Friday, December 28, 2012

Maps of Misreading: Indian Tradiionalist Rape Culture, Arundhati Roy, and Reader Response

I have long been interested in how "audiences" read or misread things. Some of these misreadings are clearly deliberate. Others are not. Many of those "unintentional" misreadings are clearly a function of ideology and the way that ideology works by giving words meanings they were not intended to have.

As I was trolling through the Web I found yet another example of how humans deliberately or ideologically misread what others say. On 21 December 2012 Indian analyst and critic Arundhati Roy talked about the culture of rape in India on Channel 4 (UK) News after the horrific rape and torture of a 23 year old Indian female medical student by at least six men on a bus in Delhi, rape and torture that led to her death in Singapore, where she was transferred for medical reasons, on 28 December 2102. Roy made a number of points about Indian rape culture particularly on how it intersected with patriarchalism, traditionalism, and class. She, rightly, pointed out how hundreds of rapes, over 600 reported this year alone already according to one source, and particularly rapes of lower caste or class women, hasn't stimulated the media attention or the protests that have arisen over the rape of a reportedly middle class woman in India. She doesn't say that the rape of middle class women is acceptable. And she certainly doesn't excuse rape or the patriarchal culture that is so embedded in India.

I add these last two sentences because that is not how a number of people at the Outlook India.com are "reading" Roy's interview. Some posters seem to think that she thinks it is OK to rape a middle or upper class woman but not OK to rape a poor woman. Some accuse her of insensitivity. Some, in tried and true pathetic fashion, prefer to play in character assassination and ad hominems. Some play the pathetic love it or leave it, it is worse elsewhere card. Sticks and stones breaking bones and love it or leave it mentalities are not the monopoly of many in the United States or the United Kingdom.

Of course, one might, and some have, argued that the reaction to this rape is because of its incredible brutality. The victim and her boyfriend were beaten with iron bars. The victim was raped for at least an hour on the bus, she had an iron bar inserted into her body which resulted in severe organ damage, she suffered brain damage as a result of her brutal torture, and then she was thrown from an apparently moving bus. This is how disgusting the traditional (and religion is generally tied to traditionalism) misogynistic patriarchal culture of India where women are taught to avoid rape and when they can't are blamed for it and are seen as dishonouring the family, and where men are believed to be motivated by biological instincts that result in rape, works.

I hope that the women in the streets of India's cities are able to change Indian politics, to change the Indian police system, to change the Indian legal system, to change how women are perceived and regarded in India, to change how the poor are perceived and represented, and to move India away from its traditionalist misogynistic culture with its abuse of women, its rape of women, its sexual slavery, and its female infanticide. I doubt that they will be able to change Indian patriarchal and misogynistic culture, however, because, after all, India's politicians, India's police, and India's judges are generally men and are often very much ideologically embedded in traditionalist Indian misogynistic culture. As the Guardian recently reported there was an incident just this week in which police jeered and laughed at a 17-year-old woman in Patiala, which is in the north-western state of Punjab, who attempted to report a gang rape and who, as a result, committed suicide. I really do hope I am wrong, however.

Before we in the "modern" and "advanced" West get all smug about the "progress" we have made with respect to gender, class, and race issues we should remember that like India we are too have gender, class, race, and class problems that are reflected in things like the differential media coverage of the disappearances of the the White, brunette, and pregnant Laci Peterson in California in 2002 and the White blonde Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005 versus the lack of saturation national media coverage of the disappearance of the Black, Hispanic, and pregnant LaToyia Figueroa in Philadelphia in 2005 shows. Cultures of gender, class, and race and the power differentials that underlie them are, it seems, hard to change.

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