A new India?

By Camila Bassi

On the evening of 16th December 2012, a young female student on a Delhi bus was gang raped. Less than a fortnight later she died of her injuries. After new reports came out, something extraordinary happened: a layer of young, urban, educated, middle class protested, others joined, and the demonstrations sustained, evolved and escalated.

The early response of the Indian government was active disengagement, force – batons, tear gas, water cannons – and more conniving efforts to crush the protesters’ spirit (the woman was moved to Singapore, her funeral was hastily managed). But, after the woman’s death, as the protesters persisted and international media picked up, the Janus-faced leaders attempted to co-opt the demonstrations and publically promised change.

 Why now? Why this case?

Some might speculate (with healthy cynicism) that the outrage happened because the victim was part of the ‘respectable middle class’; after all, no similar response was likely to have been triggered by the rape of a Dalit or tribal woman. And yet this misses something rather crucial.

Yes perhaps in some minds there was a gulf between ‘Us’ (the protesters at Raisina Hill) and ‘Them’ (four of the six accused came from the Ravi Das slum area), thus mirroring India’s political and social consciousness imbued with class and caste stratification. Nevertheless, the anger from this Delhi gang rape has also ruptured the standard hierarchy of judgement. In other words, for a lot of people her background did not matter. What’s more, the “participation in these protests has cut across class barriers, something seldom seen in the country’s public spaces”, Vaishna Roy comments, and: “Reviled for its elitism, its disconnect from the grassroots and its insularity, the middle-class is finally being seen as willing to dirty its hands, to join the fray…”

The protests surrounding this tragic event have become a tipping point in India. The point of historic significance is that a space has been opened up by an unprecedented wave of public demonstration in which to name, challenge and debate rape and the wider societal issue of oppressive gender and sexual relations. This space is fragile and momentary, but it contains vitally important steps forward.

Neha Dixit observes: “for the first time, we heard words like ‘patriarchy’ being discussed on the streets and in the mainstream media. In juxtaposition, the machismo of certain men was manifested in the forms of protests, where young boys displayed stunts on moving bikes with ‘hang the rapists, save our sisters’ placards … It is then, young girls displayed placards in opposition saying, ‘I don’t need to be someone’s daughter or sister to move freely on the street.’ This at least created a space to ask uncomfortable questions.”

Returning to the issue of why now, the political economy of India gives us one answer.

Political economy, patriarchal culture

“The men (and even some women in positions of power) who lead India are successfully able to de-link the celebratory stories of neoliberalism, militarisation, nationalism, growth and development from the toleration of sexual violence as a sport, a commodity, as collateral damage, or a necessary technique to suppress women’s autonomy … Alas, the brutality that Delhi witnessed is the effect of the toleration and celebration of rape cultures in India.” (Pratiksha Baxi)

There is some merit to the feminist academic Nancy Fraser’s understanding of capitalism as “specialized economic relations that are relatively decoupled from the relations of kinship and political authority”, such that the link between the accumulation of surplus value, on the one hand, and the mode of sexual regulation, on the other, becomes reduced in force. She concludes that “contemporary capitalist society contains ‘gaps’: between the economic order and the kinship order; and between the family and personal life; and between the status order and the class hierarchy”

It seems to me that, in one sense, the victim of the 16th December Delhi gang rape tragically represents the precarious attempt to simply exist within the gaps, or spaces, opened up by the development of capitalist social relations, which violently come up against pervasive patriarchal, misogynistic culture.

As Ratna Kapur argues, “with the opening up of the market, women are more visible in the workplace: That they are entering male bastions of power has challenged the sense of superiority and entitlement of the traditional Indian male. This idea of a woman as a fully formed human subject remains a difficult concept to embrace … Son preference simultaneously erodes the possibility of respect for women, as girls are seen as unwanted or burdensome. Such inequalities produce the very hatred against women in the public arena that we are witnessing throughout the country.”

What makes the Indian political economy and its relationship to global capital particular in nature is its collision with religious traditions and kinship practices and caste and status stratification. If we define globalisation as time-space compression, then twenty-first century India takes this definition to a new level, since its space occupies several centuries at once. Son preference, under-age marriage, arranged marriage, dowry demands, gender unequal malnutrition, female foeticide, female infanticide, sex-trafficking, violence against women, rape – all form part of a legitimated and normalised patriarchy. As such, much opposition to rape has tended not to come out of a primary concern for the victim but rather out of the deep-seated idea that a woman’s body is the repository of family honour.

Nilanjana Roy states, there is an epidemic of violence against women in India: “this culture where if we can’t kill off our girls before they are born, we ensure that they live these lives of constant fear.”

Concluding thoughts

Owen Jones is a well-respected, high profile socialist political commentator. His audience is pretty sizeable so what he says matters. On the 30th December 2012 he published an article in The Independent titled “Sexual violence is not a cultural phenomenon in India – it is endemic everywhere”. He later stated, on his Twitter site, that the title was not of his choosing. Fine. Let’s discuss the substance of his actual words: “It’s always comforting to think – despite everything that the 20th century should have taught us – that those who commit vile acts are sub-human, are not quite like us, so we can create emotional distance from them.”

Owen is cautioning against an Orientalist-type racism in which ‘Us in the West’ feel superior to ‘Them in the East’: “it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous.”

“Shocked by what happened in India? Take a look at France…” “Shocked? Again, let us Brits not get all high and mighty, either.” Owen doesn’t want people in the West to be complacent, he wants men to show solidarity with women and to “challenge prejudice in our ranks.” Fair enough, I agree.

However, what Owen downplays is the distinctiveness of Indian patriarchal culture – fused with and fuelled by growing religious fundamentalisms – and its intersection with capitalist social relations. Patriarchy, misogyny, rape, violence against women, yes, all of this is universal, but we must also recognize that in countries across the world (north, south, east and west) the natures, degrees, differences and specificities are a big deal. Hasan Suroor in The Hindu assesses the arguments made by Western-based academics against (what they deemed) culturally superior British media coverage on this case. Hasan concludes: “Poor though Britain’s record on punishing sex offenders may be, the fact remains that the streets of major British cities are much safer for women than Indian metros. What happened in Delhi on the night of December 16 will not happen in London. And that’s a big deal. Ask any woman.”

On Owen’s geography, on his East-West dichotomy, I actually wonder about the Indian diaspora here. Does he? I vividly remember the British Sikh protesters back in 2004 who succeeded in banning a play due to be shown at the Birmingham Rep written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. The play was called Behzti, or Dishonour, and it depicted a rape in a gurdwara. On the Left, the cultural relativists supported the play’s cancellation ‘out of respect’. It seems to me, Owen’s response in his newspaper column was a knee-jerk inversion of cultural relativism drawn from the same source: postcolonial guilt.

It is worth remembering that India’s political religious leaders are united in a common prejudice against women, and, as MJ Akbar astutely cautions: “When they blame the West, they are not fearful of geography; they are terrified of modernity. Modernity is not singing English songs and wearing jeans. That is a cartoon view. Modernity is equality, political and social. India has taken only the first steps towards that horizon … Change is visible, but the long war has merely begun.”

References

MJ Akbar http://www.sunday-guardian.com/analysis/guardians-of-the-pulpit

Pratiksha Baxi http://kafila.org/2012/12/23/rape-cultures-in-india-pratiksha-baxi/

Neha Dixit http://kafila.org/2013/01/05/unlearning-submission-neha-dixit/

Nancy Fraser (1997) “Heterosexism, Misrecognition, and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler” Social Text 15(3/4): 279-289

Owen Jones http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/sexual-violence-is-not-a-cultural-phenomenon-in-india–it-is-endemic-everywhere-8433445.html

Ratna Kapur http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/rape-and-the-crisis-of-indian-masculinity/article4214267.ece

Nilanjana Roy http://nilanjanaroy.com/2012/12/29/for-anonymous/

Vaishna Roy http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-rediscovery-of-protest/article4269925.ece

Hasan Suroor http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Hasan_Suroor/from-incredible-india-to-area-of-darkness/article4299091.ece

3 comments

  1. Comment on Camila’s ‘Political economy, patriarchal culture’

    What is the connection between capital accumulation and women’s oppression?

    Jamie Gough

    21 Jan 13

    The mobilisations in India against rape and the wider gender and sexual relations which support it are truly awesome, as Camila says, and something to feel good about in the present international political gloom.

    I differ from Camila, however, in her analysis of the relationship between capitalist development and patriarchy, both in general and in the current conjuncture in India. This is in her section ‘Political economy, patriarchal culture’. Camila argues that the widening and deepening of capitalist social relations in India in recent decades, and its ‘relationship to global capital’, has “violently come up against pervasive patriarchal, misogynistic culture”, and in “collision with religious traditions and kinship practices and caste and status stratificiation” [my emphasis]. This is in the tradition of some kinds of Marxism (Kautsky, Menscheviks…), of modernising nationalism in the Third World (Ataturk, Nasser, Congress…), and of social democracy, as seeing capitalist social relations as wholly antagonistic to ‘traditional’ forms of oppression such as gender, religion, ethnic divisions, etc; capitalism is seen as having an unambiguous ‘modernising’ dynamic. This seems to be reflected in Camila’s last paragraph: “[Capitalist] modernity is equality, political and social. India has taken only the first steps towards that horizon…”.

    This view seems to me to see only one side of what is in reality much more complicated and contradictory relation between capital accumulation and women’s oppression. In the historical and temporal abstract –

    (i) Capital accumulation offers freedom to women. It does so through –

    – offering increased opportunities for wage labour and thus financial independence from men;

    – through enabling migration from rural to urban areas and thus from patriarchal peasant relations;

    – by increasing the productivity of labour in consumer goods and services industries (worldwide) and thus enabling the lightening of some aspects of domestic work;

    – by some sections of capital putting pressure on the bourgeois state to provide certain public services which facilitate women’s wage labour;

    – by promoting certain capitalist ideologies of equality (esp for those with real property and cultural capital).

    (ii) Capital accumulation perpetuates gender oppression and gives it new forms. It does so through –

    – Immiserating sections of the peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie by subjecting them to the power of big capital (e.g. Indian farmers to transnational agri business). The exploitation and oppression of women within peasant and pb families thereby tends to be exacerbated.

    – Using women as a wage labour force at worse wages, conditions of employment, and intensity of labour than men. Employers use women’s subordination within the family/social life to exploit them. This includes violence of male supervisors towards women workers. This in turn limits the extent to which women attain higher status within the family.

    – Women’s increasing wage labour mostly does not lead to men doing more domestic and caring work. Instead, it leads to a lengthening of women’s total working weak, with the double or triple working day.

    – Increasing work and financial insecurity for many working class and peasant men tends to lead them to look for a socially inferior group to look down on: an ethnic or religious group (e.g. Hindus on Moslems), or women.

    – Urban capitalist development always elicits an expansion of policing by the bourgeois state, to keep the threat of the urban proletariat under control. The police always exercise this discipline particularly brutally on women (and of course on oppressed ethnicities). Where violence against women by men goes, the police are as much part of the problem as the solution.

    Capitalist development thus both undermines patriarchy and perpetuates and reinforces it. (I argued this with Mike Macnair in Gay Liberation in the Eighties, Pluto). This contradiction produces the extreme tensions and dilemmas in the daily lives of women (and gay people).

    In contemporary India specifically:-

    It seems to me that both of the contradictory processes (i) and (ii) are taking place in India. In the Indian case, I would add another process to (ii): the necessity of dowry given by a young woman’s family to her husband’s family (and the frequent torturing of the former by the latter to extract more dowry) has increased hugely in the last thirty years; far from being a hang-over from the past, it is being fostered by the increasingly mercenary attitudes of the middle class/ upper working class, themselves fostered by neoliberalism and growing income inequality.

    It should not be surprising that (neoliberal) capitalist development in India reinforces aspects of reactionary patriarchy. It has clearly strengthened reactionary Hindu nationalism (BJP, which has just won the election in Gujarat) and fascism (the Shiv Senna). The latter have risen in the last thirty years exactly in parallel with the growth of neoliberal capitalist development. This is the opposite of what the optimistic ‘modernising capitalism’ thesis would predict. Hindu chauvinism has of course been organised by a section of the ruling class to divide and rule (nicely mirrored by the Muslim bourgeoisie in Pakistan…). And it appeals to many in the Hindu working class, for the reasons given above.

    A strategic political implication is that one cannot rely on capitalist development in India, and the Indian ruling class, to achieve women’s equality or liberation. On the contrary, the latter will in many instances require a struggle against capital and the capitalist class.

    Implications for the abstract theory of the relations capitalism – patriarchy

    Camila’s argument assumes two distinct, sui generis systems, capitalist and patriarchal social relations respectively, which then come into external interaction with each other. But they are in fact aspects (moments) of a single social totality. Capitalist and patriarchal social relations are internally related, two different forms of the materially-based social relations that constitute the social whole. This has been the approach taken since the 1970s by socialist-feminists (Rowbottham, Barrett, McIntosh, Vogel, Walby, Wheelock…; in India Roy, Henman….). The two systems approach has come from mainstream, Weberian (bourgeois) sociology, given new forms by postmodernism.

    Camila’s two-system approach is, presumably, why she has referred to Nancy Fraser’s theoretical framework. Fraser is a pure (Max) Weberian: she regards the economic system (which she describes, using the conceptualisation of bourgeois economics, as ‘distribution of resources’) as fundamentally distinct from social system/social life (based on status, respect, recognition), and this as distinct from the political system/state. The three are ‘relatively decoupled’, there are ‘gaps’ between them. This seems to me a non-starter: how can one separate, e.g., the lack of respect for women from the material practices of waged and unwaged labour? – they are completely, thoroughly internally related. (Note that waged and unwaged labour are not just a question of ‘distribution of resources’ a la neoclassical economics but of social relations, including of exploitation.) Or how on earth can one separate racist ideology and feelings from the historical world division of labour?

    Max Weber put forward his grand social theory explicitly against Marxism. Fraser has done exactly the same within feminist discourse: polemicising for bourgeois social theory against socialist feminism. She has thereby taken backwards the analysis of social oppressions (including by many geographers and urbanists e.g. Iveson and Fincher).

    Perhaps we should have a SUEC or Shef Salon to discuss all this??

    With comradely greetings,

    Jamie

  2. Hi there Jamie, thanks very much for this. A short response for now. Comradely, Camila

    Jamie: “much more complicated and contradictory relation between capital accumulation and women’s oppression.” I agree with your statement and general elaboration.

    Jamie: “Capitalist development thus both undermines patriarchy and perpetuates and reinforces it.” I agree. Patriarchy also predates capitalism and may well outdate capitalism as well.

    Jamie: “It should not be surprising that (neoliberal) capitalist development in India reinforces aspects of reactionary patriarchy. It has clearly strengthened reactionary Hindu nationalism (BJP, which has just won the election in Gujarat) and fascism (the Shiv Senna). The latter have risen in the last thirty years exactly in parallel with the growth of neoliberal capitalist development.” I agree.

    Jamie: “This is the opposite of what the optimistic ‘modernising capitalism’ thesis would predict.” I am not advocating such a thesis and I am not sure who is, however, a struggle between e.g. secularism and Hindu fundamentalism is intensifying in such conditions.

    Jamie: “A strategic political implication is that one cannot rely on capitalist development in India, and the Indian ruling class, to achieve women’s equality or liberation.” I agree, absolutely.

    Jamie: “Camila’s two-system approach is, presumably, why she has referred to Nancy Fraser’s theoretical framework. Fraser is a pure (Max) Weberian: she regards the economic system (which she describes, using the conceptualisation of bourgeois economics, as ‘distribution of resources’) as fundamentally distinct from social system/social life (based on status, respect, recognition), and this as distinct from the political system/state. The three are ‘relatively decoupled’, there are ‘gaps’ between them.” I disagree here with your interpretation of Fraser, this is not how I have read her. She makes an analytical distinction only, and from that I draw some use in thinking through the relationship of sexuality, gender and ‘race’/ethnicity to capitalism. More on that later!

  3. Hello again Jamie (and others)

    Now here’s a serious piece that get’s right to the topic in hand:

    “Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism” by Kavita Krishnan
    http://kafila.org/2013/01/25/patriarchy-womens-freedom-and-capitalism-kavita-krishnan/

    Having just read it, I think it is worth serious engagement and offers the kind of nuance necessary in this particular context. I also think it offers a point of interlocution, synthesis with and development of aspects of my original piece.

    Comradely, Camila

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