Full Spectrum Sexism: India’s Problem Isn’t Just Rape

As chilling as the rape in 2012 of Nirbhaya are the opinions of the lawyers of the convicted rapists. You can hear these opinions in the banned BBC documentary India’s Daughter. That doesn’t mean words spoken by ostensibly educated men who should know better—one lawyer declares he would set his own sister or daughter on fire if she were to engage in premarital sex—are equivalent to a horrific collective act of rape that resulted in unspeakable physical trauma to the body of the woman and, eventually, murder. One (rape) is as chilling as the other (expression of opinions) not because the two are equivalent in intention or in effect but because each reveals in its own way the depth of India’s problem.

India’s problem with sexism can’t be reduced just to rape; India’s sexism is far more wide-ranging and pervasive, seeping into the most ordinary of acts, in which men routinely belittle women in myriad ways or else, equally problematic, idealize them away into passive nonexistence. As the bizarre political posturing on India’s Daughter showed, shock at the rape of Nirbhaya is not incompatible with patronizing attitudes towards women (some male commentators, for example, declared that they did not need the BBC to protect “their” women, they could do it themselves). Some men just don’t seem to get it—rape is not an isolated social phenomenon separate from the ways in which they themselves relate to women. No, most men are not rapists, but neither are they not part of the problem. Are you a man who considers himself entitled to have his morning cup of coffee brought to him by a woman (your mother, your wife, your sister)? You are part of the problem.

India was always like this, but it wasn’t always exactly like this. I don’t suppose there is any period within memory that India was not patriarchal; still, we err if we think the present is always better than the past. Last week there was news of an attack on Puthiya Thalaimurai, a Tamil television station that had prepared a program debating the pros and cons of some women choosing not to wear the traditional “wedding necklace” (thaali). The program was cancelled when Hindu extremist groups objected and set off a bomb at the television studio in Chennai. When I read the news report, I was reminded of a scene from Komal Swaminathan’s great 1980 Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer in which the female protagonist rips her thaali from her neck and throws it in her husband’s face to denounce him. Thaneer, Thaneer was a tremendous hit and played on stage for years. It was indeed controversial, but not for this scene in which a married woman discarded her thaali (the controversy concerned its ostensible Marxist-Leninist perspective). Now, we cannot even debate the thaali. Compared to 1980, what exactly is our “progress”?

To be blunt, contemporary India has a problem with women. I suppose it is necessary that I try to inoculate this blog against imbecilic attacks by noting (1) that the same could be said about every other country in the world, including the US where I have lived for a good portion of my life (the nature of the problem might differ but not the fact of its occurrence); and (2) that there are many aspects of Indian culture and the Indian present as well as past worth preserving and recovering for their potentiality to fight discrimination against women. These qualifications notwithstanding, the matter is simple: contemporary India has a problem.

There is no point in sticking your head in the sand about this: India suffers from full spectrum sexism. The phrase “full spectrum” originates in military doctrine and is used to describe a complete and comprehensive dominance over the enemy through every means available. It seems to me an appropriate term with which to characterize contemporary India’s problem with women—not the reality of Indian women, for after all women (and some men) through many deliberate as well as covert acts do get in the way of the achievement of a full spectrum sexism. I mean the phrase to identify patriarchal intention rather than reality.

Full spectrum sexism—that is India’s problem, and things won’t change until we understand and confront all that this phrase means.