Earlier this week, a judge sentenced four of the men found guilty of raping and murdering a 26-year-old student on a New Delhi bus to death by hanging. Shonali Ghosal of Tehelka writes, “The arguments for death penalty included that the offence has been committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque and dastardly manner and aroused the intense indignation of society.” Before you wield your pom-poms and declare this a soaring triumph for women’s rights in India, consider how problematic this kind of eye-for-eye prosecution is.
Death by hanging isn’t going to turn back the clock on generations of cultural conditioning that has taught many Indian men to marginalize and objectify women as they tend to. It’s not going to rehabilitate an entire culture of men who don’t understand that approaching a woman with questions like, “Do you want to make friendship with me?” is the epitome of skeezball. And as long as these men see Bollywood poster boys like Saif Ali Khan and John Abraham get tons of money to harass women on-screen until these women magically fall in love with them, they’ll probably assume they can do the same. Goad girls with sleazy come-ons until they submit. That’s basically the synopsis of most Bollywood blockbusters.
As a country, India has a very uphill challenge ahead: To re-educate its men to become more respectful of women. (This doesn’t let America off the hook, however.)
In 2009, Nisha Susan wrote:
Evidence is, the urban Indian male hasn’t really changed. He is cocooned as he has always been in a sort of prolonged infantilism — a hatchery protected by doting mothers, fathers, sisters, girlfriends, and society itself.
It’s a trope that’s even been reinforced over the ages through countless Bollywood films. One film even sought to up-end the trope. Released that same year, Wake Up Sid starred Ranbir Kapoor as an emotionally-stunted young man stuck in arrested development and Konkona Sen Sharma as the friend who shook him out of that stupor.
More traditional of Bollywood, however, is the mob of men-chasing-a-coquettish-young-girl trope. It was best exemplified by 2005’s Bunty Aur Babli, in the item number “Kajra Re,” where Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan take turns chasing after Aishwarya Rai; that the former would go onto become her father-in-law in real life is slightly disturbing.
Unfortunately, reality’s not watercolored as Bollywood films. When an entire culture is failing to teach young men how to treat women — and is instead encouraging them to adopt entitled attitudes and act as if they deserve women and that women are commodities, the slippery slope into the kind of violent behavior like India’s so-called rape epidemic becomes a lot more apparent.
Upon hearing the four defendants in this case receive death sentences, the victim’s father said, “I am very happy our girl has got justice.”
Feeling the heat from the global community in the wake of the attacks against the victim last December, India created special “fast-track courts” to deal specifically with rape cases. Does creating a special judicial tier that dispenses justice swiftly in order to manage the nation’s global PR present a problem? From The Wall Street Journal:
Legal experts and scholars say fast-track courts are a problematic solution to India’s judicial bottlenecks. They question the fairness of selecting certain cases for speedy resolution in a judicial system plagued by tens of millions of backlogged cases. They say the setup, while attractive in many ways for those seeking swifter justice, will inherently discriminate against some litigants while failing to address the underlying resource constraints the country’s courts face.
Mrinal Satish, associate professor at the National Law University of New Delhi tells the WSJ that an attempt to be so expedient with cases that have become sensationalized and provoked such public outrage could end up putting innocent people in jail.
So how do these special fast-track courts work? Well, judges are presented cases that have been given a “priority status” daily, or every few days. This is opposed to the stop-and-start trials which tend to be more common in India. Said stop-and-start trials tend to go on and on, especially factoring in multiple lengthy adjournments.
The problem with the fast-track courts? Well, it ultimately sets up two tiers of justice. There are nearly 27 million cases pending in India’s lower courts, and at a churn of about 1,300 cases being handled yearly, the word “inefficiency” does come to mind.
Another problem with said fast-track courts? They don’t really set a precedent for what kinds of cases need to get resolved right away. A multiple homicide case may not get the same level of attention a rape case might — and so it becomes tricky to determine what deserves “priority status” and what doesn’t.
Again, the idea of even requiring this tier of “fast-track courts” highlights a larger problem, as touched on by The New York Times‘ Vikas Bajaj: “The case also demonstrates that it takes thousands of people protesting in the streets to put enough pressure on Indian lawmakers to get the wheels of justice moving.”
Jezebel’s Callie Beusman writes, “It’s a tepidly encouraging sign — but with a culture so openly hostile to women, it seems unlikely that this sentence alone will be enough to affect widespread change in India.”
To suggest this is a problem unique to India, or even to parts of the world rife with — and I’ll say it — brown people, is problematic. To suggest such a thing, while a song like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” remains one of the most-played pop songs in your own part of the world presents a more troubling quandary. A snapshot at the song’s problematic lyricism:
OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you
Hey, hey, hey
You don’t need no papers
Hey, hey, hey
That man is not your maker
In fact the entire song is essentially premised upon the idea that when a woman says no, she actually means yes. It’s one of the more disturbing odes to sexual aggression in recent years.
So clearly, to say that sexual violence is a problem exclusive to India — or to Asia, or to a non-American part of the world — is misguided. Around the time the news of these four men being sentenced to death by hanging was breaking, across the world, in the U.S., a Vanderbilt University football player pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in a case where he and three of his teammates had been charged with rape, battery, and trying to cover up the crime.
One player merely faces probation in exchange for testimony against the other three; another faces getting the whole sordid mess expunged from his records; and another looks at the chance to continue finishing his studies.
Remember when CNN’s Candy Crowley became a victim-blamer during the Steubenville rape case, lamenting how the rapist’s promising football career had come to a premature close? At that point, you had to wonder if she had decided to put her career as a media personality ahead of her own humanity.
All the fast-track courts and death sentences in the world can’t fix the fact that what we have here is a worldwide epidemic of violence and misogyny. A judicial culture seeking to dispose of these cases swiftly in an attempt to prevent bad political PR won’t fix it. Neither will a media culture that’s more bent on perpetuating easy narratives than solving difficult problems. At this point, it’s about teaching people to respect one another.
How bizarre that millions of years into mankind’s residency on Earth, this still needs to be repeated.