Some balance please

IN Media Practice | 10/03/2015
Since 2012, the media, perhaps out of good intentions, have over-sensationalised rape as though it is peculiar to Indian men.
AMRIT DHILLON argues for more tempered reporting. Pix: The Indian Express

So now we have it. A German professor dare not let an Indian student go near her female students lest he rape them. When ours sons go abroad to study or holiday, they might as well go with a big mark on their foreheads proclaiming how dangerous they are. We have only ourselves to blame for this state of affairs. 

From the moment of the Delhi 2012 gang rape, the media coverage has been shrill and hysterical with words like ‘rape culture’ being tossed around with abandon. Tarring entire cultures is a dangerous business.   
 
Even at the time of Jyoti Singh’s tragic end, I wondered why the case had become a global media sensation when, sadly, equally horrific and even worse crimes take place across the world. Countries like Britain and Belgium have seen crimes involving the unimaginably cruel and prolonged sexual and mental torture of young children, yet they rarely become global stories and the media of these countries certainly do not beat their breasts asking ‘why do we have a paedophile-prone culture’? 
 
In England and Wales, 85,000 rapes took place in 2013. This figure is so stupendously high that I have had to  double-check it. Even if you allow for the fact that British women are more likely to report rape and that the definition of rape may be wider than, say, in India, why is this epidemic not a global story?
 
In terms of global rape figures, Australia and the US are in the top 15. By talking about sexual violence elsewhere, it is not my purpose to mitigate India’s mistreatment of women. It is vile and unpardonable, whether it is rape or the daily discrimination that starts from birth. 
 
Nor, by saying that the Delhi gang rape has parallels in other countries, is it my intention to diminish Jyoti Singh’s anguish. Nor am I saying that the outrage and street protests that erupted in 2012 were unwarranted. They were overdue and welcome.   
 
Yet the media – and commentators and columnists – are guilty of going overboard. The coverage of Jyoti Singh’s rape and of the rapes that followed in the ensuing months, gave the impression that Indian men and Indian society are exceptional in their anti-women attitudes. Every time a rape was reported, the media fell into a frenzy of hand-wringing.  
 
You could argue that sometimes, when a social evil has been tolerated for too long, an exaggerated treatment, an over-statement of the problem and higher levels of decibels and indignation are needed to bring it to the fore of public consciousness. 
 
That may well be. But the downside is that the issue can end up being wrongly framed (and the phrase ‘rape culture’ is one example), a country can score an own goal and unrealistic expectations are generated such as the juvenile tendency expressed implicitly in the media post-2012 that no rape should ever happen after Jyoti Singh. As though millennia of patriarchal subjugation can be erased at will. 
 
But immature treatment of a complex subject is just one part of the problem. The other is the habit of talking too much. People love the sound of their own voices. They love hearing themselves being clever, scoring points and shouter louder than the next person. 
 
This means we rarely get calm, rational, dispassionate debates that might help to solve the problem. All topics are submerged under this avalanche of words, words, words. No one cares about the outcome, about whether the problem being discussed may be any nearer to resolution after all the torrential verbiage in which no one has paid the slightest bit of attention to another’s views.     
 
Then, when the world media latched on to the Delhi gang rape and western commentators began preaching sniffily, we failed to get our responses right. We never do where foreigners are concerned. The reactions are bizarre, driven by a strange mélange of insecurity and arrogance.

So if Bill Clinton visits and says he loves kebabs, if actress Judi Dench wears an outfit designed by an Indian designer, if Oprah Winfrey tries on a sari, if the White House celebrates Diwali, if Madonna sports henna...we purr with pleasure.  
  
Alternatively, even a whiff of criticism from a foreigner and nostrils flare. During last year’s debate over Britain stopping aid to India, writer Farrukh Dhondy happened to say in a television debate words to the effect that Indians should get cracking with tackling poverty.
 
His fellow panellists tore him apart like starved hyenas. Their insolent tone towards Dhondy – ‘we don’t need lectures from an NRI’’ - broke all the rules of rudimentary etiquette.   
Then, at other times, just for variety, people capitulate completely in the face of foreign criticism, as they did after the Delhi gang rape, almost vying with one another to be more scathing than any foreigner could be. 
 
The self-flagellation that marked the debates post-2012 was alarming. No one paused to ask “Do other countries have a much better record on sexual violence than we do?’ Or ‘From what moral standpoint is the western media condemning us?”
 
It is important to understand that the western media have played an important role in promoting gender equality in their countries. Given this fact, when surveys show disturbingly high levels of rape and sexual assault in European Union countries, they raise a question. How is that, after being exposed to feminism and ideas of gender - in the media, culture, schools, literature, universities, daily life – for over two generations, European men still rape? 
 
By pointing this out, the purpose is not to condone Mukesh Singh or any other rapist. But you have to admit that an argument for extenuating circumstances could be made out on the lines that they were never exposed, even for a second in their entire lives, to the idea that women are equal and free. Western rapists have no such excuse. 
 
A more balanced and temperate response to the issue of sexual violence might be more useful than the self-lacerating hair-shirt which seems to be in vogue these days – manifested most recently in abject acceptance of Leslie Udwin’s documentary. 
 
India is not exceptional, it is not unique.  If the west has failed to end rape despite more than half a century of  feminist ideas, backed by law and culture, then the Indian media need to realise that this is not a sprint. It’s going to be a long-distance race.    
 
(Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist.)
 
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