What Happened To India's Feminist Spring?


I keep waiting for it to happen, but it never does.

India's much-vaunted feminist spring, a season of social change that would sweep through the nation, bringing rights and protections and dignity to women from coast to coast, simply never took off. It was in the weeks after December’s brutal gang rape — and eventual death — of a young woman on board a moving bus in the capital New Delhi, that observers and foreign media started referring to the feminist spring as the start of the kind of public uprising that had been witnessed in the Arab world. But the protests waned, and rapes have continued despite strengthened laws, and women still feel unsafe. 

The feminist spring just never really sprung.

For a while, however, it did seem as though deep changes were afoot. What began as a swelling wave of outrage, driven by growing concerns about public safety for women and paltry police reaction, exploded into vociferous protests in cities across India.

The bus rape had been the tipping point: a particularly brutal attack that took place in a spot bang in the centre of the world of middle-to-upper-class Delhi. Thousands gathered at the inner city India Gate monument, and even when police turned water cannons on female protesters in chilly winter temperatures, they continued to hold firm. The official reaction was swift: the accused perpetrators were located, arrested and jailed. A panel was established to frame recommendations on legislative changes, and a fast-track court set up to hear the case.

But then, the tidal wave of public opinion hit a wall, one built of deeply entrenched patriarchal values and a culture of diminishing women.

There’s always a danger in trying to apply apparently easy labels to complex situations. Observers saw the swell of protests, made a link to what had happened in Middle Eastern countries and talked up the idea of the dawn of a feminist spring; a pithy set of words that would neatly fit into the limited space for a headline, and a simplified way to address what was going on. But anyone with even a moderate grasp of modern India implicitly knew the reality: there would be no feminist spring. There would be no long-lasting, popular uprising. Middle India is far too apathetic for that.

Remember the 2011 anti-corruption protests, when activist Anna Hazare went on a public hunger strike in central Delhi? At the time, legions of supporters, mostly from middle-class India, rose in support, and tens of thousands joined him. But six months later when Hazare fasted again, the crowds had diminished to about a tenth of their previous strength. His movement later collapsed in on itself, and split. Civil society, so energised by the cause earlier in the year, had settled back into their complacency like a worn, comfortable sofa. 

And that is precisely what has happened now. There have been small-scale demonstrations calling for better public safety, but no visible uprising, no mass protests to help keep the momentum up. Indians have retreated home, applied the blinkers, and stuck their fingers in their ears. 

Additionally, as journalists were banned from the courtroom during the trial of the accused gang rape perpetrators, the story was denied the oxygen it needed to stay on the front page. Without new elements to report on, the story has waned in the public consciousness in recent months. Only the death of one of the accused in jail briefly revived interest, but, battling for attention against India’s other million mutinies, the story again faded from view.

It is all thoroughly detrimental to Indian women, and for many, day-to-day life remains as precarious as ever. A June report  from the National Crime Records Bureau showed that the number of rapes reported in Delhi rose by 23 per cent in 2012, compared with a nationwide rise of 3 per cent — although that could be due to higher reporting rates in the city. India-wide, crimes against women — including dowry deaths, harassment by in-laws and kidnapping, among others — have risen alarmingly since 2001.

Today, in the wake of the gang rape, more and more women are starting to self-censor their own behaviour. Rather than loudly resist “eve-teasing”, as street harassment is charmingly monikered, women now talk about turning a blind eye and taking care to dress more modestly. What happens when girls resist has become part of our internal dialogue. Despite legislative reforms that were implemented in the wake of the gang rape incident, police remain little help, with numerous reports that they try to dodge filing complaints.

While it’s easy to get sidetracked by shocking instances of rape and sexual abuse, gender issues go deeper.

Girls and women routinely get less food, less nourishment than their brothers, and less access to education. They enjoy fewer freedoms and gender roles are so entrenched that even women who work full time are expected to shoulder almost all domestic duties. The widening gender gap is of particular concern, indicating that baby girls are increasingly being aborted or killed at birth. Already, the societal ramifications of a skewed gender ratio can be seen, with reports of bride trafficking from far away states, even across the border, to areas with far fewer women than men, such as Haryana, the state bordering New Delhi. There are even reports of a single woman being shared amongst members of an all-male family. 

None of this is going to change overnight, and it will take more than widespread public outrage over a single rape to cure India’s many gender ills. But middle-class Indians – perhaps distracted by food inflation, crazily high university entrance cutoffs, or even simply mall shopping – have become resigned and indifferent.

Mobilising middle India to care about their rights, and the rights of huge swathes of the population, will take more than lip service, more than flaccid will. It will take a political class willing to accept and enact change, and a civil society hell-bent on consistently reminding the political class of the need for change. But until Indian society changes from the inside and individuals start seeing men and women as truly equal, there is little chance of this happening.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.