Feminism Can't Cure India's Rape Epidemic

The country's progressive laws mask a broader institutional failure


The series of rapes in India—the latest involving an American student, which comes just weeks after two separate attacks against two 5-year-olds, one of whom died from her injuries — is prompting calls from feminists that India's rulers need to do more to fight the country's deep-seated patriarchy. Inderpal Grewal, professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at Yale University, articulated the feminist position when she recently wrote that beyond addressing "gender violence," the authorities must also eliminate "the advantages and privileges that such violence gives to males."

Grewal, who is of Indian origin, was vague about what exactly she had in mind, but other feminists have suggested a whole gamut of measures, from sensitivity training for men, affirmative action programs, and even a special Bill of Rights for women.

But the Indian government has been following the feminist script for nearly half a century with little effect. It would serve the cause of gender equity far better if it simply did its job and provided safe streets, timely justice, and other basic public goods for everyone. The absence of such amenities that are taken for granted in the West is arguably the strongest pillar of patriarchy in India.

India's official rape statistics — which registered 1.8 rapes per 100,000 people in 2010, compared with the United States' 27.3 — might suggest that India has no rape problem. But everyone knows that rape is vastly underreported in traditional cultures where women fear stigmatizing themselves and dishonoring their families, especially since the chances of justice are remote. Whatever the correct statistics, they can't capture a crucial qualitative difference in the rape problem between India and in, say, America.

Setting aside incest and sexual assault by friends and relatives that unfortunately happens in all cultures, in America, a lot of rape is "date rape" that occurs when women exercise their social and sexual freedom. The police rarely have an opportunity to intervene in such situations and the only way of combating this problem is by addressing male attitudes. By contrast, in India far more rapes originate in public settings — parks, streets, and buses—as women go about their daily business. This is eminently preventable, which is why, unlike in America, every new episode triggers fresh protests in India.

The very lack of public safety that allows rape also strengthens patriarchy. For starters, it limits women's employment options. It is too dangerous for them to take jobs that require evening shifts or long commutes. Some companies offer rides home to women who work late, but this makes women more expensive to hire. Single rural women rarely move to cities, where the bulk of job growth is occurring, as men can. All of this undermines women's ability to maximize their earning potential and gain financial independence.

Above all, it forces women to rely on their patriarchal families for protection, opening them up to all kinds of restrictions. A woman who has to wait for her father or brother to pick her up from college or work — rather than taking a cab or a bus —c an't just meet whomever she wants, wherever she wants, whenever she wants. Everything she does becomes subject to time, place, and manner restrictions by her family and its moral code.

When attending college in India in the 1980s, I (foolishly) lived by a policy of strict silence, never reporting untoward incidents to my parents lest they restrict my movements. In the wake of the December gang rape, some women's college dorms in New Delhi imposed stricter curfews and reporting requirements on boarders before they were allowed to leave the campus. This elicited howls of protests from the women who insisted that they should not be locked up for the sins of men. The sad reality, however, is that so long as they live in an unsafe city, their lifestyles will be constrained, women's rights notwithstanding.

If proclamations of such rights were enough, Indian women would be among the most liberated in the world. Indian law and constitutional traditions are something of a feminist's dream. Women obtained full voting rights immediately after the country obtained independence from British rule in 1947. Three years later, India's constitution was ratified, which University of Chicago Law Prof. Martha Nussbaum, a committed feminist, has dubbed "remarkably woman-friendly" and an example from which America could learn.

India's constitutional framers, acutely aware of the deeply entrenched gender inequities, explicitly barred government discrimination by sex—but they added that this doesn't preclude "special provisions for women." This was an open invitation to gender-based affirmative action, which India has used with a vengeance.

Women don't just get bonus points or quotas in college admissions. They get entire colleges to themselves, thanks to the all-girls colleges that India created at its inception. There are no all-male equivalents. States have enacted many schemes to encourage girls to finish high school, including a program in New Delhi called Ladli that puts a lump sum in a means-tested education savings account for girls when they enroll in primary school—and hands them up to $1,000 if and when they complete high school. The Indian government is talking about starting a bank that offers loans only to women. India has also embraced a law requiring that 33 percent of positions in village panchayats—local governing bodies—to be set aside for women. A similar law for national parliamentary seats has been approved by the upper house but is pending in the lower house.

The thinking behind all this is that educating women and putting them in positions of power would engender a class of leaders with both the interest and wherewithal to buck patriarchy and promote women's interests. How did this pan out?

Affirmative action in higher education for women — as with caste — has benefited predominantly what Indians call the "creamy layer" — those in the upper echelons of society who are savvy at negotiating the system. The female illiteracy rate still touches 35 percent, and the dropout rate from Ladli is close to 50 percent, thanks to poor execution. India ranked 132 out of 187 on the United Nations' latest gender inequity index that measures women's health, labor participation, and education levels.

Most disappointing of all are India's female politicians. India actually has a far stronger tradition than America of firebrand women leaders. But, all too often, not only do they put their caste and clan interests ahead of women's issues, they have proven as adept as their male counterparts at raiding the public exchequer. For example, Mayawati, the former chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh who heads a major regional party, managed to acquire assets so disproportionate to her reported income that the federal government was forced to investigate her.

Feminism will never get rid of patriarchy without first getting rid of the need for it. Patriarchy's staying power stems not just from backward belief systems but a gritty ground reality. The lack of basic law-and-order means that women have to rely on male physical strength for security making men socially more valuable and more dangerous. This makes men, as feminists point out, both protectors and rapists. Electing female politicians and demanding more gender equality won't cut this Gordian knot—only good governance that promotes public safety for all will.

This column originally appeared in The Daily Beast.