Issue 216 of Lalkar carried a very well thought out article on the brutal rape and murder of a young woman travelling on a bus in Delhi with her boyfriend, the conclusions of which we can only agree with. (See ‘Gang rape outrage in Delhi’, January 2013)
The survival of semi-feudal social relations in India was particularly highlighted in this article, and with good reason. Despite its huge progress as a growing capitalist economy, much of India’s social life is still dominated by old feudal customs and attitudes.
These practices range from continuing the custom of living in male-dominated, extended-family households to habitual and widespread discrimination (often extremely violent) based on religion, caste and gender – all relics from a time when the whole of Indian society was ordered into strict hierarchies, much as our own was in the thousand years or so before the English revolution (or until the late eighteenth century in the case of Scotland).
The article included a telling quote from Maya John, who described how feudal attitudes towards women who are throwing off their old roles affect them in their daily lives:
“National statistics show that in our country, a woman is raped every 20 minutes. Daily life for women is littered with abuse – unwelcome stares and leering, groping and harassment, lewd comments on the street; beatings, molestation and rape by male family members and threats for dowry in the home. Rising figures of female foeticide show that [large numbers of] girls are killed in the womb. Women who assert their independence and marry outside the caste or community are beheaded or hacked to death by their own families in ‘honour’ killings.” (‘Fight violence against women across the country!’)
Of course, the problem for those who want to carry on imposing the semi-feudal violent oppression of women in India is not only that more and more women are demanding greater equality, but that capitalism itself has a pressing need to emancipate this reserve army of labour.
Growth of capitalism
If Indian capitalism is to keep expanding, it cannot afford to sustain a situation in which half the population are simply not allowed to leave their family home. The period of compromise between the rising capitalist economy and the old feudal norms, which saw the introduction of extensive homeworking for women, is becoming less profitable and is rapidly passing. Such a system requires raw materials to be taken to workers’ homes, and the finished or semi-finished products to be collected from all these locations.
It is clearly far more efficient if the workers travel to factories to do the work and return home afterwards. Not only does this save on the capitalist’s transport costs, but quality and consistency are also improved when workers use advanced and identical machinery and can be trained and supervised as they work. This does require a degree of safety for the female workers while travelling – and that women workers should be seen as respectable members of society rather than being branded as ‘shameless’ or ‘brazen’ for stepping outside of their domestic domains.
Another problem for capitalism is the massive imbalance between girls and boys in some parts of India (Punjab in particular) owing to the continuing practice of foeticide. The persistence of the dowry custom mean that daughters are perceived as being a financial encumbrance, whereas sons have the potential to bring in dowry money and land to enrich the family. But capitalism needs an excess of labour to help keep wages down, and the lack of females in some areas is making this a growing worry.
These urgent needs of capitalism, along with a growing demand for change from both the masses of India’s aspiring poor and from the country’s expanding middle class, is putting great pressure on the previously uninterested professional politicians, who need both wealthy backers and poor voters.
India’s middle class in particular is growing increasingly outraged at the way its needs are being totally ignored by India’s state machinery, which so blatantly serves only the needs of the super-rich billionaires and doesn’t even pretend to try and deliver education, infrastructure, security, justice, policing etc for ordinary citizens. In India today, even the most basic administrative functions, such as the issuing of driving licences, are impeded by corruption, and those who do not have money for bribes don’t bother going to the police for anything.
We do not want to give anyone the idea that the continuing growth and strength of capitalism will solve and sweep away the problem of women’s oppression, however; it can’t! Much as the capitalists need their workforce to be nominally equal before the law so that capitalist production can be carried on efficiently, their system still requires that deep divisions among workers should be encouraged – too great a sense of unity among the masses is dangerous to any system that enforces the rule of a minority class over the majority!
Another growing problem is the alienation and hopelessness felt by many workers as the old certainties relating to caste, religion and gender are broken down. More and more men, who previously held a well-defined position in the social hierarchy, are finding themselves at the bottom of the social heap as part of the growing Indian proletariat.
How does one empower oneself from the bottom of the heap? For communists, the answer is simple: unite with other workers, regardless of the divisions that capitalism (as well as stubborn old practices from a former time) tries to foster among you, and organise to take control of society’s productive forces so that everybody’s needs can be met.
But of course, this answer is not immediately obvious to everyone. So empowerment within the confines of the capitalist system for many means striving to become a capitalist oneself. The problem with this ‘solution’ is that such a treacherous climb is (can only be) managed by very few, and at the expense of all the other would-be climbers. For the vast majority, the floor is as high as they will climb within the present social system.
Meanwhile, some frustrated groups and individuals will simply resort to behaviours that give them a temporary sense of empowerment by disempowering others. Rape is one such behaviour. It has always been employed by armies of occupation as one of the weapons in their arsenal to try and break popular resistance. It has been used to keep people in their ‘place’ within a social hierarchy. And it has been used by men who feel the need to assert their supposed superiority for one reason or another.
The one thing that is always guaranteed about rape is that it is never about sex! Rape is about power – the power of the rapist over his victim.
And so, when our newsreaders smugly give out the statistics of rape in India as if it is the only place where such crimes take place, we should remember that rape is found wherever there is inequality and oppression.
The USA provides a perfect example of this fact. This acknowledged leader of the capitalist world is home to over 200,000 sexual crimes per year. Every two minutes, someone is raped in the US. One out of every seven women currently in college has been raped (although nine out of 10 women raped on campus do not report it). The United States has the world’s highest rape rate of all countries, 13 times higher than the UK and more than 20 times higher than Japan. And the USA is not just the ‘leader’ of the world when it comes to raping women; it’s also the place where more men are raped than anywhere else. One in 10 men is raped in his lifetime in the USA.
It is clear that, while capitalist development is slowly bringing advances to the position of women in India as compared with their old feudal position, it will never bring them to a position of true freedom and equality. Only in a better, socialist, society can we hope to abolish the root causes of rape, along with all the other expressions of women’s oppression and inequality.