Why Mostly Men at the Indian Anti-Rape Protests?

Because women protesting might still get … groped.

Indian protesters shout during a rally in New Delhi on Dec. 30, 2012, following the death of a gang-rape victim in the Indian capital.

Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images.

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.  They demanded a deadline for the hanging: Jan. 26, the annual celebration of the nation’s independence, which arrived courtesy of the nonviolent “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

“So what he is minor .. [sic]” read one man’s sign in gothic black handwriting and accompanied by a crude drawing of the accused teenager with a noose around his neck, “hang him too.”

The protesters chanted angrily, as television 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, some from India’s long-suppressed women’s movement, to fight for stronger rape laws and other legal protections. 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 queer 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 capital punishment is not a deterrent against crimes such as rape and that profound social changes are instead 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 slop sloganeering and let the women slogan, but it’s not happening. They say, ‘Oh, come on, we’re coming out and helping you.’ ”

Some of the anti-rape protests during the past two weeks have been dominated by men, as was the case on Sunday; 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 sit with sad faces. 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. ”We want women dignity back [sic],“ read a sign held by two young women as they stood mournfully at the periphery of the circle of angrily chanting men.

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. “They told us we had no right to protest there, and if we wear indecent clothes they will molest us.”

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 by some of the men 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 from attack and harassment, women in India are often warned to dress modestly and travel with a man after dark. Most of the crimes against women in India are inflicted against poor, uneducated women in rural areas, and they often go unreported.

When New Delhi Chief Minister Sehila Dikshit reached the demonstration on Saturday, shortly after the rape victim’s death, she was chased away by a mob of angry protesters, most of them men, in apparent retaliation for her government’s failure to prevent rapes in the city. Rukmini Shrinivasan, a female journalist with more than 200 bylines at the Times of India, pressed into the pack to do her job.

“It was a mad scramble, but of the sort journalists are used to,” Shrinivasan reported in an article titled  “Long way to go, I was groped at protest.” “I raised my camera above my head and started taking pictures. Within a few seconds, I felt a hand on my behind. I tried to give the person the benefit of doubt by elbowing his arm and twisting around to dislodge his hand, while still taking pictures. But when I knew I was unmistakably being groped, I caught the guy by the arm.”

“We may benefit from some of the [men],” said Rachana Johri, an associate professor at Ambedkar University in Delhi who specializes in women’s studies. “But we may also, in the long run, realize that some of them come from positions that do not fit in well with the perspective of women’s movements.”

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.