India’s Media has a Rape Problem

Victim blaming is rampant in Indian media, and the government is complicit -- even when it tries to confront sexual violence.

Indian demonstrators holds placards during a protest calling for better safety for women following the rape of a student in the Indian capital, in New Delhi on December 27, 2012. An Indian student who was left fighting for her life after being brutally gang raped on a bus in New Delhi arrived December 27 in Singapore for treatment at a leading hospital. The attack sparked a wave of protests across India in which a policeman died and more than 100 police and protestors were injured. AFP PHOTO/RAVEENDRAN        (Photo credit should read RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian demonstrators holds placards during a protest calling for better safety for women following the rape of a student in the Indian capital, in New Delhi on December 27, 2012. An Indian student who was left fighting for her life after being brutally gang raped on a bus in New Delhi arrived December 27 in Singapore for treatment at a leading hospital. The attack sparked a wave of protests across India in which a policeman died and more than 100 police and protestors were injured. AFP PHOTO/RAVEENDRAN (Photo credit should read RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian demonstrators holds placards during a protest calling for better safety for women following the rape of a student in the Indian capital, in New Delhi on December 27, 2012. An Indian student who was left fighting for her life after being brutally gang raped on a bus in New Delhi arrived December 27 in Singapore for treatment at a leading hospital. The attack sparked a wave of protests across India in which a policeman died and more than 100 police and protestors were injured. AFP PHOTO/RAVEENDRAN (Photo credit should read RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On the night of October 3, a 23-year-old woman was picked up in a van and gang raped by two men in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. This was one of five confirmed rapes, including three gang rapes to occur in the city between October and November 2015. Sexual violence occurs around the world, but in India, as in many countries, it takes place in a climate of sexism and victim blaming that is acutely reflected in the local media's coverage and the government's response to it.

For instance, in its story on the October 3 gang rape, The Hindu -- India’s second largest English-language newspaper by circulation -- ran the headline: “She didn’t heed friend’s advice,” effectively blaming the victim rather than the rapist. Coverage in all other major newspapers followed suit. The Times of India story read that the victim “is also said to have brushed aside a friend’s advice not to board the van,” while the Bangalore Mirror ran coverage under the headlines, “Women should be more cautious,” and “Only the paranoid can survive.” The Deccan Herald settled on “Not knowing the city well did her in.” This story began: “Lack of firsthand knowledge of the city’s geography and ignorance about the background of the private travel operator proved costly for the 22-year-old BPO employee who was gang-raped by two drivers late on Saturday night.”

In a separate attack on November 11, security guards gang raped a woman at Bangalore’s Cubbon Park, a popular recreational area. The Times of India article on the incident stated: “[The woman] had been sent out of the park by police in the evening. Investigators say it is not clear why she returned to the place.” This commentary suggested the victim’s presence at the park was an invitation for rape.

On the night of October 3, a 23-year-old woman was picked up in a van and gang raped by two men in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. This was one of five confirmed rapes, including three gang rapes to occur in the city between October and November 2015. Sexual violence occurs around the world, but in India, as in many countries, it takes place in a climate of sexism and victim blaming that is acutely reflected in the local media’s coverage and the government’s response to it.

For instance, in its story on the October 3 gang rape, The Hindu — India’s second largest English-language newspaper by circulation — ran the headline: “She didn’t heed friend’s advice,” effectively blaming the victim rather than the rapist. Coverage in all other major newspapers followed suit. The Times of India story read that the victim “is also said to have brushed aside a friend’s advice not to board the van,” while the Bangalore Mirror ran coverage under the headlines, “Women should be more cautious,” and “Only the paranoid can survive.” The Deccan Herald settled on “Not knowing the city well did her in.” This story began: “Lack of firsthand knowledge of the city’s geography and ignorance about the background of the private travel operator proved costly for the 22-year-old BPO employee who was gang-raped by two drivers late on Saturday night.”

In a separate attack on November 11, security guards gang raped a woman at Bangalore’s Cubbon Park, a popular recreational area. The Times of India article on the incident stated: “[The woman] had been sent out of the park by police in the evening. Investigators say it is not clear why she returned to the place.” This commentary suggested the victim’s presence at the park was an invitation for rape.

In discussions of gender violence in India, victim blaming is nothing new. Until 1983, Indian law required victims to prove they had not consented to sex for a rape case to be prosecuted. Eliminating this requirement marked the first major revision to Indian rape law since British colonial rule. Marital rape is still not a criminal offense, which means, in the eyes of the law, it is impossible for a married woman to be raped by her husband. As India has modernized and developed, women’s bodies have become sites of a power struggle between traditional and modern views on gender roles: it is becoming more common for urban women to work outside the home and marry later in life, yet victim blaming remains common.

In 2012, India made worldwide headlines for a gang rape and murder of a woman on a moving bus. One of the six rapists, Mukesh Singh, showed no remorse for his actions. “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night,” he said. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” Singh’s statement placed the fault on the victim for occupying a traditionally male-dominated space, rather than finding fault in his own decision to rape. While the 2012 case brought sexual violence into sharp public view, the crisis continues across the country.

The Indian government’s response has exacerbated the local media’s victim blaming. In response to the October 3 gang rape, the state of Karnataka’s then-Home Minister, K.J. George, argued over the definition of gang rape. He asked, “How can you say gang rape? Gang rape means four, five people.” He was replaced several days later by current Home Minister, G. Parameshwara. “The incident is unfortunate,” Parameshwara said in response to the Cubbon Park case. “We’re investigating why the woman came to Cubbon Park at that hour.” These statements are not isolated incidents. In response to the high-profile 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder, a female politician, Asha Mirje, said: “Rapes take place also because of a woman’s clothes, her behavior and her presence at appropriate places.” Mirje’s comments sparked outrage, and she later apologized. More recently, the Indian government banned India’s Daughter, a 2015 documentary about the 2012 gang rape case, on the grounds that it would likely cause “apprehension of public disorder,” according to a police spokesman. The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, M. Venkaiah Naidu, called the film “an international conspiracy to defame India.”

Some government efforts to tackle gender violence do exist, but even these campaigns employ messages that play into victim blaming by placing the focus on women rather than their rapists. Take, for example, a Bangalore City Police-sponsored billboard campaign against rape and female child abuse, one of the few institutional attempts to prevent gender-based violence in the city.

The billboard campaign publicly acknowledges the existence of a crisis, but it also endorses the view of men as the controllers of women’s bodies, and women as defined by qualities of innocence, honor, and purity. The message of the campaign is protect the girls, not that rape is wrong, shifting the focus on the crime to women, rather than men. One billboard reads: “Don’t rob me of my Innocence,” placing men as the protectors of a woman’s chastity and making that chastity a factor in how and whether rape is condemned.

Other billboards portray women as lesser and meek. One, for example, reads “I am Just Child; Just a young Girl.” It thus makes it the duty of men to “save HER dignity,” and “Save her Honour,” as other billboards read. The messaging undermines the campaign’s ability to create a real cultural shift in the way the public thinks about gender violence.

However, one of the billboards in the police campaign stands apart. It reads: “A Woman Leads A Family And in Turn A Nation. Respect Her, Encourage Her to Become Self-Dependent in Her Own Right.” It characterizes women as leaders, as independent people deserving respect. But how far can this one billboard go amidst a climate of sexism and hostility towards women reinforced by media coverage and government officials? For India to effectively tackle its gender violence crisis, it must address its media and government’s complicity in victim blaming.

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

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