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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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A cow, the symbol of all living things in India, may wander the streets unmolested. A woman, on the other hand, may not. Just weeks after the horrific gang rape in New Delhi that left a student dead and a nation protesting widespread violence against women, we learn of two more brutal attacks against women who were doing nothing more than traveling from one place to another.

Over the weekend, a village woman was gang-raped by seven men after boarding a bus in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab state. A second woman who got off a Delhi-bound train in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar state (one of India’s most backward), was gang-raped, murdered and her body strung from a tree in a mango orchard.

Women in the U.S. are certainly no strangers to violence, but most of us walk out the door with reasonable assurance that we will reach our destination. The ferocity of the attacks in India, combined with the indifferent responses of public officials, makes the heart lurch and the mind reel. It is not enough for the women to be raped. They must be tortured; their bodies dumped like trash or displayed as macabre trophies -- and then perhaps blamed for the violence. Hatred so fierce seems irrational and inscrutable. Women have always been the targets of male attacks, but in India today, what could be causing it to boil over into mayhem?

Looking back a few hundred years in Western history may offer us some clues to the riddle of what’s wrong in India.  

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, 500,000 people in post-medieval Europe were convicted of witchcraft and set aflame like human torches. As many as 85 percent of these people were women. Since a death sentence required a confession, torture was common, the more painful and gruesome, the better.

It’s no accident that witch trials coincide with the early modern period, when the social and economic structures of the Middle Ages were giving way to new organizations. The trials peaked between 1560 and 1630, and then faded out by the mid-18th-century. Many factors likely contributed to the slaughter, including religious clashes between Protestants and Catholics and climate-driven crop failure that caused farmers to look for something or someone to blame.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris, in his book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, proposes that witches were targeted by the Church and secular lords to focus and divert public anger at a time of enormous economic upheaval. "The practical significance of the witch mania…,” he writes, “was that it shifted responsibility for the crisis of late medieval society from both Church and state to imaginary demons in human form." Harris argues that religious and secular authorities led the witch hunts in order to deflect the blame for bad economic conditions from themselves and to reassert their power.

But why were women the main targets? The early modern period witnessed shifts from rural, agricultural patterns of living to more urban ones. Rural landed estates were built on patriarchal structures. Clans emphasized a warlike culture to defend systems of land tenure in which women were usually degraded, their perceived helplessness and cowardice emphasized to highlight male valor and prowess.

With few exceptions, landed estates were run by men, and primogeniture (which was not universal) placed special value on male children. Strict division of labor between women and men was routine. Cruel abuse of women was certainly common, but the movement of people in these rural areas was fairly limited and oversight was intense. The early modern period brought increased mobility and changes in work relations. As feudalism declined and capitalism began to emerge, global trade took off. Transportation developed rapidly, along with technology. Land was no longer the only form of wealth that mattered; banking developed, along with insurance and investing. Women began to participate in market trade, and country girls were increasingly employed in the cities and towns.

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 percentfrom 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.

India’s emergence as a developed nation depends on raising the status of women. That transformation is going to happen one way or another. The question is, how many women must die in the process?

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.