Skimming the surfaces of sexism isn’t enough

Gangrape speaks of the deep pathologies in the way young men are socialised. We should look within

I hate item numbers," exclaimed a (male) film actor in the midst of a talk show about the gangrape in Delhi that shook the nation. Immediately, there was a heated discussion about the uselessness of item numbers in the midst of Hindi films. Some spoke vehemently about how these songs were sexually provocative without actually pushing the story forward, specifically "selling" films that would be difficult to market otherwise. Others wondered at the wisdom of the actresses performing these numbers with raunchy overtones. Many said that they contribute to the "commodification" of women. A few did raise the question of "free choice", but their voices were drowned out. I tried to point out that "item numbers" were only a symptom of an underlying malaise and not part of the disease. But the debate goes on, and the Twitterati is now abuzz after an article suggested that some item numbers (like "Jumma Chumma" from Hum) almost instigate gangrape, if not symbolically enact it.

As we flounder, seeking answers to why a bunch of young men would spend a cruel evening raping and then torturing a 23-year-old woman almost to her death, one wonders at the seriousness of this debate. Are we turning into a Talibanised, sanctimonious lynch mob, banning Honey Singh and exculpating the "item number", making tiny symbolic gestures without gazing within?

The anatomy of gangrape is something that requires a far deeper analysis than the banning of half- naked women wobbling their assets at the camera. Yes, these songs are foolish and border on pornography — and perhaps those who participate in them are in grave danger of being dismissed as being superficial — but it could equally be argued that (as indeed it is) most film actors participating in them are doing so of their own free will. While for some it is unacceptable, for others it is a symbol of woman power and a celebration of a woman's sexuality, if she chooses to drop her clothes and dance semi-naked on screen. The reality is that the number of rape cases is unlikely to be affected by whether women wear burqas or bikinis, on-screen or off-screen.

The gangrape, which appears to be far more prevalent in India than anywhere else in the world, requires serious examination, and should not be hijacked by extraneous discussions. Of course, all forms of rape are brutal and demeaning — but most of them are carried out by a single predator, and in privacy. The increasing number of gangrapes indicates specifically peculiar features, significant to our society. They indicate the manner in which young men are growing up, and what kind of value systems they appear to have imbibed within the family structure.

There could be five primary reasons why gangrape denotes the brutalisation of our society and our families in the extreme.

First, the gangrape denotes a "sharing of the spoils", a criminal male-bonding that goes beyond the hours spent together in any other form of "recreation". Recent cases show that it is even regarded as "entertainment", with videos of the atrocity being shared on the internet.

Second, unlike other forms of rape, this has an inbuilt voyeuristic arousal — possibly linking it to the lack of privacy within most Indian families, in which these young men might have witnessed sexual activity within the household, and possibly an absence of affection towards the female members. Sex thus becomes not a private act, but something to be performed in public.

Third, and most dangerous, is the lack of empathy the gangrapists show towards the woman, demonstrated both in this horrible pursuit, as well as the manner in which they goad each other into becoming more and more violent towards their victim. There appears to be a complete social and emotional disconnect many young men have towards women, even if they continue to live in a so-called family environment with their mother and sisters. They feel neither a sense of shame or responsibility towards them.

Fourth, it also depicts a level of extreme sexual frustration — combined with a perverted sense of machismo, where sex is closely connected with violence. It is only about self-gratification.

Fifth, there are some who feel that a certain class of men is deeply uncomfortable with women displaying their independence, receiving education and joining the workforce. The gangrape becomes a form of subduing the women, collectively, and establishing their male superiority.

The frightening fact is that many of these alienated young men have reached their twenties with a bizarre attitude towards women, and little affection towards them. It has been a daily indoctrination and not a sudden change-of-heart brought about by an item number. The latter might reinforce their set of beliefs, but it will not change it.

Many of these attitudes are interlinked. And as we are aware, 80-year-old women have been raped, and so have three-year-olds. We must endeavour to change family attitudes towards women, and not blindly move towards censorship. Right now, we live in a liberal and democratic society, in which our attempt must be to discuss and debate. We must fight to preserve our freedoms, which could be circumscribed by both the state and a self-appointed moral police.

Of course, we must simultaneously develop broad guidelines and an understanding of what would be helpful in building a positive image of women. For instance, in cinema, the choice of subjects where the constant valorisation of male identity, the celebration of male-bonding (in films like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Chahta Hai) might be reconsidered. They should obviously not be banned — but the content of cinema needs to be evaluated over and over again.

Yet, far more dangerous than the item number is the increasing gratuitous violence in Indian films (including regional cinema) — which definitely leads to a numbing of sensitivities. Sadly, the inhuman treatment of the 23-year-old and her friend on that bus seemed to be a "performance" staged by the men for each other, unmindful of the pain or suffering they had caused.

All mass media (including computer games) with violent scenes where victims are killed or tortured mercilessly, where gang violence is inbuilt — and guns are treated as toys — need to be looked at far more carefully.

As we saw even in this extremely tragic case, gangrape is very akin to mob violence when bloodlust takes over and people are degraded to the most bestial levels. India has had a long history of mob violence — the most ghastly, affecting millions of people, especially women, was during Partition. Most of the perpetrators of that violence, and of later incidents, continue to remain unpunished. Indeed, there are many families which turn into mobs against women and girl children, within the domestic structure. As a society with a skewed gender ratio, we need to be extremely vigilant about the delivery of justice in crimes against women and in trying to bring disaffected family members, especially alienated and marginalised young men, back into a civilised discourse. Censorship, and regulating what women do and wear, is not the answer. The answer lies in correcting the manner in which families value men and women, and the emotional disconnect between them.

Desai is the author of 'The Sea Of Innocence', a novel about rape, to be published in early 2013

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