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2 More Horrific Gang Rapes: Why Rage Against Women Is Boiling Over in India

Like the accused witches of Europe, women in India have become scapegoats.

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In short, what people thought of as the natural order was dissolving before their eyes. Witches were marked as direct threats to the natural order, and killing them was an attempt to preserve the old ways of life -- and the old sources of power.

Fast-forward to India in the 21st century. The comparison with the country’s transformations to early modern Europe is somewhat crude, but certain similarities jump out. The Indian village is surely being disrupted by modern capitalism. A transition from rural to urban life has brought a new middle-class into existence, but it has also brought an explosion of poor people living on the fringes, often in city slums. Many people have been displaced from rural areas where there is no longer a place for them or a way to earn a living. Everything is in flux. Women are giving birth to fewer babies ( 2.6 on average), and having a large family is no longer a way to economic security, but a route into poverty. Unemployment is rampant, and those who have jobs often work in terrible conditions.

Women in India are becoming more educated, a fact that has caused an angry backlash by conservatives. They are working outside the home in greater numbers. In rural areas, they are shifting from agricultural work to manufacturing, trade and services jobs. In the cities, they are also moving into manufacturing, as well as finance, insurance and real estate. More women are entering the workforce every year. These 21st-century women are more mobile, and they are also increasingly living away from kin and thus unable to take advantage of the normal protection offered by that proximity.

In India, the state apparatus is heavily male-dominated and full of men who espouse traditional values. More often than not, you’ll find a weak, corrupt, ineffective government that has been crooked for generations. The men in charge are generally not explicitly leading the attack on women as those in Europe’s early modern period (though in some remote places they undoubtedly do so). But certainly many public officials are sitting by indifferently, glad to have rage pointed at something other than themselves. The police are largely complicit, as the sad stories now coming out of India testify.

Women riding trains and buses are symbols of the increased mobility, enhanced economic power and independence that modern capitalist societies offer them. They symbolize the breakdown of the old order and the fragility of the patriarchy that supports it. As students, as workers in call centers, or as villagers whose lives encompass more than just the limits of the family farm, they are affronts to rigid hierarchies that have existed for thousands of years. To men with few prospects for social and economic success, the women become objects of hysterical hatred.

The history of rape in India is connected to periods of upheaval and transition, like the partition, when as many as 100,000 women are estimated to have been raped. Now, India's rapid economic rise and globalization is producing a new wave of violence against women. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, rapes in India have increased 873 percent from 1953 to 2011. Higher numbers due to increased reporting do not explain so great a rise.

The bad news is that social and economic upheaval in India is profound, and we haven’t seen the last, or even the worst, of the rage against women. The good news is that international attention is now fixed on the country, and gang rapes of women – even poorer women from remote areas – are now being reported across the globe. The option for politicians to ignore the violence or even encourage it with non-prosecution or mild punishment is starting to run out.