Indian women's brave new call

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Goa: Two rape cases, both in Rajasthan, have been making laborious progress through the Indian courts in recent weeks. This, in a country where social stigma makes even the reporting of rape difficult, is in itself unusual. What is even more rare is that the accused in both cases are not low-caste men, but members of the cultural elite. In the first, a group of unnamed students, among them "youth leaders", are accused of gang rape at a Rajasthan University hostel in Jaipur. In the second, a Jain monk is accused of raping a woman visiting her son at the monks' hermitage in Bhinmal.

Within the justice system here, the influence of these men has already made itself felt. The authorities were reluctant to press charges against the "model students" until a group of women activists formed the Anti- Rape Movement, exerting political pressure, and implicitly threatening the reputation of the university. In the second, the Jain monk has committed suicide, turning himself overnight into a martyr. Devotees flocked from across India to perform the last rites, yet the Gujarati woman involved has refused to change her story.

These cases are set against the backdrop of a new confidence in the legal system, which stems from a ruling in the Supreme Court over how rape is defined. The specific meaning of this ruling is that a man can now be prosecuted for rape rather than attempted rape if he did not penetrate the woman because he ejaculated first. The wider meaning is that the subject of rape - difficult to speak of in a country where words like ejaculation and penetration do not sit easily in court rooms and where legislation is ambiguous - is now open for legal debate.

The Anti-Rape Movement is pushing for further landmark rulings, its role already exceeding that of representing the Rajasthan University woman. But they know it will take an act of parliament to amend the greatest injustice to rape victims. The burden of proof rests on the victim rather than on the accused, meaning the woman has to prove her innocence, her lack of complicity in the act. The accused, under one of the untouchable principles brought here by the Raj, is innocent until proven guilty.

Rape is an uneasy subject in India, partly because it cuts to the heart of uncomfortable gender and caste relations. For a woman to accuse a man of a crime is difficult enough; for a low-caste woman to accuse a high-status man of anything is nigh impossible.

The Indian government is conscious of how this state of affairs plays to outside prejudices about the sub-continent. The Western paranoia about fundamentalism means the West is quick to criticise the region's treatment of women. Of course women are disempowered, the logic runs, because they have to observe purdah and walk behind their men; women tourists are subject to harassment because they do not conform to Indian ideas of womanhood. Western feminism has played a crucial role in developing these stereotypes, by taking our own constructed value systems and placing them on Indian culture. We are not always interested in the fact that Purdah confers status and fixes women's position in society. Western women's attempts to acknowledge local sensitivities can backfire; those who cover their legs with a sari petticoat do so unaware that, in Indian eyes, they are going out in their underwear. India blames the West for its "loose" morals - the pornography carried by satellite television that inflames the desires of "innocent" Indian men. None of this detracts, however, from the fact that a cultural revolution led not by human rights agencies but by local people, appears to be taking place in India. Rape is on the political agenda.

The women of the Anti-Rape Movement are finding their way in the dark. The laws Britain has left behind have failed them - and they have no reason to believe that our legal constructs for dealing with rape will suit Indian women any better. And, in many ways, they are already having the arguments we took 30 years to acknowledge fully - over rape within marriage, for example.

What is exciting is that the impetus to rock the status quo on the issue of gender has come not from any Western development project but from grassroots activists tired of inequality and fear. This is a basis from which cultural revolutions can last.

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