The brutal rape and ensuing death of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi — now known as Damini ("lightning" in Hindi) — along with concurrent massive civil society mobilization in India around these events, has ignited a flurry of speculation and analysis within Western media about why India is such a dangerous place for women.
This quest for causal answers has led to a tried and tested theory about India's "patriarchal culture," where Indian men are characterized, as Libby Purves put
it recently in the Times of London, by a "murderous, hyena-like male contempt" towards women. Leaving aside the blatantly problematic metaphor of Indian men as scavenging animals, Sonia Faleiro's New York Times op-ed lamented that legal measures against rape in India "have been ineffective in the face of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture."
Attention to India's "patriarchal culture" occludes the prevalence of rape and other forms of violence against women throughout the entire world.
According to the World Bank, more women between the ages of 15-44 are killed or disabled as a result of gender-based violence than cancer, car accidents, malaria and war combined. In the global epidemic of violence against women, the United States is no exception. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 5 American women will be raped in her lifetime, and the US Department of Justice reports more than 300,000 American women are raped each year. In 2011, India, a country whose population is four times greater than the United States, had 12 times fewer reported rapes.
If police officials in India fail to take rape survivors seriously, American law enforcement is not so far behind. The Federal Bureau of Investigation crime data reveals only 24 percent of reported rapes result in an arrest in the United States, a rate far below that of other violent crimes such as murder (79 percent) and aggravated assault (51 percent). These statistics show that our own country displays hostility towards women that is similar to India.
This astonishing reduction of India's issues with gender-based violence to a vast and unchanging patriarchal culture also obfuscates significant differences within India regarding violence against women. What is perhaps most surprising about Faleiro's analysis of India's "patriarchal culture" is that it directly follows a description of her move from Delhi to the relative freedom of Mumbai, leaving one to wonder if Mumbai has somehow escaped the overwhelming patriarchy of the rest of India, and if so, how.
Perhaps Mumbai has achieved the true cosmopolitanism that Indian journalist Manu Joseph pines for in her critique of "village mentalities?" But then again, Mumbai is also the city where a 20-year-old Nepali woman was gang-raped by three men on December 22, and a 15-year-old physically challenged girl was raped by her father in the supposed safety of her own home. Mumbai, like the rest of India, is a complicated place, and like other Indian cities, boasts higher rates of violence against women than India's villages.