In December 2012 the story of a 23 year-old student from Delhi who was gang raped and murdered by six men shook the world’s press and put the focus squarely on India’s poor record of gender equality. Four of the surviving rapists (one committed suicide in jail) were given the death sentence, as a means of sending out the message to the world and India’s people, that such violence against women was no longer going to be tolerated. India is ready for change they say.
A British filmmaker has recently had full access to one of the convicted men Mukesh Singh who showed no remorse in a recent interview, saying some quite incredibly dismissive things about the victim. He blames her for half of the rape saying that it takes two consenting people for it to happen. A strange logic indeed, how can someone consent to non-consensual sex? The answer according to Singh is that her being out of the house in the evening with only a male friend labelled her a bad woman, who deserved whatever she got and as she had the audacity to fight back, that included her murder.
Singh is quite sure there are two types of women, good and bad:
“Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good.”
And here is the crux of such misogyny, such people ‘justify’ their sexism by saying that the woman is bad and therefore it is only just that she be treated accordingly.
Historically sexism was understood to result only in negative acts towards women, whether it is in the forms of violence, discrimination or disrespect, sexism was all about the bad effects women had to endure. Then in 1997 Glick and Fiske invented the hugely important theory of Ambivalent Sexism. Rather than describe sexism singularly they argued that there are two types of sexism both of which are intrinsically interlinked. There is – as was always known – Hostile Sexism, that is the bad stuff that happens to women and to this they added Benevolent Sexism, which are ostensibly positive ideas held about women that ultimately support men’s superiority, albeit in a more subtle (and therefore insidious) way.
They are referred to as “benevolent” because they describe beliefs that in theory should please women, such as “women are better parents”, “women are more sensitive to other people’s needs”, “women are better at multi-tasking” or that one should open doors in order to respect women. You will notice that one usually hears these from women, indeed studies show that some women are very attached to benevolently sexist ideas, especially at times of increased hostile sexism, they see such chivalry as reassuring. But in fact, both are equally damaging for them.
This is because both types of sexism support a certain type of women which also happen to help men stay ahead. For instance, what a useful tool encouraging women to think they are better parents is, it makes them less likely to ask the man to take time out of his CV to raise the children, or, when people’s needs need looking after (elderly parents, for instance) women will think the onus is on them.
The other problem with benevolent sexism is that is supports Singh’s separation of women, there are good ones and there are those who do not match such high standards (standards not similarly demanded of men) and therefore hostile sexism to those women is justified. Just look at how a bad mother is blamed so much more in our society than a bad father, or indeed one of the millions of absent ones. Similarly, when a woman doesn’t act in a socially sensitive way, putting others before her at work for instance, she is not seen as ambitious, but as a bitch.
The metaphor of the pedestal is most useful. We use benevolent sexism to keep women on a pedestal, within very restricted ways of performing their gender, and when they fall off, we kick them when they are down. In reality we should be kicking away the pedestal itself and accept women to be as flawed as men and as free to be themselves. In other words, both sexes should be the best they can be at parenting and both should open doors for those behind them.
It is no mistake that such shocking opinions and sense of justification that comes from them from the likes of Singh (it should also be remembered thousands took to the street to campaign against the men) comes from a country that openly reveres female virginity and other traditional ‘feminine’ attributes. Indeed, as the ambivalent hostile sexism theory shows us in fact they are only possible if these opinions are simultaneously kept.
Therefore, such attitudes about rape will not be shifted until women are seen as complete human beings not just in that they should have equal rights of education and career, but that they should not have to be pure either. One wonders if cultures like those in India are ready to give up the image of the pure woman just yet but it is going to have to happen, if equality is to be achieved. Much as there was outcry against the terrible crimes suffered by such an ‘innocent woman’, one needs to hear more about how such a culture at large needs to change some fundamental ideas about female sexuality on a much larger scale which would make her innocence irrelevant, but would respect her victimhood.
The documentary that includes the interview with Singh, India’s Daughter will be broadcast on Storyville on BBC Four on Sunday 8 March at 22:00 GMT. It will also be shown in India on NDTV at 21:00 local time.