The country has landed a probe on the Moon but for Indian women, the murder of a young physiotherapist thrown off a Delhi bus after a barbaric gang rape has reminded them-and a horrified world-that they still face levels of sexual violence that belong more to the middle ages than the space age. The 23-year-old student and her male companion, returning home from the cinema, were beaten with iron bars and she was raped by six men, also suffering internal injuries. They were both thrown off the bus, naked, and lay by the roadside for an hour as a crowd gathered before being taken to hospital. She died from internal injuries, doctors said.

India does not have a rape culture, the world does; but the crime is more clearly widespread in some countries than others. Rationales for why India should have so many have become increasingly polarised, reflecting the growing divide between educated, urban, middle class and cosmopolitan India and its rural, conservative, feudal and nationalist hinterland. As anger grew after the Delhi bus rape, there were calls to hang rapists, improve the conviction rate, retrain police and so on, although as some commentators pointed out, the law and police procedure around rape are already adequate. More reactionary voices blamed declining moral values, women for being out late or wearing western clothes-in fact, blamed western culture in all its forms, even attributing the doubling of reported cases in the past two decades to fast food. Right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, such as Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have been beneficiaries of this backlash against modernity.

According to the latest global statistics, India has relatively low levels of sexual crime, ranking only just above Canada. Clearly, however, this does not ring true-there are many crimes inflicted on women in Canada but gang rape does not appear to be as routine as in India. Indeed, a survey by TrustLaw ranked India as the worst country in the world for women. Why has this emerging super-power left behind half of its population?

Or rather, less than half the population-for not least among the crimes against the gender is infanticide of female foetuses. Estimates of India’s “missing women” vary from Amartya Sen, who coined the phrase in 1990 and put the number at more than 100 million, through 50 million to a lowball figure of 25 million. The female/male ratio in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana-which are among the country’s richest but, interestingly, also two of the most feudal-was an astonishing 0.86 when Sen was writing in 1990 and has worsened since. Haryana, according to the 2011 census, was India’s third-richest state but had the worst male/female ratio. In 2011, Delhi had 866 women for every 1,000 men. This correlation between gender imbalances, education and wealth can even be seen at local level; for example, of the capital’s seven parliamentary districts, South Delhi-the richest-has the worst imbalance, the Chandigarh Tribune reported. Reicha Tanwar, of Kurukshetra University in Haryana, said: “When female foetuses are routinely killed, it is not surprising adult women are also viewed as disposable.”

It must be stressed that India is far from alone in its “gendercide”, and not even the worst example: it is on a par with Serbia, and lags behind South Korea and, by some way, China. But the implications for India are huge-and must be considered an underlying cause of the endemic violence against women. In Asian societies, as the Economist put it, “single men are almost like outlaws. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates are all rising and will rise further as the lopsided generations reach their maturity.”

However, it is not just the worsening sex ratio at birth, another fundamental factor is the child sex ratio-why boys are favoured over their sisters, why they get fed better, receive a better education,are more likely to survive to adulthood and so on. A review of financial incentive schemes to improve girls’ lot found that India’s mortality rates among children under five was 73 per thousand for girls as against 64 for boys in 2008. To address this, families with girls were paid a stipend if certain conditions were met, such as registering births, immunisation, enrolling and remaining in school, and delaying marriage beyond 18. Though beset by problems (including too many conditions, couples being required to undergo sterilisation, bureaucratic inefficiency, demands for bribes etc) and generating many unforeseen consequences (eg deaths of girls going unreported), the UN Population Fund considered the schemes valuable.

The study underlined how much certain areas of development in India had been neglected: for every ambitious nuclear programme or muscle-flexing blue-water fleet, there are depressing signs that almost nothing is changing. A Unicef report noted that every second young child in India is malnourished, that fewer than one in four of the rural population use toilets and, despite the schemes outlined above, just four out of 10 girls enrolled at school complete eight years of education. The breathtaking economic transformation since the early 1990s, it concluded, had been without corresponding positive change in social development and was causing growing disparities across regions, castes and sex. More than 82% of boys attend school compared with 72% of girls, with significant differences between urban and rural areas, and among children from “scheduled castes” or tribes. Some problems would be relatively straightforward to alleviate: Unicef cited the number of teacher vacancies, lack of female teachers, teacher absenteeism, irregular classes, overcrowded classrooms and traditional methods of rote learning “plaguing efforts to improve the quality of education”.

The girls who should have been born but whose gender made them worth less as foetuses, or who were born but were neglected from the start, are only part of the story. Despite electing, in Indira Gandhi, the world’s second female head of government, the status of women remains appallingly low. Every six hours, a young married woman is burnt to death, beaten to death, or driven to suicide by emotional abuse from her husband, the India Law Journal reported. More than two-thirds of married women aged 15 to 49 have been beaten, raped or forced to provide sex, according to the UN Population Fund. Crime records show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded in India in 2011 were against women. In 2011, there were more than 75,000 cases of rape, molestation and sexual harassment in India. These reported cases are the tip of the iceberg, with estimates of up to 50 sexual crimes for every one reported. Conviction rates are low, at below 27%. Among Muslim and Dalit women, the rate is almost nil.

India is very far from having a monopoly on crimes against women. As the UN secretary-general’s campaign noted, on average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by a partner during her lifetime. The howls of outrage from around the world after the rape victim died led to a backlash from some commentators, who pointed out that rape was a universal problem and citing statistics showing the number of rapes in western countries. The UN crime bureau notes, for example, that there were 1.8 incidents of reported rape in India per 100,000 people in 2010 compared with 27.3 in the US. But this ignores under-reporting of rape in India due to societal pressure to cover up abuses and police reluctance to register such crimes, said Sudha Sundararaman, of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association. A search for “gang rape” on the legal website India Kanoon finds the phrase in more than 1,000 cases.

Even amid the outcry across the country over this latest egregious rape and grandstanding government pledges for action, just some of the incidents reported in the following days included policemen suspended over a rape and murder near the capital after they initially refused to investigate the 21-year-old’s disappearance. Her body was found the next day-her father told the BBC that she had been gang raped. In Punjab, a case similar to the Delhi rape saw a 29-year-old woman on a bus to her village abducted by the driver and conductor, and taken to a house where they and five other men gang raped her all night. In another case, a 16-year-old Dalit girl in Haryana set herself on fire after being raped by a neighbour, police said. The next day, in Bihar, a woman got off a train, was gang raped, strangled and her body hung from a tree in an orchard. The Guardian also noted a politician who was reported to have assaulted a woman, a schoolgirl attacked by two men in Puducherry, and a 17-year-old in Delhi who accused two cousins of repeated rape. A gang rape of a teenager over several weeks by more than 40 men in Kerala 16 years ago has only now reached India’s supreme court.

There was an unprecedented reaction to the Delhi crime as students, women’s groups and outraged citizens took to the streets, with thousands of demonstrators blocking streets outside Delhi’s police headquarters, protesting near parliament and rallying at universities. Many Indian commentators asked why Delhi was the rape capital of the country-the highest among 35 major cities-and concluded that, as in many countries, the attitudes and apathy of the police prevented many victims reporting crimes. An investigation by Tehelka revealed just how unsympathetic Delhi’s police are, finding “shockingly ugly views on rape victims”: that victims are extorting money, that few rapes are genuine, that it never happens to a high-caste woman (unless it does, in which case she had “asked for it” because of her non-traditional clothes, behaviour etc). The undercover reporters also found deep-seated racism against women from Nepal and Darjeeling.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that these misogynistic attitudes are so widespread among the police: politicians, lawyers and religious leaders have made even more offensive comments. Asaram Bapu, a Hindu guru, told his devotees that the murdered woman was as guilty as her rapists. “The girl was also responsible,” he claimed. “She should have called the culprits “brothers’ and begged them to stop.” Manohar Lal Sharma, the lawyer representing three of the men charged with the Delhi rape, blamed the dead woman and her friend, saying he had never heard of a “respected lady” being raped. Mohan Bhagwat, head of the right-wing Hindu group RSS, blamed what he called urban India’s acceptance of western values, claiming absurdly that sexual violence never occurred in rural areas. Proving that blaming the victim unites politicians across the political spectrum, Kailash Vijayvargiya, of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and Botsa Satyanarayana, a Congress party leader in Andhra Pradesh, both suggested she had brought it on herself by being out at night and flouting rules for women. Meanwhile, Abhijit Mukherjee, son of India’s President Pranab Mukherjee, dismissed protesters as: “Dented and painted women chasing two minutes of fame.”

In response to demands for meaningful reform, the government appointed three judges to review rape laws amid calls for the accused to be hanged. Among one petition’s recommendations on were setting up fast-track courts, heavier sentencing, better training for police, passing pending laws to protect women (in the workplace, for example) and sensitising boys through the school curriculum. A particular complaint was the notoriously insensitive “two-finger test“, in which doctors check for an intact hymen.

Commentators, however, said the laws were adequate-attitudes needed to change. Vrinda Grover, a supreme court lawyer and women’s rights activist in Delhi, said: “We have to shift the burden from the conduct of the [women] to the conduct of the accused … first deal with the prejudice that the woman is telling a lie.” A gang-rape victim, who endured a four-year trial only to see her attackers acquitted, told Indian TV: “It takes great courage for a woman to go to court and then she is insulted and raped again by the entire system.” Dismissing calls for the death penalty, which is rarely imposed in India, Deepti Sharma, of the women’s rights group Saheli, said: “It’s not the severity of the punishment-it’s the certainty.”

It seems clear that reducing rape requires concerted efforts to improve females’ status. But socio-economic factors do not, by themselves, explain the miserable lot of women in India. It speaks volumes that groping on public transport and far more serious sexual harassment and assaults go by the euphemistic term “eve-teasing” and, as the Economist put it: “The misery of daughters-in-law abused after moving in with their husbands’ extended families is a staple of crime reports and soap operas.”
How does such abuse become normalised? Indeed, why does gang rape seem more commonplace in India than other similarly underdeveloped countries? Mass rape is a weapon of war seen recently in, for example, Syria, the Balkans,Sierra Leone, Liberia and, worst of all, the Democratic Republic of Congo. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found 1,152 women were being raped every day in the DRC-a rate 26 times higher than the UN’s estimate of 16,000 rapes a year. Rapes remain almost at war-time highs nearly a decade later in Liberia. However, these are countries still devastated by civil war, or struggling to rebuild themselves, not an emerging great power that has been a beacon of peace and stability in its fractious neighbourhood. Leaving Kashmir aside (admittedly the location of terrible mass rapes), widespread civil violence in India has been mostly confined to the long-running but low-intensity Maoist insurgency and occasional acts of terrorism. These are eclipsed, though, by the many communal riots since independence, mostly directed against Muslims but also Sikhs (after Indira Gandhi’s assassination) and Christians.

Is there a common thread, running deeper through Indian culture, that links sectarian pogroms and gender-based violence? Just as Christianity sanctioned the transatlantic slave trade, so too perhaps Hinduism itself underpins this violence. The pious might point to female divinities or examples from scripture honouring women, but even some of these defences of religion inadvertently strengthen the prosecution case, for instance by citing stories from epics such as the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana that involve huge bloodshed to vindicate the “honour” of a female. Rape in itself is not wrong: the crime is the disgrace to the man because of liberties taken with his chattel. Patriarchy is as much part of the religion as caste prejudice; it explicitly ascribes to women inferior status, weak minds, corrupt morals and the requirement to be submissive to men much as Christianity justified women’s inferior legal status in Victorian Britain.

As Nirmukta, an organisation promoting free thought and secular humanism in India, points out: “Hindu apologists consider the Manusmriti as the divine code of conduct and, accordingly, the status of women as depicted in the text has been interpreted as Hindu divine law.” It goes on to list some of the derogatory dictums enshrined in one of the foundations of religion and society:

  • It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world (2/213).
  • A Brahman who marries a Shudra [low-caste] woman, degrades himself and his whole family, becomes morally degenerated, loses Brahman status and his children too attain status of Shudra (3/14).
  • One should not accept meals from a family exclusively dominated by women (4/217).
  • A female child, young woman or old woman is not supposed to work independently even at her place of residence (5/150).
  • Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, women must be under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her son as widows. In no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently (5/151).
  • Men may be lacking virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities, and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands … Her only duty is to obey and please her husband and she will for that reason alone be exalted in heaven (5/157).
  • In case a woman tears the membrane [hymen] of her vagina, she shall instantly have her head shaved or two fingers cut off and made to ride on a donkey (8/369).
  • It is the duty of all husbands to exert total control over their wives. Even physically weak husbands must strive to control their wives (9/6).
  • Women are impure and represent falsehood (9/18).
  • Any women who disobey orders of her lethargic, alcoholic and diseased husband shall be deserted for three months and be deprived of her ornaments (9/77).
  • A barren wife may be replaced in the 8th year; she whose children die may be replaced in the 10th year and she who bears only daughters may be replaced in the 11th year; but she who is quarrelsome may be replaced without delay (9/80).

Can India assume its rightful place in the modern world if it leaves behind women, the lowest castes and tribes? The suppression of rape, and the struggle for women’s rights, does not only require a re-ordering of government priorities and positive discrimination, it must involve a fundamental challenge to misogynistic mores that date back millennia but still sanction the assumptions of men, from common criminals to politicians and religious gurus alike.

To those who might dismiss this argument as westernised, neo-colonial or worse, it is not hard to find examples of Asian women arguing the same point: that culture cannot be overlooked in searching for answers to why these crimes happen with such depressing frequency.

Women are victims of Hinduism just as much as Dalits are cursed by caste. At times, as with the Delhi rape, these strands become intertwined. As one commentator wrote in The Hindu: “It is no coincidence that the family names of the [alleged] rapists are Singh, Sharma, Gupta and Thakur-all upper-caste men whose sense of traditional entitlement based on their caste may have been challenged in the big city of Delhi.”

India does not have an official state religion yet, as the 160 million-plus Muslims in the country could testify, Hinduism is privileged over all others in practice-and that paramount status can sometimes be enforced by both themob and the courts, as Ayodhya proved or as Christians in Orissa have found.
The revelations in Britain about Jimmy Savile, the TV entertainer who raped and sexually abused children for decades by “hiding in plain view”, show that every nation has predatory men. But not all countries have such complacent, blasé perpetrators as India seems to have. Though many conservative Indians will continue to blame the victim, there is a new generation of urban, cosmopolitan Indians who will no longer put up with the age-old status quo. There can be nothing relativistic about gang rape; it is not cultural imperialism to demand that Indian women and girls deserve the same protection from rape as their sisters in the west. It is about time the Commonwealth, which has yet to break its silence about a subject that the rest of the world can barely contain itself, treated this issue with the seriousness it deserves.

The Indian constitution requires all citizens “to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women”. The preamble declares that India, as a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” will secure “equality of status and of opportunity” to all its citizens. Similarly, though the Commonwealth has long shied away from the minefield of religion (as Nazila Ghanea’s paper for the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau noted), it may eventually have to stand with the forces of secularism if it is to defend freedom of religion, or indeed, to fulfil its own founding principle of “co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”.

“What is needed is a new public consciousness and more effective and sensitive enforcement of the law in the interests of women,” said the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay. “India has shown through its social reform movements of the past that it can rid itself of a scourge like rape.”