It’s not the woman’s fault. Hold the man accountable | Opinion – analysis
India has seen massive protests and public outrage after four men allegedly raped and murdered a woman on the outskirts of Hyderabad. After unsettling details of the crime were revealed, there have been conversations in the media, and in public, about the timing of the crime, the seclusion of the site, the breakdown of the woman’s vehicle, the consumption of alcohol by the perpetrators, the woman’s phone call to her sister, among other things.
There have been remarks on what could have been done by the woman, and what should be done by other women who step out of their homes and face the threat of such incidents. But not enough is being said about the alleged perpetrators and the underlying mindset that made them carry out the crime. How did the four men think it would be all right to even touch a woman without her consent, let along brutally raping and killing her?
Our response to the incident has been as problematic as the attitude that gives rise to such gender-based violent behaviour. In expressing our anger, we made social media hashtags with the woman’s name, in absolute violation of the Supreme Court’s (SC) directive to refrain from revealing the identity of the victim.
Notwithstanding the SC’s directive, the tendency to focus on the woman rather than on the men who carried out the crime is commonplace. News headlines that read on the lines of “Woman doctor raped in Hyderabad” were seen more than headlines like “Four men held for rape and murder”. Both may convey the same story, but they carry different meanings. Placing women at the centre of public attention in crimes not committed by them converges with the larger societal norm of placing women under scrutiny, while not holding men accountable for their actions.
Discussions that followed the incident analysed the rates of crimes against women, the feeling of fear among women, and ranked cities and public spaces based on their “safety index”. Women were asked about how safe they feel on the streets and in the night. Men, four of whom carried out the criminal offence, were largely kept out of the conversation.
A 14-point directive was issued by the Telangana police for women, girls and anybody travelling. While the intent may be well-meaning, the message it conveys is flawed at multiple levels.
One, it yet again puts the onus of safety on girls and women. The larger message given is to girls and women to be more cautious, more vigilant, more prepared to face any such incident once they step out on to the streets, as though public spaces are not meant for them.
In a society where there is no girl or woman who doesn’t feel a sense of fear as soon as she steps on to the street, asking them to “stay safe” and “be vigilant” is not just downright insensitive, but also discriminatory. It is high time that we acknowledge that incidents of rape and sexual violence do not happen because the woman was not vigilant or the place was unsafe. They happen because some men find it acceptable to force themselves on women, perhaps viewing the latter as objects rather than human beings.
Here are the questions we should be asking. Why do men act in gender-violent ways? How do perceive their status vis-à-vis women? What do they think about the consequences of their actions? When do they begin to acquire the assumption that women are subordinate to them and that they can force their will on women?
In a country where only one in four rape cases ends in conviction, and the reporting rate of such cases is even lower, calling for stronger punitive action will not solve the problem. A multi-pronged conversation with boys and men across age groups, social and economic identities and geographies needs to be initiated that addresses the root cause of gender-based violence.
We must begin with young boys at homes and in schools and give them lessons in gender equality and mutual respect before they become men who have internalised that they are superior to women and that they can do as they please. For men who have crossed the threshold of formal education, it is time we encourage them to rethink what it means to “be a man” and hold them accountable for their actions. Collective outrage against rape will not have much value if we do not follow it up with sustained, long-term interventions in changing gender-unequal mindsets and attitudes.
Anushna Jha is head of research, Project Kal
The views expressed are personal