On 16 December 2012, a young woman in Delhi was so brutally gang-raped that her intestines were left trailing out of her body. News of the incident not only evoked widespread shock in India but also across the world.
In Delhi, an enormous outpouring of public anger targeted the police, the administration, India’s political leadership and society at large.
People blamed this gruesome sexual assault on their indifference, active failure to provide women with a safe environment and doublespeak.
The media escaped any such charges of culpability because of its high profile coverage of both the incident and the angry demonstrations that followed, which undoubtedly emboldened the protests.
Every day that the victim fought for her life, thousands of protesters urged her on, lauding her courage, clashing with police and demanding the summary punishment of the men accused of the crime.
When she lost that battle for her life on 29 December, a nation mourned. The dramatic silence that fell over the ensuing marches brought a more contemplative air to the protests.
In the public debate that has erupted around the incident, many issues that have long been raised by generations of activists from the women’s movement have suddenly come to the fore.
The Indian government is under pressure to stop dragging its feet – specifically in relation to widening the ambit of sexual assault laws, ensuring their enforcement, increasing punishment for rape and removing the archaic investigative and legal procedures which further violate the victims.
There are those, of course, who reside at the opposite end of the scale. One public figure described the victim “as guilty as her rapists…she should have called the culprits ‘brothers’ and begged them to stop.”
Other political and religious leaders have used the attention surrounding the incident as a platform to demand that girls be forbidden from wearing skirts in schools.
Such statements are not new and Indian rape victims – like in other parts of the world – often face similar charges of culpability. What is new, however, is that none of these statements are being allowed to go uncontested.
There is a growing force of opinion which is hostile to the ideology of restricting women’s mobility and choices in the name of protection against sexual assault.
In a country where caste and community-based feudal restrictions on women’s mobility – including widespread confinement behind the veil – are still to be eradicated, this is a significant social development.
Furthermore, although it was young women and a surprisingly large number of young men who were at the heart of the anti-rape protests, never before had they received such support from their parents and other people from older generations.
Not that all support was entirely altruistic. Advertising, cosmetics and fashion companies – which often promote the sexual commodification of women –also joined the chorus demanding respect for women.
Similarly, however high voltage their support and demands for change, it did not prevent the media from interspersing their coverage of the case with advertisements that portrayed women as sex objects.
Women and the service industry
Although it was primarily students and not workers who constituted the main force in the protests, they were supported by legions female workers.
The protests undoubtedly reflected the feelings of acute vulnerability and insecurity which India’s female workforce faces, particularly given the increasing number of young women working in the service sector in urban India.
In the wake of liberalisation of the Indian economy, economic growth has been driven primarily by the service industry which currently accounts for 57 per cent of India’s GDP.
Although employment growth in services lags far behind its output growth (official figures show that just 15 per cent of India’s female and 29 per cent of its male workforce are employed in the sector), various new service occupations have indeed become available to women.
With the growth of shopping malls for example, an army of sales, office, and even security and sanitation positions have emerged.
These sales assistants, hotel and office staff, restaurant workers and even call-centre operatives, however, are working later hours than ever before.
For many of them, working late has become a virtual condition of employment rather than a signifier of freedom. Another prerequisite is youth which also makes for higher levels of vulnerability to sexual assault.
A 2009-2010 study of women workers in Delhi (with a focus on the private sector) provides some fairly representative insights into the links between such vulnerabilities, conditions of work, and women’s access to employment.
It showed that 92 per cent of those in the new retail and office based occupations were below the age of 35, while 66 per cent were below 25. Interestingly, a large majority of these workers (73 per cent) reported a dress code – most had to wear modern dress such as shirts, short tops or trousers.
The illusion of freedom
A new kind of cultural disciplining of women has thus come into play as part of the opening of these new occupations.
It may initially carry the appeal of non-traditional novelty, but it is nevertheless compelled by employer stipulations rather than personal choice.
More significantly, insecurities generated by late hours came out clearly in the concern expressed by the same workers that no transportation was provided to them even though they often worked as late as 21.00.
Late working hours and the young age of such workers is linked to the third striking feature of women working in these new retail and office jobs – namely that most of them are unmarried.
A more longstanding occupation for India’s urban, female middle-class has been teaching, but this follows a slightly different pattern.
The Delhi study showed that while the overwhelming majority (97 per cent) of teachers with formal working rights were married, a similarly overwhelming majority of those with informal working conditions were unmarried.
At the lower end of the socio-economic divide, the majority of women factory workers (76 per cent) in Delhi were married.
Even more among live-out domestic workers (92 per cent) were married, although live-in domestics were mostly unmarried/single.
One may ask why the marital status of female workers should be relevant to the present discussion. The point is that if conditions of work are such as to preclude the majority of Indian women who are in fact married, it means that an increasingly smaller proportion of women are actually able to enter employment.
This lack of a critical mass only serves to heighten their vulnerability to sexual harassment in workplaces, particularly while commuting.
This is indeed the case as evidenced in the aforementioned study, where almost all women workers across all categories report experiencing sexual abuse, albeit of varying degrees, on the road and particularly on buses and at bus stops.
Furthermore, despite the 1997 Vishaka Supreme Court judgement calling for the appointment of sexual harassment complaints committees in workplaces, not one of the surveyed workers reported the existence of any such committee.
The Vishaka judgement had in fact come in response to the gang rape of a social worker in Rajasthan exactly twenty years prior the most recent incident in Delhi.
It indeed had its limitations including a lack of mechanisms that could be applied to informal women workers. Nevertheless, the Delhi study showed that it was ignored even where it could clearly be applied.
Is this not directly linked to the low numbers of women workers?
Is this not linked to the percentage of female workers among women aged 15 and above in Delhi dropping from an already low 13.2 per cent in 1993-94 to an even more abysmal 7.3 per cent in 2009-10?
Is this not linked to the shocking countrywide reduction in the number of women workers in India by more than 21 million during the half decade preceding 2009-10 evident in national employment statistics?
And can the most recent expressions of a general failure to value women be isolated from the workforce becoming even more predominantly male?
The connection is obvious and so in order to increase the safety of women in public spaces, India must address and reverse the reduction of the number of women workers.
The devaluation of women’s work is inevitably linked to the devaluation of women in society.