The number of reported rapes in India has surged by 792 percent in the past four decades, making it the nation’s fastest-growing crime. To an extent, the statistics reflect greater reporting, but they also point to a substantive issue. In late 2012, the unspeakably brutal and fatal rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a charter bus in Delhi focused the world’s attention on what the headlines decried as “India’s rape problem.” The economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen recently pointed out that India has far fewer reported rapes per 100,000 people than several Western countries, including the United States. But there can be no denying that Indian society is profoundly patriarchal, with deeply etched attitudes about the inferior value of girls and women and their appropriate place in society.
The way women navigated the boundary between the home and the world was a question with great resonance and imaginative significance for India’s anti-colonial struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. (The title that Rabindranath Tagore gave his 1916 novel about a progressive landowner who nudges his reluctant wife out of purdah, only to be cuckolded, was The Home and the World—Ghare Baire in Bengali.) As India wrestles with what is frequently cast by parties across the political spectrum as a new foreign onslaught, through the influence of global capital and Western culture, the free movement of women between the private and public spheres continues to be central to the nation’s reckoning with itself. Does the growing visibility of women in public explain the increased sexual violence against them? Or, to the contrary, does their relative ongoing invisibility continue to make them vulnerable? Two and a half decades ago, just as India was opening itself up to free-market capitalism, Sen coined the phrase “missing women” to describe the acute gender imbalance rooted in bias against females that existed across much of Asia. But the term can be applied as much to the women missing from India’s streets as to those missing from its population.
Read more in the July 7-14 issue of The Nation.