DELHI, India – A tight circle of hundreds of protesters chanted angrily in a heavily policed New Delhi alley on Sunday afternoon. They waved placards calling for the hanging of six men – including a 17-year-old – accused in the gang rape of a woman who died over the weekend in the hospital.
The protesters chanted angrily, as TV news crews broadcast their rage around the world. They seemed irate and bent on revenge.
And almost all of them were men.
Thousands of Indians have taken to the streets to protest the vicious Dec. 16 raping of a 23-year-old medical student, who boarded a bus with a man and then was attacked by several men, including the driver. The mass protests are a sign that India might finally be ready for change, that a country with a history of indifference and even tacit encouragement of rape might finally be learning a different way to respond. And in India’s deeply sexist society, it is probably the voices of these men that will deliver publicity unlike any seen before about the crisis facing India’s women and girls.
But change doesn’t happen overnight. There are women out on the streets. But those women risk being groped by fellow protesters or shouted down. And the men on these same streets seem to be operating just as much from a revenge instinct as from any desire for meaningful social, political and legal changes.
I’m really happy about men protesting, said Ritupurnah Borah, a feminist activist who has helped organize the Citizen’s Collective Against Sexual Assault. The collective has been coordinating women’s safety protests every month for the past year. She said those protests were attended by virtually no men. Like many women’s activists and groups in India, Borah opposes the capital punishment that so many of the protesting men seek. She said profound social changes are needed to protect women in India.
But recently, because men’s voices are more audible, they take over many of the protests. It’s really sad because we don’t want goons – we want people who are really concerned about violence against women to come out on the streets. We’ve been requesting the men to stop sloganeering and let the women slogan, but it’s not happening.
Some of the anti-rape protests have been dominated by men; others have been roughly half women and half men. While men shout and hold brash signs calling for capital punishment, the women tend to light candles. They silently hold signs that call for an end to violence against women, for peace after death for the victim, and for systemic changes in government and in society. For them, this is just the latest chapter in a drawn-out fight that for these women has lasted decades and enjoyed little progress.
Some male protesters appeared steadfastly sincere about their desire to send a message to the government that crimes against women must end. But many more seemed to be interested in protecting women in the more old-fashioned, oppressive way.
Borah says her group recognized several men among recent protesters who had attacked members of her collective with misogynistic threats during quieter demonstrations that preceded the infamous gang rape.
The presence of some men that Borah characterized as thugs has helped to create an atmosphere during some of the recent protests that has been outwardly hostile toward women. Women have been subjected to the same type of groping and ogling at these protests that the protesting women have long fought to eradicate from Indian society.
In India this is known as Eve teasing – the natural consequence for a woman who, like the medical student, rides a public bus. To protect themselves, women in India are often warned to dress modestly and travel with a man after dark.
The optimistic way of framing the problem is, as these women’s groups continue in their long-fought battle for meaningful changes in India’s darkly patriarchal society, they have to figure out how to welcome men into their movement without getting overwhelmed by them. Which won’t be easy so long as misogynistic foes of their campaign move in their midst.