The Fear Of A ‘Rape Capital’: What Can We Learn From Asifa Bano?


Feverish international media attention, including in Australia, on the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl on another continent begs the question ‘what are we learning about India’, writes Annie McCarthy.

Trying to write about the brutal and drawn-out gang-rape and murder of 8-year old Asifa Bano in Indian January 2018; the mobilisation of Hindu-right wing protestors in support of the accused; the nation-wide protests that emerged in support of the victim; and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent executive order that gives a judge the power to send convicted rapists of a child under 12 to the gallows, is hard.

The subject matter is confronting no doubt, but what makes it particularly difficult for me, as an anthropologist committed to working in India with marginalised children, is the question: why?

But this is not the ‘why’ you might expect. To some extent, I can explain to myself and my students ‘why’ these things happen. What I’m really interested in why this story has been picked up by every major news outlet in Australia.

The answer you may think is simple enough: the violence of child rape, and its aftermath, demands global attention. However, I want to suggest that this simplicity emerges from what has become (since the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape) an almost quarterly global media engagement with India as a country defined by rape. Yet this cyclical engagement passes over far more brutal ‘rapes’ than it reports.

This is not to say that rape is not a problem in India. But to ask why it is that some rapes, perhaps the more dramatic, poignant or ugly ones, have the capacity to reveal what anthropologist Michael Tausig in his book The Nervous Systemdescribes as a state of ‘terror as usual’: where people and societies ‘move in bursts between somehow accepting the situation as normal, only to be thrown into a panic or shocked into disorientation by an event.’

The global mainstream media, swept up in this ‘disorientation’, likewise have a tendency to imbue each spectacular event with a sense of urgency. By using evocative phrases like ‘epidemic’ and ‘spate’ to situate each new ‘horrific’ incident within its broader context, journalists point to the unremarked-upon violence that occurs in the space between media cycles, but do not make themselves accountable to these incidents.

In this space, what emerges is a narrative, not of the innumerable individual rapes and their individual perpetrators — the kind of individualised reporting through which we are used to reading about sexual violence in Australia —but a recurrent ‘India: rape capital of the world’ narrative. And in this narrative, it is India itself that is all too often framed as the problem. And India is projected as being endemically, well, Indian.

I experienced this ‘effect’ myself in 2012 as I prepared to undertake my doctoral fieldwork in Delhi. Departing for India a month after the highly publicised gang rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ (the brave), I was swarmed by concerned friends and relatives fearing for my safety in the newly proclaimed ‘rape capital of the world.’

What I saw in their eyes and in their voices was fear: a fear of India. At the time I met these concerns with vehement indignation, citing the privilege of my situation and my commitment to undertaking fieldwork in marginalised communities —invoking a tangled combination of political convictions and bravado, privately addressed to my own anxieties about what dangers I may face in the field.

After working in slum communities and reading stories about horrific crimes against women written by slum children, much of the same indignation remains with me today, and compels me to ask questions about what these stories and media coverage actually accomplishes in places like Australia.  What are we learning from these stories?

My deepest fear is that ‘we’ are learning to be afraid: to be afraid of India and to be afraid of Indians. So while we may be able to sense Asifa Bano’s fear and the horror of her ordeal if we can stomach a full reading of the charge sheet, news stories that contain only the briefest of sketches and a preponderance of statistics, seem to produce a fear that we direct towards our own: what we are learning is to be afraid ‘for ourselves.’

Of course this is often accompanied by pity, sadness, claims of barbarity and inhumanity, human rights violations and horrible injustices, but what do we learn from these? Or more significantly, how do these reactions continue to reproduce a far longer history of thinking about ‘India’ as a place defined by ‘barbarism,’ ‘inhumanity’ and ‘violence.’

How do these narratives and anxieties reproduce whatChandra TalpadeMohanty famously described as ‘Third world Difference’ or Gayatri Spivak described as the ‘violent shutting’ of the third world woman ‘caught between tradition and modernisation?’

These are the reasons I find it hard to write about events like Asifa Bano’s rape: not because of my inability to engage with the horrors of Asifa’s ordeal, but because of the ways I fear this ordeal is being framed in my own country in ways that contradict everything that I work for as someone committed to deep learning and teaching about India.

And sure, I could have taken a different angle to this story. I could have joined the list of incisive commentators that point out that Prime Minister Modi’s recent executive order is most likely an attempt to re-build trust in the lead up to next years’ general election.

But I cannot, drafting this piece on ANZAC day feel comfortable with a critique that foregrounds the mobilisation of the deaths of young people for political or nationalist ends.

I might have raised the question as to why the rapes of children under 12 where not considered serious enough last time when the law was changed — in the aftermath of the Delhi-gang rape —to warrant hanging. Or in an alternative vein, I could have mounted a scathing critique of the death penalty itself, and produce an entirely different discourse of Indian ‘barbarism.’

Maybe I could have tried to draw attention to those who are not ‘jolted’ by such events, people like the children I worked with, or the many Indian feminists who have long laboured to point to the unremarked-upon victims of rape and sexual assault in India; police indifference to or complicity in these crimes; and the vastness of judicial delays and bureaucratic processes that obstruct justice at every turn.

These, in any case, have all been written about elsewhere. For me, the overarching question here is: what we are learning from these stories about India?

And how do they enable us to elide the violence exacted upon marginalised bodies in Australia, whether they be of women, refugees or indigenous people?

Dr Annie McCarthy is an Anthropologist at the Australian National University, currently teaching courses on gender and personhood, and pursuing further research into the ways we can better understand the lives of children who live in poverty in India.