Will Delhi’s Coldest Night Dawn an Indian Spring?

Will Delhi’s Coldest Night Dawn an Indian Spring?

Tear gas, water cannons and dozens of police were unable to break apart the thousands of Indian protesters who took to the streets of Delhi, in defiance of the ban on demonstrations, set off by the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23 year-old physiotherapy student, on December 16, 2012.  Similar to the wave of protests that ignited the Middle East during the Arab Spring, widespread protests across India signal and outcry against tyranny and oppression, albeit across gender lines.

YouGov conducted a survey using its own online panel of Indian residents to better understand perceptions of the tragedy and the role of women in society.  According to the YouGov poll, 40 percent of the online respondents surveyed said that overall conditions for women in India are worse than they should be, while one-third said that they are acceptable. Despite the shocking nature of the attack, 56 percent of the respondents to this survey believe that it was overblown, saying such things happen all the time; suggesting that sexual assault and the perceived threat thereof may have become commonplace amongst certain sections of Indian society. Regardless, the recent tragedy has broken the taboo around the issue of sexual assault and pushed India to the verge of a paradigm shift in gender equality.  The victim, who remained unnamed for weeks, became any women and every woman.  Perhaps this is why 86 percent of all the respondents said that the incident had a personal effect on them.

The shockingly violent attack sparked popular outcry against the police force and political system in India, from which many feel marginalized. Nearly all respondents indicated that the police share some of the blame regarding what happened, with half of those surveyed saying that they hold a large share of the blame. Respondents also pointed their finger to politicians, with 93 percent agreeing that they were culpable to some extent.  While politicians have been criticized for not treating the rising incidents of rape as a priority in the past, 93 of respondents agree that the recent tragedy will result in the passing of new laws.

Respondents to the survey support the expansion of laws against violent sex crimes, with nearly all agreeing that the government should implement a ‘fast track’ court system for such cases.  Ninety-six percent of respondents agree that there should be stronger punishments for sex offenders. Speaking of this case in particular, 82 percent of the Indians surveyed agree that the death penalty is the most appropriate punishment for those found guilty, with 55 percent among those respondents advocating that the guilty parties be tortured first.  In addition to strict punishments, 93 percent of respondents support increasing the proportion of female police officers in the force, and 86 percent agree that the names of sex offenders should be published on the Internet.

Rape is historically an under-reported crime, and India is not unique in this.  The social stigma against victims of sexual violence, coupled with low confidence in the justice system (last year the more than 600 reported rapes in Delhi resulted in only one conviction) discourages victims from reporting such crimes.  Political leaders and public figures have perpetuated the tendency to blame the victim in rape cases, including defense lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma, who is defending three of the men charged in the Delhi case. Sharma released a statement saying, had the victim been a ‘girl with respect’ no harm would have come to her. Despite the popular outrage against such statements, 47 percent of the Indian respondents surveyed from our online panel agree that the victim bares a share of the blame and half agree that her family does as well, for allowing her to visit the cinema in the first place.  According the YouGov poll, 39 percent of the online respondents support the introduction of a curfew preventing women from going out after a certain time, with these respondents placing the onus of rape-prevention on women and suggesting their safety is best insured by staying home.

The need to shift the focus from blaming the victim to the criminality and brutality of rape has been a central focus of Indian women’s rights groups.  Many such groups have spoken out against how society perceives rape, its victims and its perpetrators. For example, Bollywood films, which are wildly popular throughout the sub-continent, have become a central aspect of cultural production in the region.  Although the films typically include characterization and dramatic situations, 58 percent of the respondents to this survey agree that such films accurately portray the real women of India.  In line with cultural norms, the romantic scenes in Bollywood films do not go further than kissing, as nudity is prohibited.  However, rape scenes are not only permissible, but quite common in such films.  Among the online Indians surveyed, three-fourths agreed that Bollywood films glamourize sexual violence against women.

However, it is not only pop-culture that is perceived by online respondents as stagnating the advancement of women’s rights in India but also the divergence between contemporary and traditional Indian culture. Among respondents to this survey, cultural traditions were cited as the biggest barrier to women achieving their career goals (51 percent), followed by family expectations (50 percent) and sexism from employers (43 percent).  The disconnect between the role of women in India’s modernizing economy and women’s traditional role in India is undeniable.  When asked to identify the three most important goals for women in today’s society, two-thirds of our online respondents said being well educated, followed by half who said supporting their husband and 47 percent who said having a successful career.

Female respondents from our online panel were very supportive of women’s right to work, with 97 percent of female respondents agreeing it is important that a woman have the right to work while 80 percent of male respondents agreed.  Among career options, the same respondents felt it most acceptable for women to work as teachers (89 percent) and doctors (85 percent).  Less than half of respondents felt it acceptable for women to work as police officers, politicians or pilots.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents felt it least appropriate for women to work as taxi drivers (13 percent) mechanics (10 percent), plumbers (7 percent).

Respondents also had diverging opinions on the issue of violence against women.  According to the YouGov’s online poll, 44 percent of the male respondents agreed that in certain circumstances it is acceptable for a father to beat his daughter, while 29 percent of the female respondents said the same.  While 30 percent of male respondents said that it is acceptable in some circumstances for a brother to beat his sister, 36 percent of female respondents agreed.  Similarly, 17 percent of male respondents indicated that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife in certain circumstances while only 8 percent of women agreed.

However, perceptions of gender roles and inequality will likely undergo significant change in India. Among the Indians from our online panel surveyed, 97 percent believe that there should be more education about gender equality and 79 percent believe that attitudes towards women will change as a result of the tragic attack in Delhi. As protests ignite across India, and policy makers continue to offer concessions, one can only hope that such changes will be implemented when the smoke clears.

The survey was conducted using YouGov’s Online Indian Panel and all questionnaires were completed between the 1st January – 7th January 2013.  The results are based on a total sample of 827 Indian residents.  YouGov’s Indian panel is broadly representative of the online population of India.

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