2 More Horrific Gang Rapes: Why Rage Against Women Is Boiling Over in India

Like the accused witches of Europe, women in India have become scapegoats.

January 14, 2013  |  

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A cow, the symbol of all living things in India, may wander the streets unmolested. A woman, on the other hand, may not. Just weeks after the horrific gang rape in New Delhi that left a student dead and a nation protesting widespread violence against women, we learn of two more brutal attacks against women who were doing nothing more than traveling from one place to another.

Over the weekend, a village woman was gang-raped by seven men after boarding a bus in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab state. A second woman who got off a Delhi-bound train in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar state (one of India’s most backward), was gang-raped, murdered and her body strung from a tree in a mango orchard.

Women in the U.S. are certainly no strangers to violence, but most of us walk out the door with reasonable assurance that we will reach our destination. The ferocity of the attacks in India, combined with the indifferent responses of public officials, makes the heart lurch and the mind reel. It is not enough for the women to be raped. They must be tortured; their bodies dumped like trash or displayed as macabre trophies — and then perhaps blamed for the violence. Hatred so fierce seems irrational and inscrutable. Women have always been the targets of male attacks, but in India today, what could be causing it to boil over into mayhem?

Looking back a few hundred years in Western history may offer us some clues to the riddle of what’s wrong in India.  

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, 500,000 people in post-medieval Europe were convicted of witchcraft and set aflame like human torches. As many as 85 percent of these people were women. Since a death sentence required a confession, torture was common, the more painful and gruesome, the better.

It’s no accident that witch trials coincide with the early modern period, when the social and economic structures of the Middle Ages were giving way to new organizations. The trials peaked between 1560 and 1630, and then faded out by the mid-18th-century. Many factors likely contributed to the slaughter, including religious clashes between Protestants and Catholics and climate-driven crop failure that caused farmers to look for something or someone to blame.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris, in his book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, proposes that witches were targeted by the Church and secular lords to focus and divert public anger at a time of enormous economic upheaval. “The practical significance of the witch mania…,” he writes, “was that it shifted responsibility for the crisis of late medieval society from both Church and state to imaginary demons in human form.” Harris argues that religious and secular authorities led the witch hunts in order to deflect the blame for bad economic conditions from themselves and to reassert their power.

But why were women the main targets? The early modern period witnessed shifts from rural, agricultural patterns of living to more urban ones. Rural landed estates were built on patriarchal structures. Clans emphasized a warlike culture to defend systems of land tenure in which women were usually degraded, their perceived helplessness and cowardice emphasized to highlight male valor and prowess.

With few exceptions, landed estates were run by men, and primogeniture (which was not universal) placed special value on male children. Strict division of labor between women and men was routine. Cruel abuse of women was certainly common, but the movement of people in these rural areas was fairly limited and oversight was intense. The early modern period brought increased mobility and changes in work relations. As feudalism declined and capitalism began to emerge, global trade took off. Transportation developed rapidly, along with technology. Land was no longer the only form of wealth that mattered; banking developed, along with insurance and investing. Women began to participate in market trade, and country girls were increasingly employed in the cities and towns.