The Delhi Gang Rape and the Left

Of course, rape as a phenomenon exists in all societies around the world, as does patriarchy. But to suggest that all countries are equal in their treatment of women is frankly ridiculous

Calling for justice
Ghaffar Hussain
On 1 January 2013 10:16

My break with the contemporary British liberal-left came a few years ago over the issue of Islamist extremism. After engaging with supposed liberals online and reading pieces by the likes of Robert Fisk and John Pilger, it dawned on me that sections of the liberal-left seemed completely incapable of criticising any social or political phenomenon that existed outside of western culture, unless of course it could be attributed to European colonialism or western foreign policy.

Their approach was not only wrong, but in many cases, encouraged extremist elements. Large swathes of the liberal-left today prefer the easy life and lack the moral courage of their predecessors.

The champagne socialists of today, reserve their wrath for their own societies and governments only, and the worst kind of moral and cultural relativism kicks in when they write about issues affecting the non-western world. 

A sort of cultural sensitivity gone wrong seems to have crippled them and, at times, turns them into apologists for all sorts of anti-liberal practices around the world.

The brutal gang-rape of an Indian medical student on a public bus in Delhi, and her subsequent death as a result of her injuries, has caused outrage across India and created headlines around the world. This outrage is not merely the result of this one case, it is inspired by the systematic harassment of women in Delhi and the sexist attitudes and patriarchal culture that enables it to occur.

Following the unnamed woman’s ordeal, leading Indian politicians and religious leader spoke in public about the need for women to dress appropriately in public so as not to attract the attention of men. Others have spoken about how women should go out less and only walk in certain areas during certain hours.

In the past, politicians have encouraged parents to marry their girls off at 15, so that they can stay at home, raise a family and avoid sexual harassment altogether. In other words, they have adopted a "blame the victim" narrative which, in the case of rape, can have lethal consequences.

Clearly, patriarchy is a part of Indian, and South Asian, culture and has been for a very long time. It is also an enabler of the shocking rape and sexual harassment rates in that country. This is a view supported by many women's rights activists and leading liberal writers in India today.

Owen Jones, writing for the Independent in Britain, however, has a different view. In a piece entitled "Sexual violence is not a cultural phenomenon in India – it's endemic everywhere", he asserts that there is nothing unique about the rampant sexual harassment and violence in India since there have been cases of violent rape in Europe too.

With reference to rape, he asserts: “Again, 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”.

Of course, rape exists in all societies around the world, as does patriarchy. But to suggest that all countries are equal in their treatment of women is frankly ridiculous. Owen clearly has no idea about the role of women in South Asia, how they are treated by men in the public sphere and controlled by their husbands and fathers in the private sphere.

He has no understanding of the fear and anxiety that grips women every time they leave their homes in cities like Delhi and Lahore.

Sexual harassment is something that many urban women in South Asia experience on a almost daily basis. Most of this harassment takes place in broad daylight and on public transport. It usually includes lewd comments and groping, but it can also be far worse, especially when gangs of young men are involved.

Even female exhibitors at an international trade show, held in Delhi last year, complained of being subjected to frequent sexual harassment from male visitors.

I don't think the same can be said about London and Birmingham. Of course, all countries have their fair share of problems in this regard, but to deny cultural factors that contribute to the frequency of certain crimes is to do a disservice to those genuine liberals who are struggling against a culture of misogyny and inequality. 

Not all on the left agree with Owen and people ike him. Blogger Sunny Hundal has no hesitation in highlighting the role of Indian culture, and the way in which it contributes towards misogynist attitudes towards women. In a far more balanced piece on the subject, he points out how avoiding mentioning Indian culture, on this issue, lets Indian politicians and men off the hook.

In his words: “This unwillingness to point fingers for fear of looking racist is counter-productive because it allows some Indians and their government to brush the problem under the carpet and pretend things are the same as in Canada. They’re not. To see meaningful change you have to prod and poke and expose”.

In a single misguided, parochial and, unfortunately, predictable piece, Owen has illustrated all that is wrong with sections of the left when it comes to issues that affect people from other cultures. An opportunity to highlight the deep-rooted nature of patriarchy in India, and the problems it causes, turned into an opportunity to bash western arrogance and cultural supremacism.

A soft-racism and patronising approach that seeks political capital from events rather than objective analysis is at play. In the end, one is left pondering the growing gulf between genuine liberals and their aberrational British counterparts.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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