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Not Merely Toilets: Reframing the Badaun Rape Debate

Jalandhar : Women light candles on Friday during a protest in Jalandhar against Badaun rape case. PTI Photo (PTI6_6_2014_000193B) | Photo Credit: PTI

If the Delhi gang rape was all about ‘how can this happen in India’, the messages from Western perspectives on Badaun seem to suggest, ‘this can happen only in India’. Swati Parashar calls for delinking the anger surrounding sexual violence against women from the development debate, and points out that the former is rooted more in a patriarchal society’s fallacies over the place of women in society.

The gang rape and murder of two teenage Dalit girls in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh has once again alerted the international media to sexual violence against women and girls in India. 1 There is a scramble to re(present) the world ‘out there’ where women are being gang raped, murdered, their bodies hanging on trees. The discussion is different from what we saw after the Delhi gang rape in December 2012. The Delhi case invited scrutiny on the brutality of violence but also on the spontaneous protests and the remarkably peaceful resistance demonstrated by Indians. There was a certain perplexity with which Western public discourses responded to Delhi - either with complete silence, or with curious statistics about violence in their own countries. They were at odds to locate the grounds on which to base their critique of India, even as they reflected on violence against women in Western societies. This time it is easier to avoid that ambiguity, that position of discomfort and bafflement. Rape and murder of women in Badaun makes news, seemingly to the Western eye, not for gender power relations and patriarchy but because of a development deficit! If the Delhi gang rape was all about ‘how can this happen in India’, the Western messages on Badaun seem to suggest, ‘this can happen only in India!’

I was invited to participate in a BBC discussion via Skype on this issue. The discussion was neither empathetic nor nuanced, with the interviewers only keen to know about the caste and toilet problems in India. One Indian gentleman wanting an immediate hanging of the rapists was the only representative of views about what justice should look like in India. (Let me tell you they chat with you to know your views beforehand, so they did know what this gentleman’s views were). There was hardly any discussion on the failure of the administration, governance, police, gender norms and power structures. Not to mention that the BBC is known to ask personal questions to interviewees (irrespective of ethical concerns), “what are your experiences of living in India”; “Would you report sexual violence to the police” etc. The toilet debate has gained extraordinary prominence in reporting about the Badaun case. Consider The Guardian ’s sensational headline, “Two Girls Died Looking for a Toilet. This Should Make us Angry, not Embarrassed”, 2 or ABC in Australia, “Indian Gang Rape Case Highlights Lack of Toilets”; 3 or Bloomberg, “Toilet Shortage in India Fuels Rape as Women Are Prey Walking to Wheat Fields.” 4

In other media interviews in Australia as well, I have been asked how difficult it is for women to access toilets, what kind of measures the Indian government will take to build toilets (given the new Prime Minister’s commitment to build toilets not temples). The fact that many of us have been pointing out that this isn’t about lack of toilets alone (which of course inconvenience women and are related to broader health and safety issues) but about women’s access to public spaces without fear of violence, is not being heard. The extent to which toilets have captured the imagination can be evidenced from the fact that in one radio interview I was a discussant alongside the head of a sanitation provider Non Governmental Organisation. 5 Men relieve themselves in public all the time in India (and we can talk about how awful and unhygienic this is), spraying their presence against every wall and street. But women have to fear stepping out of their homes. And what is the logic here? If toilets are available at home, women will not need to go out and they won’t be kidnapped, raped and hanged?

As someone deeply committed to transnational solidarity on violence against women and other forms of gendered violence, I have been a strong advocate of speaking out unreservedly and adding to the voices of women and activists in every part of the world. 6 Silence does more harm in cases like this when we need to be heard. As a student of International Relations, I believe that we have a responsibility to understand the ‘international’ while being aware of our own privileges and encounters. By not speaking out in the case of Indian women in Badaun, we allow the debate to be hijacked by patriarchy in India, 7 which clearly seems to propagate that there’s nothing serious about these rapes, they are mere ‘mistakes’. 8 Many more rapes in UP have been reported since news about the two girls became public, including two further gang rapes after which the victims were hanged. 9 There is a complete breakdown of law and order, and the slackness of the State administration and the public attitude towards women needs to be condemned universally in strong voices. 10 A woman bus conductor in Mumbai was beaten and stripped in public by a passenger and people watched. 11 That is the level of public apathy and normalisation of violence we are unfortunately getting used to. Silence cannot be a choice of resistance in these cases.

However, I am increasingly troubled by the lack of sophisticated conversations we seem to be having in the West. Unconcerned about what vocabularies we adopt and how we want to ‘know’, we seem to be buying the idea that solutions to violence against women in the ‘Global South’ lie in simple developmental initiatives. The ‘securitisation of development’ is now very popular among academics and scholars, but ‘developmentalisation of security’ is where we are headed towards it seems. This discourse is useful to analyse the problem of violence against women and girls in the Global South against easily identifiable categories. It fits into the logic of what we already know, that “the lack of infrastructure and development” must be the root cause of most problems. It is, at worst, an occidental gaze on the problems of the Global South and, at best, a lazy understanding of violence against women.

We do not want to recognise class, caste, cultural and legal issues that women face; we need an exception, an extraordinary situation that we must respond to. Toilets and sanitation provide that ‘exceptionality’ to which we can all turn our attention, feel smug about nailing the problem and fix it as a matter of our ‘doing good’ responsibility. The ‘everyday’ violence that happens in homes, workplaces, educational institutions, and public spaces remains hidden and unaddressed in all this sensationalism around toilets.

Dare I also point out that the toilet focus and solution also seems to be a question of racial ‘othering’? Let us think about it, together. It helps Western analysts (including feminists) understand violence elsewhere which is different from what happens in Western contexts. It allows them to imagine that what Indian women experience is profoundly simpler than what exists in the West; that we cannot attribute Indian rapes to gender power relations, cultural and gender norms, administrative and police apathy. Somehow, in this construction one type of violence against women is a more ‘civilised’ violence compared to the crazy people out there in India who rape women wanting to attend nature’s call outside their homes. By the way, in case it has gone unnoticed, we have conveniently stepped aside from concerns about the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, to the sensational toilet rape case in India. 12

Of course we need toilets in that part of the world. I still remember how an elderly woman did not let me use the toilet in her home, in Bihar, while I was travelling by road last year. I pleaded and reasoned with her only to be directed to the petrol station opposite her home where the toilet for public use was locked. My ancestral village in Madhubani, Bihar, still does not have toilets in many households. That worries me less though because in the same village, many women do not even have names. There are many stories of rape and other kinds of violence against women and girls that lay hidden in the outward picture of underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure. Let’s face it, toilets or no toilets, women will be raped and harassed. Quick-fix developmental solutions may please our Western conscience but won’t eradicate this colossal problem in a deeply patriarchal society, which has very problematic understandings of women’s bodies and their roles.

At a time when Indians have just elected a new government (irrespective of the debates about its domestic politics and policies) which seems to be giving out the message that it takes its aspirational global power status seriously, it seems there is a certain urgency in the Western public discourse to locate India’s problems within a certain framework of ‘underdevelopment’, ‘poverty’ and ‘anarchy’. Building toilets is easy; building meaningful and empathetic conversations about gendered violence is difficult.

References: (All articles referred to were last accessed on June 13, 2014)

1 The Times of India, 2014. Badaun is everywhere, Badaun is you, Badaun is us. Details available on

2 The Guardian, 2014. Two girls died looking for a toilet. This should make us angry, not embarrassed. Details available on

3 ABC News, 2014. Indian Gang Rape Case Highlights Lack of Toilets. Details available on

4 Bloomberg, 2014. Toilet Shortage in India Fuels Rape as Women Are Prey Walking to Wheat Fields. Details available on

5 ABC Radio, 2014. Build toilets, not temples. Details available on

6 ABC News, 2014. Where are the feminists to defend Indian women? Details available on

7 The Guardian, 2014. India state minister on rape: ‘Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong’. Details available on

8 The Times of India, 2014. Rapes are not intentional, happen by mistake, Chhattisgarh minister says. Details available on

9 The Hindustan Times, 2014. Dalit woman found ‘raped’, hanged in UP village. Details available on

10 The Times of India, 2014. Yadavization of UP cops behind anarchy. Details available on

11 NDTV, 2014. Woman Bus Conductor Beaten, Stripped by Male Passenger Near Mumbai. Details available on

12 The Guardian, 2014. The missing girls of Chibok will determine Nigeria’s fate. Details available on

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