A friend of mine just emailed me the text of this article, “The political economy of rape,” which was published on January 2nd on The Hindu Businessline website. Written by Narendar Pani, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, the article is an attempt to look a little more deeply at the dynamic driving the widespread incidence of sexual assault in India, of which the December 2012 gang rape and murder of a young woman who’d gone out with a male friend is only a recent and extreme example. “[T]here is no doubt that there is an urgent need to sensitise the Indian man to the rights of women,” Professor Pani writes,
But it will be a pity if this debate leaves out the larger context within which this crisis has occurred, including the contribution of the political economy of the last two decades.
The link between political economy and gender relations may appear tenuous, but that is only because we haven’t paid sufficient attention to what the prevailing relationship between economics and politics is doing to our society.
Specifically, Pani connects not so much women’s second-class status in India, but rather the increased expression of that status through sexual assault to two things, changes in agricultural practice wrought by political patronage and the distortion of child-sex ratios as more and more couples who can are opting to choose male over female fetuses. (Mara Hvistendahl has written a book about this that I have read parts of and that I intend eventually to get, called Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.)
So, as Professor Pani points out,
The impact of the decline of agriculture on rural society cannot be measured in economic terms alone. As the French were fond of pointing out in WTO negotiations, agriculture is multifunctional.
It is the basis of rural social and cultural life, with several festivals that are celebrated even in our cities being based on the agricultural cycle. The decline of agriculture then also means the withering away of several traditional practices, including those related to gender.
Those familiar with the extreme inequities of the rural patriarchal family system will instinctively believe that this is a good thing. But the assumption that there can be nothing worse than the traditional agriculture-based patriarchal system may require more careful scrutiny. For all the inequities of the earlier system, it at least had an economic role for women.
Women workers play a significant role in agriculture, taking care of critical operations. The decline of agriculture reduces this economic role.
The result being not only that women are devalued even more than they already are, but also that the opportunities for men to interact with women as part of agricultural work are greatly reduced. Couple this with “a demographic pattern of just seven or eight women for every ten men” and you end up with a very intense – Pani calls it “Darwinian” – competition among men for “meaningful interaction with single young women.” Pani goes on:
If in the old system a young woman accompanied by her husband was seen as being out of bounds, in the social Darwinism that has emerged they are targets of jealous rage. And any relationship between a man and a woman that is outside the control of the local power structure, whether it is marriage within the same gothra or a couple at a pub, is seen as justification for violence.
I cannot stress enough that Professor Pani’s point, at least as I read the article, is not, therefore, that India should reinstitute or reinforce the “traditional agriculture-based patriarchal system.” Rather, he argues at least by implication that what India needs to do is recognize how dismantling that system will also require a transformation in the political economy that supports it. This is a crucial point when thinking about rape culture in general, wherever it exists. While the first and most important thing is to take a stand against rape itself, figuring out how to disentangle politics, economics, technology and more from a world view shaped by the normalization of rape is, over the long term, equally significant.