Delhi: the City of Rape?

By Namit Arora

On how caste patriarchy in urban India hijacks and distorts the reality of gender violence.

Tahir_Siddiqui_ArtDelhi now lives in infamy as India’s ‘rape capital’. In December 2012, the gruesome and fatal gang rape of a young woman, named Nirbhaya (‘fearless’) by the media, unleashed intense media and public outrage across India. Angry middle-class men and women, breaking some of their taboos and silences around sexual crimes, marched in Delhi shouting ‘Death to Rapists!’ The parliament scrambled to enact tough new anti-rape laws.

Many Delhiites have since grown fearful of their city’s public spaces. Spotting an emotionally charged issue, opposition politicians promised to make Delhi safe for women. Campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2013, Narendra Modi told Delhiites, ‘When you go out to vote, keep in mind “Nirbhaya” who became a victim of rape.’ The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor, Arvind Kejriwal, even promised private security guards with ‘commando training’ in every neighborhood. All this might suggest that a rape epidemic has broken out in Delhi’s streets, alleys, and buses. Mainstream media outlets in India and abroad seem to agree.

Anyone trying to analyze the issue must at least ask three questions: who are the rapists, where do they rape, and how common is rape in Delhi? The 2014 Delhi Police data on rape is a great place to start, not the least because it challenges the conventional wisdom of Delhiites and their media and politicians. It shows that, as in other countries and consistent with previous years in Delhi, men known to the victims commit the vast majority of rapes—96 percent in Delhi. These men include friends, neighbours, ‘relatives such as brother-in-law, uncle, husband or ex-husband and even father.’ More than 80 percent of them rape inside the victim’s home or their own. Strangers commit only 4 percent of rapes, which are also likelier to be reported. Yet so many people fixate on this latter scenario and take it as proof that Delhi is unsafe for women to go out by themselves.

The hard truth is that sexual predators are not so much ‘out there’ in the faceless crowd as among the familiar ones. ‘Statistically speaking’, journalist Cordelia Jenkins wrote in August 2013, ‘the problem [of rape in Delhi] is not on the streets at all, but in the home; the greatest threat to most women is not from strangers but from their own families, neighbours and friends.’ According to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a women’s rights organisation in Delhi, ‘This data compels us to look at what is happening in and around our homes and workplaces.’ In other words, we ought to worry about rape less when women enter public spaces on their own, and more when they return home or hang out with friends. Why do so few Indians—men and women, including policy makers and public figures—seem to realize this? Some feminists have argued that this blend of pious concern with plain denial is the modus operandi of patriarchy itself.


SwarnalathaSo how common is rape in Delhi? The reported incidence, which drives the media and public fear and perception of this crime, is far lower than in every one of the 76 American cities in a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ). Delhi in 2012 reported 4 rapes per 100K population vs. 107 in Minneapolis, 88 in Cleveland, 58 in Philadelphia, 43 in Boston, 36 in Houston, and so on. Western European capitals are better on average than U.S. cities but not by much. Even in terms of other violent crimes like robbery and murder, Delhi is better than most of these 76 U.S. cities. This year in Delhi, the second largest city in the world with 25 million people, strangers committed about 8 rapes per month. In London, a third as populous as Delhi, strangers committed about 36 rapes per month—a rate 13X Delhi’s. Every rape is one too many, but by comparison Delhi seems significantly safer for women. Other Indian metros are even safer than Delhi. Could this really be true?

Although the media and public outrage is clearly based on the reported cases of rape, many still ask when comparative data is trotted out: but isn’t rape significantly under-reported in India? Yes, as in every country, under-reporting happens in India too, and surely more so than in the U.S. (especially when rapists are known to the victim, and partly because marital rape is not recognized as rape in India). Various studies have estimated the extent of under-reporting but they vary a lot because estimating actual incidence is tricky. Most estimates of under-reporting range from 60-80 percent for U.S. cities, and up to 90 percent for Delhi. Taking an even more pessimistic case of 95 percent under-reporting in Delhi (only 1 in 20 reports) and the optimistic case for U.S. cities (1 in 3 reports), the actual number of rapes in Delhi becomes 20X more than reported, and in U.S. cities 3X more than reported. If we do the math, Delhi still registers a lower incidence of rape than most of the 76 U.S. cities in the DoJ list. Indeed, why aren’t the Americans anywhere near as fearful of rape in their public spaces as Indians are in theirs? Could this partly be because a raped woman has a lot more to lose in India’s caste patriarchal society, which frequently blames and shames women for their own rape, than in the US?

The statistical comparisons above are validated by other sources, such as UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UN Women, the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. Bypassing data reported by governments, UN Women ‘compiled the rates of unreported partner and non-partner sexual violence across 99 countries [based on] large-size household surveys.’ According to journalist Rukmini Shrinivasan in The Hindu, ‘Both sets of statistics together place India towards the middle to lower end of the global scale of sexual violence. Yet, for the last two years, the rhetoric around rape in India has not reflected this … this statistically faulty focus on rape has led to both a misdiagnosis and a worsening of India’s real problem when it comes to women: [little] autonomy.’

Sher-GilIndians who invoke comparative statistics in discussions of rape are sometimes accused of whataboutery or a toxic nationalism in trying to show that India is ‘not that bad’. As even a cursory look at social media commentary shows, this accusation is often true and justified. But should this accusation absolve the accusers from the need to reflect on comparative data? On so many social indicators, cross-country comparisons are natural and instructive—why not on rape? Comparisons, for instance, reveal just how bad the rates of incarceration or gun violence are in the United States. They can help us calibrate our concerns about child and maternal mortality in India. Comparative data on press freedom or state executions gives us an objective basis by which to call China politically repressive, and so on. They reveal, too, that human cultures vary a lot in the particular forms and relative mix of inhumanities and kindnesses they dole out to their members, including women. So international comparisons can be quite illuminating.

What makes the picture more complex is that a significant number of alleged rapes in India—about 40 percent of all cases tried by Delhi’s courts in 2013—involve consensual sex or elopement in which rape charges are filed by the girl’s irate parents. Many of these involve inter-caste or inter-religion couples who intend to marry and whose suffering in fact comes at the hands of their parents, including ‘beatings, confinement, threats, being forced to undergo medical examinations, being forced to undergo abortions’ and more. Another big chunk of alleged rapes—25 percent of all cases tried by Delhi’s courts in 2013­—involve ‘breach of promise to marry.’

Whatever the actual number, it is useful to remember that strangers account for only a tiny fraction of rapes in Delhi. This is also true for most cities across the world, give or take a few percentage points. A common pitfall of our psychology is that a traumatic public event can fuel huge misconceptions. If we repeatedly hear about something we see as a threat or social malady, it grows much larger in our minds. Highly unlikely events often worry us more than common dangers, and our emotions about an event can skew our assessment of its frequency. For instance, post-9/11 media coverage led Americans to grossly inflate the threat of terrorism in their daily lives. Polls show that the British fear their teens to be getting pregnant at a rate 25X higher than actual. The extensive media coverage of every plane crash raises our anxiety about air travel even though it is many orders of magnitude safer than traveling by road. When a recent poll asked people about the percentage of Muslims in their country, Americans estimated 15 percent, whereas the actual number is 1 percent. 24×7 news cycles play havoc with our estimation of risk. On perceived risk vs. actual risk, American security expert Steve Schneier wrote:

People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny. News, by definition, is about anomalies. Endless numbers of automobile crashes hardly make news like one airplane crash does. The West Nile virus outbreak in 2002 killed very few people, but it worried many more because it was in the news day after day. AIDS kills about 3 million people per year worldwide—about three times as many people each day as died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. If a lunatic goes back to the office after being fired and kills his boss and two coworkers, it’s national news for days. If the same lunatic shoots his ex-wife and two kids instead, it’s local news … maybe not even the lead story.

In other words, our perceptions on social issues can easily get detached from facts and reality, more so perhaps with a market-led corporate media that promotes the sensational while representing the views and interests of privileged groups. Even academicians routinely fall for it. Two weeks after the Nirbhaya incident, a historian at Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies imagined a war zone around her when she wrote on a public page on social media: ‘I don’t see how India is any better than the DRC’ (Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been in the throes of a brutal civil war for years). It may well be that such hyperbole and temporary over-reaction can help break down societal apathy and bring a long neglected issue to the fore, but what if it also promotes unreflective fears among women and in the voting majority?


NayikaThe Indian media now talks a lot about rape. As economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has written, Indian newspapers, ‘smarting from intense criticism of the negligence in their coverage, rapidly reinvented themselves as rape-reporting journals’. But he wonders ‘whether the ongoing news reporting is well aimed and as helpful for public discussion as it could be.’ Among its positives are that it has helped pass new laws that were long overdue—criminalizing stalking and voyeurism, for instance—and it has created a lot more discussion around sexism, sexual harassment, and misogyny. In effect, the issue of rape has created more space for the discussion and analysis of a range of issues faced by women that do not otherwise get much attention. It has also helped improve response mechanisms to crimes against women—a third more victims reported rape in 2013, thanks to new helplines, women cops, penalties for cops if they refuse to register a case, etc.

But this media coverage, especially by TV news channels, has also been skewed and misleading. One of its downsides has been that most people not only continue to conflate the 4 percent of ‘stranger rapes’ with the whole problem of rape, they imagine its incidence to be much higher than it is. As a result, people have ended up with a heightened sense of fear for women being raped when they venture out by themselves—above and beyond their longstanding dread of women being catcalled, ogled, stalked, or groped in public transportation. As many middle-aged women residents testify, the latter are the primary threats that women have long faced in Delhi’s public spaces; they continue to fuel a legitimate sense of insecurity and make women feel they are not as free to loiter as men are, especially in certain areas and during late hours. In the backdrop of such threats, a highly disproportionate focus on ‘stranger rapes’ unreasonably heightens that sense of insecurity. It has helped push the already low participation of women in the workforce to among the lowest in the world.

This is not to minimize the problems of women in Delhi or elsewhere in India. Groping and other harassment are serious issues that need to be dealt with, but it does not help to conflate them with rape. Delhi’s public spaces today are unsafe not because the incidence of rape is much higher now, but due to the other longstanding threats. Indian women also struggle with a great many other problems different from, or more severe than, those faced by women in the West, such as female foeticide and infanticide, child marriage, maternal mortality, dowry and related killings, sex trafficking, feudal claims on their bodies, and a host of nutritional, educational, economic, medical, workplace, and other patriarchal and casteist discrimination. The gender wage gap remains large. The cops and the courts are not sensitive and responsive enough to gender crimes, more so against women from marginalized communities of Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims. The mainstream media too, given the class/caste of its owners and employees, reflexively echoes and normalizes the viewpoints of the urban middle- and upper-class/caste minority. In a plural society, tolerating biases in individuals may well be prudent, but can the same be said for tolerating biases in our primary civic institutions?

Not only does the outrage of the media elites varies by the social class of the victim and the rapist but most people don’t ever seem to ask, as feminist author Urvashi Butalia did, ‘When we demand the death penalty, do we mean therefore that we should kill large numbers of uncles, fathers, brothers, husbands, neighbours? How many of us would even report cases of rape then?’ Even without the higher risk of retaliation against victims, the truth is that capital punishment is not the answer because there is no evidence that it deters criminals, nor can it be administered fairly in a deeply hierarchical society.

Meanwhile, the same political parties that make populist promises to protect women—via CCTV cameras on every street, marshals in every bus, guards with ‘commando training’ in every neighborhood—greatly under-represent women in their leadership ranks. In the 2014 General Election, they again allocated few seats to women candidates (BJP: 9 percent, Congress: 13 percent, AAP: 14 percent). No wonder only 11 percent of legislators in India are women, far below the global average of 22 percent, 23 percent in China and Sub-Saharan Africa, and 42 percent in the Nordic countries.


Rama_SitaA major obstacle to a more progressive discourse on rape is the caste patriarchy of Delhi’s mainstream media and politicians, including the liberals. Rather than focusing more on the home front where most of the problem lies, the dominant narrative inflates the fear of ‘stranger rape’ and focuses on ‘protecting’ women from unwashed strangers, especially when the victims come from privileged classes. Such rapes receive the highest coverage and tend to be presented as an assault on the social collective—‘Delhi shamed again’, proclaim the headlines. This feeds on caste patriarchy’s persona of some women—especially middle- and upper-class women—as passive, dependent, demure, chaste, flower-like beings, whose sexual violation is seen as more tragic than that of other women (such as of Suzette Jordan, prostitutes, Dalits, and other working-class women). As activist Kavita Krishnan has written, ‘Protection also implies that not all women are worthy of it. Women who fail the test of patriarchal morality; women whose caste and class identity does not spell sexual “respectability,” fall outside the embrace of protection.’ According to Krishnan, ‘The only useful movement against sexual violence can be one that brings the problem home, right into the comfort zone, that challenges rather than reassures patriarchy, that exposes the violence found in the “normal” rather than locating violence in the far-away and exotic’—or in the fraction of rapes committed by strangers, especially the most morbid and ‘sensational’.

‘The woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected,’ wrote American author Adrienne Rich. Patriarchy’s origins lie in the prehistoric shift away from hunting-gathering to settled agriculture and domestication of animals. Women, who gathered a significant part of the group’s overall food intake, were also the early agriculturalists and held considerable power; matrilineality was common. But with growing claims to ownership of fertile land, the rise of heavy plows pulled by oxen, and more organized urban life in river valley civilizations, men gained more power as farmers, warriors, protectors of land and wealth, rulers, and long-distance traders. Societies began forsaking the gender egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers, a trend that was later sanctified by the major religions of the Axial age. Over time, male ownership of property and its rightful propagation meant strict control over women’s sexuality, and even the tendency to regard a woman as her husband’s property.

In patriarchy, the female is not only seen as property—first her father’s, then husband’s—her sexual sanctity and propriety become central to these men’s izzat, or dignity and honor. Men think of settling feuds by ‘sullying’ each other’s women. Marital rape too seems incoherent when the wife is seen as the husband’s property. Caste patriarchy, above and beyond the inequities inherent in all patriarchies, imposes graded notions of sexual purity and violability on the female body, greatly amplifying the fear, distress, and shame of being raped by the ‘inferior Other’. As historian Uma Chakravarti pointed out, ‘Under Brahmanical patriarchy women of the upper castes are regarded as gateways—literally points of entry into the caste system. Lower caste males whose sexuality is a threat to upper-caste purity of blood has to be institutionally prevented from having sexual access to women of the higher castes, so such women have to be carefully guarded.’ Preservation of caste has long required strict control over women’s sexuality, giving rise to the custom of child marriage and prohibition on marriage, including of widows, to lower caste men. ‘Women’s cooperation in the system,’ Chakravarti wrote, ‘was secured by various means: ideology, economic dependency on the male head of the family, class privileges and veneration bestowed upon conforming and dependent women of the upper classes, and, finally, the use of force when required.’

Only in a society saturated with caste patriarchy do certain rapes by strangers, and not other rapes and other violence against women, generate calls for killing the offenders. In extreme cases, as with Sikh women during Partition, women may even choose preemptive suicide—or fathers and husbands might kill them in the name of preserving ‘honor’—rather than risk defilement by the ‘inferior Other’ and live with its stigma and social ostracism. Both fear of rape and ‘protection talk’ have long been patriarchy’s instruments to control women’s mobility, choices, and behavior by increasing their fear of ‘bad men’ and their subordination to ‘good men’. Obsessive fear of this sort, fueled by ‘fear of fear itself’, has in fact reduced women’s participation in Delhi’s workforce in recent years, increasing their subordination to men (it may well be that if women never left home, ‘stranger rapes’ would decline steeply from the current incidence of 4 percent to perhaps almost zero, but at what cost to women’s freedom and empowerment?). Such fear even contributes to the urban upper-class flight towards gated communities.

A.chitrakar_2womenIn India, class and caste are writ large on the media’s imagination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men. Sundry laborers and semi-literate migrants from the provinces are ‘bad’. In the NY Times last year, novelist Lavanya Sankaran described them as ‘feral men, untethered from their distant villages … newly exposed to the smart young women of the cities, with their glistening jobs and clothes and casual independence’. But since rapes largely happen among social familiars, it’s not so much the unknown ‘they’ who are raping ‘our’ girls and women. With her thoughtless fear mongering—akin to some white folks’ projection of black men as lechers and dangers for wholesome white women—Sankaran too shows herself to be in thrall of a caste patriarchy that would keep women passive and sheltered, rather than support them as they venture out and negotiate equality in every arena of public and private life.

With so much at stake, the urgent need is for measures designed to reduce the public fear of sexual violence outdoors, and to get on with the slow, difficult, and necessary work on two obvious fronts: (1) changing minds through efforts like better gender and sex education in schools, more public debate and cultural conversation on gender equality, deeper reflection on our obsession with ‘stranger rape’ versus our relative apathy to the more pervasive structural violence of female foeticide, child marriage, martial rape, and trafficking, and (2) using various means, such as affirmative action for women and gender sensitivity training, to reform our civic institutions—the police, the courts, legislative bodies, and the media—so they are more efficient, responsive, and friendlier to a wider cross-section of women in India.


Image credits: (1) A painting by Tahir Siddiqui; (2) ‘Nirbhaya’ by Swarnalatha; (3) Three Girls by Amrita Sher-Gil; (4) Nayika by Aparna Caur; (5) Source: The Art of Animation; (6) Two Women by A. Chitrakar.

Further Reading:

  1. Whisnant, Rebecca, ‘Feminist Perspectives on Rape’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. Henderson, Holly, ‘Feminism, Foucault, and Rape: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention’, Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, Volume 22, Issue 1, Article 7, September 2013
  3. Amartya Sen, ‘India’s Women: The Mixed Truth’, New York Review of Books, October 10, 2013
  4. Sarah Ben-David and Ofra Schneider, ‘Rape Perceptions, Gender Role Attitudes, and Victim-Perpetrator Acquaintance’, Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 5/6, September 2005
  5. Common myths about rape, Rape Crisis England & Wales 2004-2014
  6. John Stoltenberg on manhood, male supremacy, and men as feminist allies, Feminist Current, September 9, 2013.
  7. Madhuri Xalxo, ‘Delhi Protests and the Caste Hindu Paradigm: Of Sacred and Paraded Bodies’, Round Table India, 27 Dec 2012.
  8. Urvashi Butalia, ‘Let’s ask how we contribute to rape’, The Hindu, 26 Dec, 2012.
  9. Robert Jensen, ‘Rape, rape culture and the problem of patriarchy’, Waging Nonviolence, April 29, 2014.
  10. Jackie and Rebecca, Patriarchal Control of the Body: Sexuality and the Purity Myth, Nov 7, 2012.
  11. Indian Womanifesto, a 6-point plan for the freedom and safety, equality and flourishing of India’s women and girls.
  12. Justice Verma Committee Report, which ‘made recommendations on laws related to rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, child sexual abuse, medical examination of victims, police, electoral and educational reforms.’
  13. Kavita Krishnan, ‘The Anti-Rape Movement — The Political Vision of “Naari Mukti/Sabki Mukti”’, Dec 15, 2013.
  14. Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City), a documentary film by Sameera Jain (2011). It focuses on the unpleasant ‘experience of a gendered urban landscape’ in Delhi.
  15. Anumeha Yadav, ‘The Khaps in our homes’, The Hindu, Dec 11, 2014.
  16. Rukmini Shrinivasan, ‘Rape, rhetoric and reality’, The Hindu, Dec 19, 2014. ‘A statistically faulty focus on rape has led to a misdiagnosis and a worsening of India’s real problem: women’s autonomy.’
  17. Geeta Charusivam, ‘Rape Culture and Moral Policing’, YouTube, Apr 21, 2014.
  18. bell hooks, ‘Understanding Patriarchy’.
  19. AF Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color’, KVINDER, KØN & FORSKNING NR. 2-3 2006.
  20. Rukmini Shrinivasan, The many shades of rape cases in Delhi, The Hindu, April 10, 2015.


More writing by Namit Arora?