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‘If girls look sexy, boys will rape’: Do Indian men believe this?

by Gethin Chamberlain

The Observer

“Rape is a big, big problem. It starts with the woman. They drive the man f*cking crazy.” Papi Gonzales leans back in his chair and surveys the other young Indian men around the table in his beach bar, seeking approval. They nod in agreement, eager to make their own points. “When the girls look sexy and the boys can’t control themselves, they are going to rape. It happens,” said Robin Shretha, one of the waiters.

Since 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, a medical student, was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi in December and later died in hospital from her injuries, the issue of rape has been hugely prominent in India. New cases are reported every day. Headlines were recently dominated by the gang rape of a Swiss woman on a cycling holiday in Madhya Pradesh. In the same week, a British woman leapt from her hotel window in the northern city of Agra at 4 a.m. to escape the unwanted attention of the hotel manager, who was trying to get into her room.

According to government figures, a rape takes place in India every 21 minutes. The number of reported rapes rose by 9 percent in 2011 to 24,000. Yet conviction rates are falling, down to 26 percent in 2011.

The recent cases have aroused worldwide outrage, and demonstrations led by women have filled the streets of major cities. But what do India’s young men think? The Observer gathered a group in the western region of Goa, to hear their views. They were: Abhijit Harmalkar, 28, a driver; his brother, Avinash Harmalkar, 24, a factory worker; Bhivresh Banaulikar, 26, an auditor; Brindhavan Salgaonkar, 20, a factory worker; Robin Shretha, 21, a waiter; and Papi Gonzales, 32, the owner of the bar.

One word to describe their views would be “unreconstructed.” The discussion illustrated a deep moral conservatism among Indian men, coupled with confusion about gender roles in a society where economic modernization is outstripping social attitudes. We are getting the blame, they claimed, while no one is paying attention to the actions of young women, who need to understand that they should not be out on their own at night.

“Our culture is different,” said Abijit Harmalkar. “Girls are not allowed outside after six [p.m.] because anything can happen — rape, robbery, kidnaps. It is the mentality of some people. They are putting on short and sexy dresses, that’s why. Then men cannot control themselves.”

Banaulikar nodded. “I have a sister. If she is out late at night then I would be worried. After 7 p.m. I would be worried. Men can’t control themselves.”

The men sit around a table in a bar overlooking the Arabian Sea. It is an idyllic scene: coconut palms edge the beaches, the sea is a deep blue, the temperature in the mid-30s. It is mid-morning, but already there are a few Western tourists wandering along the beach — the men bare-chested in shorts, many of the women in bikinis. Groups of Indian men watch the women, discreetly taking pictures with their phones. When night falls, nearby bars will be packed with young people, drinking and flirting. This bar is only a couple of miles from where the body of British teenager Scarlett Keeling was found on the shore one February morning five years ago. The 15-year-old had been raped and murdered. An on-off court case against two men has dragged on for years, with no sign of reaching a conclusion. No one believes that those responsible will face justice, and there appears to be no impetus among those in authority to bring it to a conclusion. The truth is that in India there are many people who think a 15-year-old Western girl out drinking in bars in the early hours of the morning was asking for trouble.

Sometimes the women lead the men on, those around the table said. Sometimes men are frustrated that women who have earlier flirted with them then ignore their advances. This is not how they themselves behave, but this is what happens, they said. “The Indian girls who come here, they don’t behave, maybe there are some boys and the rape happens,” said Shretha. “But sometimes they are not behaving sexy, not talking to the boys, and the boys are angrier and they think ‘I’ll rape.’

“If they find them in a blind place, they are going to combine together with friends and they are going to rape them. If they [the women] talk nicely, they are OK. If they behave rudely, then they [the men] are going to be angry.” But the idea that women are second-class citizens in India is out of date, they said. Everyone is equal now, with women going out to work and making money too. “Before, for many years, girls were neglected, boys got opportunities. Girls did not get opportunities, but now it is equal. It is a new generation, no difference between girls and boys,” said Shretha.

The trouble is, they claimed, that this new assertiveness among women is causing confusion for the men. “The main thing is the bank balance. Women are in love with the bank balance,” said Gonzales. “And a nice shiny car. Then everything is OK,” said Salgaonkar. “You should not blame the boys every time,” said Banaulikar. “If you have four girls, sometimes one is a prostitute type,” said Harmalkar. “The others don’t know their friend is a prostitute. It is common in college life,” he claimed. “And what do you think of them then?” asked Salgaonkar. “You may think all four are prostitutes.”

Such attitudes are not unusual in India. After the Delhi rape prompted nationwide protests, Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of President Pranab Mukherjee, himself an member of Parliament with the ruling Congress party, dismissed protesters as “dented and painted women.” And religious guru Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim was not blameless, asking provocatively: “Can one hand clap?” Maybe if there were more prostitutes, there would be fewer problems for young women, the men suggested. “It keeps men happy,” said Gonzales. “In Bombay, there are 20 places that I go sometimes, especially to f*ck. There are hundreds of places there. In Goa there are no places like that. And when we see the goras [whites] being sexy and showing their bodies off, the Goan people react badly. And even Bombay girls now are coming here in bikinis. When you are drinking, you know, you are out of control.”

One answer, said the men, would be for the women’s families to be stricter with them, preventing them going out at night. That is the traditional Indian solution to keeping girls safe.

“In Indian culture, our generation has grown up with respect for families,” said Gonzales. “That’s why we are scared of our parents. We behave as we are told to behave. Mum and Dad shout ‘do this, do that’ and we listen. But in the next generation everything has changed.”

“Parents should stop the girls going out late at night,” said Harmalkar. “They should not allow it. Parents should set them free to live their own life, but parents should be strict about late nights, then this kind of crime will not happen.” None of the men could understand why Jyoti Singh and her boyfriend had taken a bus in Delhi alone at night, the bus on which they were attacked. “At night-time no one goes in the bus, the seats are empty,” said Salgaonkar.

“You don’t go as a single boyfriend and girlfriend in a late bus at 8.30 p.m. At that time anything can happen, because no one is in the bus,” said Harmalkar. As for men who assault women on crowded buses, which happens frequently, they do so because they have the safety of numbers, he said, and because they don’t understand that what they are doing is wrong. “They can’t have a girlfriend. If they had a girlfriend they wouldn’t act like this. In fact, if they had a sister they would not do this,” said Harmalkar.

It was not the rape itself that provoked such anger, said Salgaonkar, but the violence. “The boys who raped her also violated her with a steel rod. It was a violent act. If it was only sex, they would not have been so angry.”

No one around the table had a simple solution, though Banaulikar said that the only way to stop rape was to keep young people busy and off the streets. “In my job I am always busy,” he said. “I don’t have time to do these things. If you keep them busy, you can stop them. It is the jobless men who are doing these things.

“If they see others doing this stuff, they copy them, because they are away from their families. It is the same for the girls. In the daytime she is a good girl, but no one knows what she does at night, and she persuades her friends to do the same.” Parents should teach the difference between right and wrong, they said, and also schools.

It was also clear, however, that the modernization of India was exacting a price, with a growing discrepancy between different groups over issues of morality. “College life is different,” said Harmalkar. “Anything can happen there. Girls and boys know everything about sex. The girls go from boy to boy. That is why girls are going bad.”

Salgaonkar said: “The girl has to tell the boy that after they get married they will have sex, but not before. But then some girls flirt. If you have a nice car or a bike, then girls want to be with you.” Banaulikar added: “Some girls are doing things for money. They use the boy and then throw them away. So some boys are taking revenge.

“These things are not going to stop. Sex is common. If someone wants to have sex, no one can stop them. And if you do not want to have sex, people will say you are not a man.”

Last week, the lower house of Parliament passed new rape laws, which include the death penalty for the most extreme cases, and introduced punishments for stalking and assaulting women. But this all-male conversation by the sea in Goa ended on a note that did not offer much hope for the thousands of women campaigning on the streets and in the towns of India for an end to sexual violence. “Nothing will be changed,” said Harmalkar. “Only if the world ends will anything change.”

  • Connor Powell

    I can’t believe the moral bankruptcy in these men. There is little to NO sign of empathy in these people. It almost seems as though they are defending rape; saying that it is inevitable and that it is the women’s responsibility to prevent it. How disillusioned can you be? It’s sheer absurdity. Why on Earth can they not understand that the fault lies with the disgusting, heartless, idiotic men who commit the crimes? India has become nothing more than a dinky, miserable cesspool of violence and seediness.

    • Christopher-trier

      There are a lot of good people in India, there are a lot of bad people. The sad thing is that India is going downhill in many respects. Rather than take responsibility for their own failures an entire industry has arisen blaming the British for all of India’s ills. That’s rather telling of their future when they can’t take responsibility for their present.

      • Connor Powell

        This is true. I do know a couple of Indians who are genuinely lovely people. But that shouldn’t skewer the view on the majority. Many people are complaining about the negative stereotype of Indian men…well, I’m sorry, but that is the LEAST of India’s problems. Sort out the rape crisis first, don’t complain your country is being viewed badly – you shouldn’t even care about that for the moment. And for people mocking how the author managed to find the exact kind of people he or she needed for their story – do you not see how eager you are to find faults in the article? There’s some strange need for many people to disprove newspapers and interviews when they project a negative story – well, yes, not everyone in India is like this. But why focus on that when there clearly ARE some people out there like this? Priorities.

  • Sivaram Dhara

    You go into a night-club in Vegas, accost a group of young men, some illiterate, drinking at the bar and ask for their definition of morality in current day America. Do their views represent those of an American on the street? One wishes that journalists took their jobs seriously and worked harder. They have a responsibility to their readers.

    • Rohit KV

      Totally agree with you Sivaram Dhara. Time to stop this stereotyping of Indian men. :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/Julianicole.R Iulia Rascanu

        Agree. But YOU don’t have to respond to agressive men who follow you everywhere even when you do not socialize with them. By ‘aggressive’ I don’t mean only physical aggressiveness. YOU don’t have to organize your activities so that you don’t stay late away from home. YOU are carefree.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Julianicole.R Iulia Rascanu

      I am neither American, nor Indian, but an American would not say women should stay at home at night, otherwise they are looking for trouble; he would not say their families should be more restrictive with them. Whereas, I can see Indians totally believing in the restriction of freedoms for women for a variety of reasons: 1 – women they don’t know they can get raped because they are ‘prey’, 2 – their ‘women’ (wives, sisters, daughters) should also stay at home so the husband/brother/father is not concerned about them – men are secure in their world; women are there just to perform the roles ascribed to them – this is how I see it.

      • M.C.

        I am an American (of South Asian decent: Bangladeshi, not Indian) and I can tell you that there are many people just like the people in this article walking around in America.

        Amongst conservatives here, there are many (though before someone gets mad, I’m not saying *all* conservatives) who believe that rape laws should be loosened because they believe that women may “mislead” men and in those situations its not entirely the man’s fault. They believe that “she was out alone, dressed very sexy and being flirty” is an acceptable excuse for rape.

        Its disgusting but true. And I think in context of the example that the original poster gave, he’s totally right. This article seems to be interviewing some drunk college-aged Indian guys or something like that. If you asked a drunk American in Las Vegas what he feels, you might hear the same thing.

        I think more important than determining that certain races and nationalities are more or less rapisty, we should be worrying about creating change in general, no matter where it is.

  • http://twitter.com/PragNationalist PragmaticNationalist

    Disgusting. What use is 8-9% GDP growth if the men in India have no moral compass? With men like these, I am afraid India’s demographic dividend will turn out to be a demographic nightmare.

  • Don

    Interesting how Gethin Chamberlain managed to find the right people for his story!

  • Roshni Dasgupta

    This is so outrageous!
    Talking to a bunch of illiterates and generalizing how Indian men feel towards women is being unfair to the men in India as well as to the country.
    It is negative publicity.
    The rape frequency is higher in US. But why aren’t those reported in the international news at all?
    Agreed. As a woman, there are places in India where I might not feel safe. However, there’s no reason to believe that all men are rapists or all men treat women the same way.
    A further more research while publishing such a story would be very much appreciated.

  • Kavita Krishnan

    As one of the people leading the anti rape protests in India, I am appalled by the lazy racism of many responses to this in the western press. Of course the problem of sexism and sexual violence are huge in India – and there’s been a long standing women’s movement and people’s movement there fighting these. The thing is, sexism and sexual violence are not unique to India. The Slutwalk protests began in Canada – remember? Three Ohio women have been found captive after years and years in a neighbour’s house. Activists truly involved in fighting rape and sexism in the US or UK or Europe have been excited by the possibilities suggested by India’s anti rape movement – they have sought to support, but also to learn from, that movement, rather than imagine that sexism and rape ‘happen out there’. The idea that women should stick to some moral norms to avoid being raped is not unique to India – happens all the time in the advanced capitalist countries. US’ Republican rape-talk Senators could give Indian sexist men a run for their money. Please read this report of attempts at read solidarity between women’s movements in India and elsewhere in the world: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/amrit-wilson/indias-anti-rape-movement-redefining-solidarity-outside-colonial-frame

  • http://www.facebook.com/mihir.sengupta1 5moka

    Its sad how this reporter has stereotyped Indian men… Everything you have said applies to men who rape women.. Not only to “Indian men” and “the way they think” because thats the “culture”… in
    Britain, two women a week die at the hands of partners, many more are abused and
    tortured, but the events are hardly reported on, let alone protested against.
    Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service dismisses innumerable rape cases after
    citing insufficient evidence. Judges sometimes throw out rape charges that
    could damage the careers of British soldiers.

    British media conveniently ignore rape
    statistics in other countries to prove British racial superiority. Their
    coverage of the New Delhi case has turned into smug, self-righteous India
    bashing. The fact that Indian men and women came out in the thousands to
    protest against that crime is what defines the spirit of the country, which the
    British do not want to acknowledge.