The Western media has brought about some ill-minded and unfounded commentary in the months that have followed the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, India. Certain publications have blamed misogyny in India on Islam and the supposedly radically different belief Muslims have compared to the rest of the world. Much more than simply a fanciful claim, it is ungrounded. All five men who are accused of carrying out the attack are Hindus and, according to the 2001 census, only 13.4 percent of the country is Muslim — hardly a majority. Using Islam as a scapegoat here is unjustifiable. Rather than blaming one cultural foundation or another, one should pursue the means to real change.
The rape that occurred late last year is not the first to receive national publicity in India. In 1979, two policemen, who were later acquitted because the victim was not a virgin at the time, raped a 16-year-old girl. But, after large-scale protests and coverage from India’s media, there was a significant change to the law. In 1983, a provision was made to the Evidence Act, which states that if a woman says sexual intercourse was not consensual, then the court is to take the statement at face value. Such a victory should not be seen as minor. Not only does this provision show the power that protest holds for real legal and social change, but it also empowers female victims to point out their attackers and identify them as rapists.
Since 1979, India has grown in affirming the status of women. 1984 marked the end of the 15-year premiership held by Indira Gandhi — the world’s longest-serving female prime minister — and the years that followed saw the creation of numerous non-governmental organizations concentrating on women’s rights. Furthermore, the government declared 2001 the Year of Women’s Empowerment, and in 2010 it passed the Women’s Reservation Bill, which retains a minimum of 33 percent female membership in parliament and other state legislative bodies. These milestones reflect the growing trend towards equality in India, and they affirm that the catalyst for substantive change is real, legal action as opposed to criticism of outdated cultural foundations.
What is true is that India is a deeply divided country. Cultures of misogyny and patriarchy are prevalent with some, but the ideals of equality and egalitarianism across the sexes are prevalent with many more. In trying to explain the cultural cause for misogyny in India we always find ourselves lacking an explanation. The demonization of cultural foundations does nothing to solve this real social problem — in fact, it explains it away. If India is to enjoy substantive reform, and if the West wants to help the country achieve it, then what we need to do is support the protesters who are calling for a judicial system that represents the beliefs of the growing majority. Anything else would be damaging.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 27 print edition. Email Peter Keffer at email@example.com
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