meka Beresford, “Poll ranks India the world’s most dangerous country for women” The Guardian, June 28, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jun/28/poll-ranks-india-most-dangerous-country-for-women

[4] Kouser Fathima, “Why Do Politicians Get Away With Sexist and Misogynist ‘Rant’?” Feminism in India, April 8, 2019, https://feminisminindia.com/2019/04/08/politicians-sexist-misogynist-rants/

[5] Aditi Tandon, “Prejudice in Parliament” The Tribune India, Jan. 20, 2019, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/features/prejudice-in-parliament-716447

[6] Agence France-Presse, “Indian politician’s ‘accidental rage’ remark adds to rising public anger” The Guardian, June 8, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/08/indian-minister-rape-remark-anger-violence-women

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Vij

[10] “India court blames ‘promiscuous’ rape survivor” BBC News, Sept. 26, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-41383459

[11] Mujib Mashal and Suhasini Raj

[12] Nancy Cruz, “Women in Politics: Looking Beyond Reservations” Feminism in India, Jan. 30, 2020, https://feminisminindia.com/2020/01/30/women-politics-beyond-reservations/

[13] Prabhu Chawla, “Women reduced to just another vote bank” New Indian Express, Oct. 25, 2020, https://www.newindianexpress.com/prabhu-chawla/column/2020/oct/25/women-reduced-to-just-another-vote-bank-2214711.html

[14] Rachael Bunyan and Sanya Mansoor, “Nothing has changed” TIME, Dec. 23, 2019, https://time.com/5754565/india-rape-new-delhi-bus-attack/

Author

jake.mezey@yale.edu