Anti-Rape Movement: A Horizon beyond Legalism and Sociology

Bhumika Chauhan, Ankit Sharma and Paresh Chandra

The project of systemic transformation does not allow one the liberty to pick and choose battles, points of entry, like commodities in the market place. A premise that is fundamental to such a project is that a single dominant principle structures this system; to us that principle is the labour-capital contradiction. This being our basic assumption, the move to an essentialised, sociologically specified understanding of class, where the “labour” of the “labour-capital” contradiction is embodied, for all times and all spaces, in a group of people (male workers; upper caste workers; white workers) is far from obvious. On the contrary, what follows logically from the assumption is that each moment (social, political, geographical, temporal) necessarily exists in a world structured by this fundamental contradiction. And if ours is to be a working-class intervention, then what is decided a priori, is only the optics that we make use of, not the moment that we choose for our intervention. Certain locations can take strategic precedence over others, but these too are decisions made in history.

Assuming thus, when we approach the “women’s question,” (constituted of a continuum of issues/sites that often seem discrete and unconnected – e.g. production, reproduction, sexuality, sexual violence etc.), the question only indicates the moment of intervention, but our project remains the same – of working-class revolution; so does the structuring principle of this system – the labour-capital contradiction. This moment, at which we intervene (the context being the recent anti-rape struggles), has already been shaped by utterances, interventions that have preceded ours, and even as we at Radical Notes formulate our own position (what we think to be a working class intervention on this question), we will necessarily have to engage with these prior utterances – at least those that we think to be useful, and others that we think to be woefully counterproductive. Later on in this essay, we will respond to recent interventions made by Maya John[1] and Kavita Krishnan[2].

This is not the first time that this question has been taken up in the manner in which we seek to raise it, nor is ours an “original formulation” (none are, to be honest). Roughly forty years ago, Marxist-Feminists like Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa among others were faced with the same question and very handy theorisations that they developed are still to be properly registered within the movement in India.

One of the earliest among these theorisations comes in a pamphlet from 1974, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’[3], authored by Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa[4]. The said pamphlet emerged from the Wages for Housework movement (1972) in Italy and the United Kingdom. The movement (and this pamphlet) was an attempt to respond to the women’s question without falling in line with the various varieties of liberal feminisms (which seemed to ignore altogether questions of labour and exploitation). But at the same time, the movement had to ensure that it did not echo another kind of Marxism that functioned with an essentialised understanding of “working class,” was unable to break with forms produced by past experiences, which were now ossified, and had foreclosed altogether many sites from ambit of conscious working-class intervention; these Marxists advised the women of the ‘70s to enter waged labour, which they deemed a precondition for “working-class-ness,” in order to fight for a more advanced capitalism, waiting always for the liberation to come that was socialism. We enact a farce in repeating those Marxist-Feminists, but then we are encountered by a farcical repetition; we find ourselves in a place very similar to the one that the above mentioned movement faced; admittedly Krishnan seems to embody both sides of the problem we just mentioned, and admittedly Maya John has chosen the right direction, though she has begun on the wrong step.


In her critique of John’s position on patriarchy Krishnan emphasises a manner of understanding sexual violence that fails to go beyond continual evocations of notions like “gender power”. Despite invoking the idea of women’s reproductive labour, she makes no concerted attempt to make this concept of power unfold in relation to capitalism, reproductive labour, etc. As was the case with the liberal feminists of yore, “misogyny” and “patriarchal attitudes” do still remain materially ungrounded ideological constructs in her theorisation.

In continuity with this same manner of thinking, which is unable to identify the materiality that unites diverse moments of struggle, diverse ideological forms, Krishnan goes on to argue that there is a need to “enrich our understanding of the intersections of class, caste, and patriarchy”. After ostensibly arguing that the women question is an important part of working class politics, and after accepting the specific division of male and female instituted by capitalism, Krishnan uses the notion of ‘intersection’ as if these identities/issues occupy specific grounds and intersect only at certain moments. In a single sentence the falseness of her welcome-to-Marxist-analysis is revealed, for any such analysis would assume that class does not simply intersect with gender, it structures the very terrain on which the struggles of all these identities (caste, gender, etc.) are played out. Even though Krishnan will evoke modes of production when trying to understand the relation between capitalism and patriarchy, such a manner of approaching the question will never be operative in the political-strategic programme that she envisages. In that programme womanhood is one identity, class another, all to be addressed by the good leftist organisation – nothing is to be excluded. In the words of Laclau, another sophisticated anti-Marxist, she envisages her politics as the attempt to resolve “a variety of partial problems”. Her attempt is not to identify how a fundamental contradiction in the system structures all other moments of struggle, but to form an aggregative alliance of identities.

A working-class organisation necessarily assumes the key role that the labour-capital contradiction plays. Class-struggle structures the very terrain on which historically specific moments of struggle occur; in order to catalyse the self-organisation of the working class the task becomes to try and understand these moments of intervention keeping in mind the relation between the generality of class-struggle and specific historical determinations. It is in this manner that the working class (with the help of its organisations, that are produced and dismantled in the struggle) analyses itself, and the forms of segmentation instituted by capitalism, so as to recompose itself as a conscious collectivity. In such recomposition, segments of the working class, say working class women, necessarily declare their autonomy, but only in order to transcend autonomy. To transcend this autonomy is to overcome the gendered segmentation of the working class, and this is the manner in which the gender relation and its transcendence get played out in the terrain of class-struggle. But Krishnan takes a different standpoint.

Krishnan asks, “Do working class women not seek the freedom to move freely in the public space without fearing rape; the freedom to marry in defiance of caste and community norms; the freedom from domestic violence?”

From the very manner of speaking one can glean that this is the position of an organisation trying to rationalise its interventions to its Leftist interlocutors by asserting: “Don’t’ you see? This is a working-class issue too, not only a middle class issue”. As if their intervention was predicated upon a working-class understanding of the issue, as if their interventions were not made at a moment and in a manner that would facilitate their image construction in front of an evidently “conscious” middle class. A look at Liberation’s track record will bear this out. They jumped into the anti-corruption campaign, probably drawn by its effervescence. As they entered, they appended what they thought to be working-class demands to their agenda, maintaining throughout the form that had already been instituted by the Anna brigade. The same has been their attitude towards the anti-rape struggle. In fact this recent intervention roots out any doubts about the bad faith that governed their intervention in the anti-corruption campaign. The terms of the struggle had already been decided by the middle-class subjectivity of the petty-bourgeoisie and the dominant segments of the working class.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to find even a glimmer of whatever one could possibly associate with working-class politics in Krishnan’s now famous speech, or any of her writings. Prior to this last article, in which John forces her to engage with the discourse of working class politics, in all her utterances Krishnan has been absolutely true to her liberal-feminist mould.

An example: The tactics deployed by the ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ campaign[5] addresses the bourgeois-democratic state and there is nothing in their articulations to indicate that their demands (e.g. Justice Verma Committee Recommendations, etc.) are formulated as a moment of a larger process that would lead to the dismantling of the system in its totality. Think also of the ‘Take Back the Night’ – like politics that Krishnan is implicitly defending in her recent essay. Can such a tactic be anything but merely symbolic unless it is grounded in the working class struggle for the right to the city, night and day? When we ask almost in the same breath for diverse kinds of legalist measures in the name of generating  a safe city that will allow the state to intrude and monitor the everyday life, for whom are we claiming this night really? Certainly not for those who sleep on these streets. And is not the form of reclamation important? If the working class were to reclaim control over time and space, as we at Radical Notes have asserted repeatedly[6], it could only take the form of an occupation that seeks to dismantle the state, dismantle the very manner in which time and space are structured today. To reclaim the night in the manner in which these campaigners conceive of it, is to affirm the right of the state to adjudicate claims. Is not this always already a compromised form of politics – one that has absolutely no relation with the revolutionary aims of the working class? This really is the question that the “revolutionary-Leftist” defenders of these struggles must answer.

Another example, this time from Krishnan’s article: Charging John of misreading Friedrich Engels, Krishnan suggests that Engels actually argued that ‘…the relationship between the working men and women was more likely to be based on mutual equality and love than those among the bourgeoisie.’

Let us quote something rather out of place here. Kafka once wrote, ‘The belief in progress is not the belief that progress has already happened.’ Krishnan, in her attack on John, seems to deny that the working class is living a dehumanised life. Krishnan could turn around and say that she was merely responding to John’s over-emphasis, and that her utterance had a context. John was arguing that the working class is unable to live a good life (of relationships, community, of socialising, etc.) that the “middle class” (analytically, a rather dubious term that both Krishnan and John deploy) enjoys. Strange for an intervention concerning the women’s question, in her response, Krishnan underplays the gendered segmentation of the working class. If the working class is more likely to form relations of love and be happy in them, it probably has fewer reasons to fight; if the present is good and has greater possibilities (likelihood) of goodness, why raise the question of impossibility – which is revolution? The social democratic underpinnings of Krishnan’s position are never clearer than here. The fact that the working class is internally segmented is the single greatest problem that defers revolution. Like all good social democrats of the past (including CPI(ML)-Liberation’s unacknowledged role model CPI(M)), Krishnan too tries to play down internal segmentation.

It is in her response to Maya John that Krishnan, for the first time, puts forth the claim that the anti-rape movement (presumably in the manner in which it was envisaged by her organisation) had revolutionary aims. Though she may now argue that rape is a working-class issue and while she may even theorise the role of the reproductive labour of women in capitalism, her theory is not a theory for practice. She does not tell us what such a conceptualisation of women’s labour means for the struggle of the working class, nor do the above-mentioned campaigns bear out her claims. This is probably why she and her organisation seem unable to distinguish between raising the issue of sexual violence and rape as a working-class issue, and the populist-opportunist attempt to take the middle-class position on this issue to the working class.


Maya John does try to develop a coherent understanding of what would the shape of a working-class intervention on this question be. Her dismissal of the so-called dual-system theory is an aspect of this attempt. But even John, though she establishes the political-economic grounding of patriarchy in the capitalist mode of production, seems unable to move on to the political-strategic wisdom that can be extracted from this insight. In order to develop what this wisdom may be, we can begin with certain problems in John’s essay.

John seems to imply the “image of subjugation” and the ideology of female inferiority emanate from the materiality of those situations of subjugation in which the working-class woman is placed. The “middle-class” woman, insofar as she does not occupy these moments, is deemed inferior because she too has to carry the burden of this image – she is not actually subjugated. According to John, a working-class man attacks a rich woman because at that moment he finds her in the same position as that of the working-class woman (‘vulnerable’, ‘out in the street’ as opposed to in the protection of her household, etc.), and finds her more attractive, presumably because of having internalised certain norms of beauty, etc.

A simple enough criticism of such a position is that John is unable to comprehend the material moorings that ideology develops. Another equally pertinent criticism is that John fails to see the materiality of the subjugation of that middle-class woman who does perform reproductive labour, and in doing so reproduces her family’s middle-class status.

The problem perhaps begins with the categories deployed. So long as the term ‘middle class’ is used to refer to struggles and subjective positions that attempt to protect privilege, we are fine. But the category becomes dubious once it is used without qualifications, to refer to a group of people, because then the phenomenological appearance of the fact begins to shape theorisation and we end up reducing class merely to a sociological fact, which it is not. Greater complications enter when we deal with gender and the matter of the woman’s reproductive labour. Who is a middle-class woman, first of all? Is she the wife of a petty bourgeois man? Does she not do housework, and does she not rear ‘his’ children? Or, is the middle-class woman a woman in a petty bourgeois occupation? Is she then a small business owner or a subsistence farmer? There surely aren’t many of those around. Is the middle-class woman a woman in a mid-level pay grade with some degree of control over her work process? Even if that were so, she does not escape sexual discrimination and harassment outside and inside the house. Inside the house, she too has to perform her domestic duties or at least sexual ones (‘bad sex’). One must then decide where to draw that line in the quantity of wage and control over work (productive and reproductive) beyond which the difference becomes qualitative. Is it possible that John’s overemphasis on the category of “middle-class-ness” precludes the very possibility of a working-class intervention by not allowing one to recognise the fact the middle-class woman too is, in material fact, a worker?

Even more important is another oversight on Maya John’s part. She asserts again and again that the problem with ‘feminism’ is that it is stuck on the question of male-female equality, whereas at the heart of all battles lies the question of liberation, which is the question of the working class. What John fails to grasp, is the possibility of the question of gender inequality becoming a moment in the struggle of the working class. Unfortunately, in her theorisation the women’s question becomes another question added serially to the list of issues that a working-class organisation raises (in this her theorisation bears an unfortunate likeness to Krishnan’s). Insofar as it is a working-class organisation it will raise the women’s question for working-class women. This John argues by asserting (rightly) the significance of the internal segmentation of women along class lines. While this is an important moment in theorising a working-class perspective on the women’s question, the next important moment is to explore how the working class itself is segmented along gender lines. It is right that the middle-class woman while battling her inferior position as a woman through middle-class or bourgeois struggles (as is the case with most gender-sensitisation campaigns) maintains her class privilege, in that being not only an agent but also an agent of capital. But something more interesting emerges when we look at this from another angle.

More generally, by accumulating the wife’s unpaid (sexual and non-sexual) labour through the husband, capital converts the husband into its agent at that specific moment, and the struggle against such subjection, which is the cause of segmentation of the working class, is the core of the struggle of the working class. In the particular case of sexual violence and rape that forms the context of the current debate: in treating the upper-class women as an object for sex, and for subjugation (when he gets the chance), the working-class man is effectively perpetuating a subjective attitude and an objective relation of social power that extends, even originates with his treatment of working-class women. The working-class woman enters this debate on sexual violence towards an upper-class woman by asserting that this attitude toward women (even when we use the word attitude, let us not forget the materiality of all ideology) keeps the working-class segmented; the working-class man exploits women and, in that, reproduces the capital relation and forms of segmentation capitalism institutes. The reconstitution of the working class into a class-for-itself demands that the “male-ness” of the male-worker be thoroughly deconstructed, and this constitutes the feminist moment of working-class struggle. At each moment in which the working-class man acts assuming the inferiority of women, he acts as an agent of capital, and a working-class women’s struggle questions him at these moments, and attacks his metamorphosis into an agent of capital.


The problems that we have enumerated, mostly follow from misunderstandings, from blocks/limits to thought that are direct results of limits to working-class experience that capitalism institutes. Capitalism, as we pointed out, institutes and reproduces forms of segmentation within the working class. This segments experiences of struggle too, where each segment mistakes its own interests for the interests of the class.

Krishnan’s position is, in a sense, one that emerges from and conceptualises a particular experience of struggle – an experience of those who are more embourgeoised, having greater control over their work, having greater share of value. It is such a class segment that generalises its experience and seeks alliance of other segments, which are lower on the hierarchy created by unequal apportionment of value. This alliance assumes this unequal distribution, and in that assumes/reproduces the capital relation itself, and is futile, if not counter-productive, for the struggle of the working-class in its entirety. It is this class segment that has managed a share in the spoils of battles the working class lost, and asserts repeatedly that the present is not that bad and can be improved – it is this that defines their position even if they use the language of militancy.

John’s problems too emerge from the same fundamental issue of experience. If the social democrat (of the Krishnan variety) asks the lower segments of the working class to ally with those higher up (the middle class), a position that can be drawn from John’s essay is that the working class man and woman have to ally (side-stepping the question of man-woman equality), and wage a struggle against those within the working class who consume a greater share of value. While this struggle is necessary, in seeking such unity (alliance) John does not take into account the materiality of the segmentation that capitalism has instituted through the division of production-reproduction and waged and unwaged.


At the cost of repetition, but for the sake of clarity, we will try once again to establish what we think the working-class position on this question to be.  The project of the working class, in the final analysis, proceeds not through provisional alliances between segments of the working class, but through the intensification of struggle between these segments. For this, we return to the conceptualisations of the Marxist-Feminists we had begun by naming.

What is significant for us in responding to the women’s question from a working-class perspective, or, which is in effect the same thing, to understand gender relations as structured by the labour-capital relation, is the position of the working-class women (in asserting this we agree with John; but we hope to repair some of her oversights). Almost all women play a part in the reproduction of society since almost all do housework (housekeeping, reproduction and socialisation of children) and cater to the sexual needs of men [society]. This sexual subordination cuts across class. But the ‘working-class’ woman becomes even more important for capital since she not only provides her labour-power for waged work, she also reproduces the working-class man’s labour-power, as well as his children. In this hers is ‘the determinant for the position of all other women.’ (James and Dalla Costa, 1975, 21)

‘The very unity in one person [the working women] of the two divided aspects of capitalist production presupposes not only a new scope of struggle but an entirely new evaluation of the weight and cruciality of women in that struggle’. (James 1975, 13)

Hence the need to thoroughly examine the nature of reproduction and reproductive labour of the working-class woman.

Under capitalism, the factory became the locus of the socialisation of production and those who worked in the factory (or office) received a wage. Those who did not work in the factory were excluded from the socialisation of production. Moreover, while the man moved out as ‘free’ wage-labourer and formed bonds with other workers, the woman was confined to the isolation of the home. But let us not be fooled: the social factory too is a centre of production and reproduction. It is capitalism’s separation of production and reproduction that makes the reproductive labour (of women) appear external to the rule of capital. This separation is one of the most fundamental means that capital has for segmenting the working class.

This becomes easier to see when we realise that labour-power and capital are not things but social relations. If the physicality of wage is not over-emphasised it becomes apparent that in the same way in which wage hides the appropriation of surplus value produced by the factory worker, the lack of wage removes from sight the fact that the very same wage that the factory worker receives, also hides the exploitation of the woman who produces labour-power at home. To put it briefly: ‘When women remain…outside the socially organised productive cycle’, they are assumed to be ‘outside social productivity’ (James and Dalla Costa 1975, 32).

Furthermore, it is generally believed that a housewife produces only use-value, and therefore is not exploited per se. Even those who recognise the exploitation of women at the factory, see only the oppression of women at home, not the exploitation. But, as many Feminist-Marxists have argued, when we understand the reproductive sphere of capital as the social factory, the real nature of women’s work is exposed. Unwaged housework done mostly by women produces that most important commodity of all: labour-power. Even though the woman produces it, it gets embodied in the man. The workingman uses its exchange-value to earn his wage, while the capitalist uses it to produce surplus value. Hence, domestic work contributes not just use-value but surplus value as well. And in the process, the woman is reduced to being the slave of the wage slave.

Capitalism positions women in the sphere of reproduction where their labour (and toil) is rendered invisible. In that, women’s labour, as housework is excluded from socialisation, and the individual woman is effectively isolated from her workmates. This is what James and Dalla Costa identified as the reason for the drudgery and unending nature of housework. The work she does is devalued and goes unacknowledged; the cost of labour power that the capitalist has to pay diminishes with the exclusion of the cost of the labour power of women. From here the demand for “wages against housework” begins to seem a powerful one, not so much because it helps labour in the domestic arena to be recognised, rather because it provides a formidable ground to contest the most important hierarchy or segmentation within the working class – between the waged and the unwaged.

An aspect of reproductive labour, which is important for the present discussion, is the woman’s positioning as a passive receptacle for the frustrations and desires of the working-class man. The frustration caused by working in the factory and the ‘hunger for power that the domination of the capitalist organisation of work implants’ finds the woman as an outlet, especially at sexual moments of the man-woman relation (James and Dalla Costa, 42). This ‘passive receptivity’ of the woman is productive for capital because it provides a safety valve for the social tensions it produces in its workers. Rape and sexual violence is an extreme manifestation of this safety function. In addition, capitalism ‘[enlists] the uterus for the production of labour-power’, destroys the ‘physical integrity’ of the woman, reducing her emotional, sexual, creative needs for its own reproduction (James and Dalla Costa, 42-3). All this works to restrict women’s sexuality to procreation and male gratification. Moreover, the passive receptivity of the woman is productive also in the role it plays as the motive force behind household work. Her need for pleasure is repressed, and creativity in work made impossible; all that remains for a woman is to throw herself into her ‘duties’. To put it another way, it is the denial of the woman’s personal autonomy, her needs and frustrations, which forces her to sublimate her energies into housework, or as has already been argued, into the production of labour-power.

So, even ‘bad sex’ and the struggle against it, becomes a moment of class struggle.From the perspective of working-class women, the sexual mutilation of male and female workers is to be seen as means, and a form of exploitation, and by trying to free sexual creativity the women’s movement (for reproductive rights and sexual liberation) is destroying the safety valve available to capitalism, and is thus integral to class struggle. The women of the 1970s envisioned many ways in which their sexual demands become class demands. For the housewives among the Wages For Housework movement, the demand to abolish the nightshift was not just a work demand (made in support of the husbands) but also a sexual demand – for sex is for the night, during day there is housework.

These sexual demands are not merely those of sexual freedom that may play straight into the hands of capitalism (especially its “amoral” neoliberal, consumerist moment). These demands are made with the knowledge that if demands are not integrated within the larger working-class struggle, they are co-opted, that specific demands need to posit a utopian future, through the generalisation, continuous radicalisation of movement. For instance, for the Wages For Housework movement, the problem was not housework per se. The task was not to make housework more efficient or institutionalised and recognised by capital – technological innovation and wages for housework would not in fact end isolation – but to sharpen class contradiction by greater subversiveness in the struggle (ibid 36). The demand was not to simply socialise domestic labour, as in communal canteens, but to integrate this demand into a practice of struggle against the organisation of labour, against labour time, so as to destroy imposed work altogether. Otherwise we only have the ‘possibility at lunchtime of eating shit collectively in the canteen’ (ibid. 40), while women are merely taken out of the kitchen and put in the factory.

The working-class woman must struggle against capital from the specificity of her location. So housewives go out to factory meetings, neighbourhood meetings and student assemblies not as mothers or wives but as women who produce labour-power, who are unwaged workers of capital, as a powerful contingent within the working class which is questioning not just the externalised strategies of capital but also its internalised agencies. Because they work in the sphere of reproduction, they know its workings; these experiences have to articulate with other moments of working class experience. From her specific location the working-class woman struggles against the imposition of capitalist work at home and in the factory. It is only in this manner that the working-class woman will transcend her place as an appendage to the male workers’ struggle.

There is no a priori principle of working-class politics that decrees that women’s autonomous struggle, especially at the moment at which it attacks the conversion of the male worker into an agency of capital, is not as important for the working class as fighting ‘capital’ in its more recognisable forms. It is the task of this autonomous struggle to destroy this line of segmentation in the working class.

‘The working class organizes as a class to transcend itself as a class; within that class we [women] organize autonomously to create the basis to transcend autonomy’ (James and Dalla Costa, 43).


[1] John, M. 2013 May 8. ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape’. Radical Notes. Accessed on May 20, 2013.

[2] Krishnan, K. 2013 May 23.  ‘Capitalism, Sexual Violence, and Sexism’. Kafila. Accessed on 23 May 2013.

[3] Dalla Costa, M. and S. James. 1975. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol: Falling Wall Press.

[4] The authorship has recently come under dispute.

[5] ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ Accessed on 23 May 2013.

[6] Ghosh, Pothik. 2012 December 28. ‘Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy’. Radical Notes. Accessed on 25 May 2013.

Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape

Maya John

The movement which emerged post the 16 December 2012 gang-rape case in Delhi was a media sensation.[1] The circumstances leading to the victim’s rape (i.e. a young woman returning from a high-end shopping-cum-cinema complex) touched a chord very quickly, especially with the city’s upward mobile middle-class inhabitants who quite easily read their own experiences into these circumstances. Considering that the resulting public outrage did not emerge from a marginalized section of Indian society, it was not surprising that the media and the country’s ruling elite responded in a comparatively more sensitive manner than is generally the case with other incidents of sexual violence on women.[2] Responding to this particular incident, the media, politicians, as well as the city’s middle-class youth were quick to project women’s oppression as a ‘universal’ issue—something which was easy to do given that women are a part of every class. This particular form in which women’s oppression was projected, gave the anti-rape movement its overt middle-class appeal, and shaped the form and content of its politics.

The given form and scope of the anti-rape movement was such that it provided ample space for a wide spectrum of participants: from funded NGOs to radical feminists; from students of JNU to students from numerous private institutions like management institutes, engineering colleges, coaching centres and schools; from committed activists to people who merely wanted to be captured on camera and wanted to check out the ‘pretty’ girls assembled at protest venues;[3] from Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (which has absolutely no relationship with the progressive ideology of Bhagat Singh, nor any connection with kranti) to Shiv Sena activists; from misogynist ‘babas’, to funded ‘anti’-corruption crusaders; etc. Concealed then behind the battle cry of the anti-rape protests were diverse (and contradictory) voices. Of course, some activists, with leverage from JNU’s students’ union, catapulted to identifiable faces in the otherwise faceless crowd. Nevertheless, the fact that all kinds of people could and were joining the anti-rape front, did not, and cannot mean that women’s liberation has suddenly become everyone’s concern.[4] Even the more recent protests that have broken out in April 2013 in response to the rape of a 5-year old girl in east Delhi are a conglomeration of all kinds of contradictory forces. Many of the participants, like those from the notorious Aam Admi Party (AAP) that has become the new launch pad for local-level politicians and musclemen, are simply allying with the struggle against sexual violence out of sheer opportunism. Their mere presence at protest venues, attempts to bombard the anti-rape agitation with their nationalistic slogans, and their ransacking of ministers’ homes can hardly conceal the fact that the gender-sensitive credentials of AAP cadre (many of whom are conservative to the core) are highly questionable.

Another important fact relating to the nature of the anti-rape movement was that it represented an embodiment of the discontented voice emerging from upward mobile middle-class women. Certain ‘Left’ groups have increasingly come to identify with this voice, making it a rallying point of their mass politics when it comes to the issue of sexual violence. What has emerged in the process is an anti-rape struggle that defines women’s ‘equality’ in a particularist form, and asserts gender equality as the ultimate solution to rape/violence on women, while positing amendments to law, more gender sensitive policing, etc. as the more immediate solutions. Issues of caste, tribe and nationality-based oppression have been raised simply to add on to the list of women who are oppressed. As a result, a form of politics that highlights class stratification, its effect on human sexuality and its role in creating conditions of vulnerability as well as culpability has been pushed aside as residual of the old left. In this regard, it would be correct to point out, just as Clara Zetkin (an early twentieth-century communist leader) did in many of her writings, that every class has its own distinct women question. The dominant view on women’s oppression, identified as feminism, is representative of a blend of different contradictory ideas. It packs together aims and interests that are different—its targets and tasks are vastly dissimilar, and more often than not, it represents the embodiment of the discontent of upper class women—a discontent which is projected as the general interest of all women.

Having said this, one of the most important features of the recent anti-rape movement is the fact that it emerged within a distinctly urban context. Earlier of course, most of the anti-rape movements erupted in villages as part of anti-feudal or anti-dominant caste struggles. For the first time, however, we witnessed an anti-rape movement involving large numbers in an urban context. In this regard, a fact worth noting about this distinctly urban movement is that it evolved separately from larger movements against the axes of power which facilitate rape. It is then best to begin with the specificities involved in cases like the 16 December gang-rape.

The 16 December gang-rape: Understanding the specificities of urban rapes

The discussions that emerged immediately after the horrific details of the Delhi gang-rape became public clearly capture how varied forces (individual activists, Left groups, as well as right-wing organizations) have sought to comprehend the reasons for an increase in the number of rape cases. Many are aware due to past struggles against rapes in villages, that such sexual assaults are the result of caste hierarchy and upper caste domination. In a rural context, it is clearly caste dominance which gives men the power to rape women.[5] This is precisely why when people fought against incidents of rapes in villages, they fought not only against a callous and conniving state, but also against the power exercised by the dominant caste. Similarly, in insurgent areas whenever rapes have occurred, we know that they have been possible due to the power bestowed on armed personnel by the state, i.e. through laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), etc. In such a context, movements have emerged not simply to fight against rape but also to fight against military occupation. Likewise, communal rioters have sexually assaulted women from minority groups in order to instil fear, snatch away local businesses from minorities who are often forced to migrate, and to forge a false sense of unity within the dominant community on the basis of religion, regionalism, etc. In such cases, the nexus between the local police and politicians from the dominant community has helped shield rioters from the law and to cover up the details of rioting. Without a doubt, in all these cases and contexts, it is easy to identify the element of power which is at play, as well as the exact nature or source of this power.

Nevertheless, what confronted us all in the form of the brutal 16 December gang-rape was more complicated. While the term ‘gang-rape’ itself encapsulates an image of an assertion of power, the fact that all 6 rapists were far from being men with power – neither did they have a traditional status to guard/assert, nor an economic position which would protect them from being apprehended for their crime – made it difficult to visualize this rape as a typical case of ‘power rape’. In fact, we are somewhere still grappling to explain rapes that occur in the country’s urban context, i.e. a context in which the most powerless and downtrodden of men have emerged as violent perpetrators of sexual crimes. In many cases of rape across cities involving perpetrators from vulnerable sections of society, what is the axis of power through which we can explain such assaults? Is it correct to use the axis of caste inequalities in an urban context that often conceals indicators of caste (the 6 rapists would hardly have known their victim’s caste when luring her into their bus)? Similarly, would it be right to draw on any axis of power without judging its actual prevalence in and organic link to urban society? Simply put, in a certain context, such as in a rural one, it is easy to pin-point underlying caste hierarchies and resulting inequalities as the axis through which the majority of rural women are raped. We cannot, however, use the same logic to explain rapes in an urban context that brings with it a certain anonymity of position, a certain mobility, etc. With this absence of identifiable axes of power that facilitate rapes, it is not surprising to find certain feminist explanations of rape win favour with activists, intellectuals and the youth. Unable to locate the typical structures of power that make rapes possible such as in villages or insurgent areas, many in their anxious efforts to identify causes for such assaults have resorted to explain the 16 December assault as an expression of male power. Something had to explain the 16 December event and its brutality – if nothing else, it had to be male aggression and the typical male desire to subjugate the sexuality of the woman which empowered the 6 rapists to assault their victim.

This line of argument essentially echoes typical feminist assertions like rape is about power and not about sex, and that rape can be understood through the axis of male power, or basically men-women inequality. Importantly, it is characteristic of feminism to see rape as an expression of brute power which has nothing to do with sexual gratification. This is an informed and consciously defended feminist position since the effort is to comprehend sexual violence from the perspective of victims and not from the perspective of perpetrators. Correspondingly, it has been assumed that all men are in the position to rape, and that all women are in the position to be raped. In order to explain why rape is an expression of power, or basically, why men come to rape women, there is a tendency to draw on ‘patriarchy’—a malaise that is seen to manifest itself in state apparatuses, individual mindsets, societal norms and culture. In the process, patriarchy is quite easily projected as a coherent system against which an intensive struggle is necessary.[6]

Of course, these feminist views have only gradually won favour, and have emerged as a more generalized perspective on rape precisely during moments such as these, where a spate of sexual assaults have shaken the very core of urban society. Notably, this tendency to attribute rape to a (seemingly) ever present men-women inequality is well reflected in current assessments on rape put forward by feminists and activists who participated in the recent anti-rape agitation. Kavita Krishnan, for example, asserted in her January 2013 article, that “rape is not an expression of lust for women but of hatred for them…”[7] A little earlier in another article, Krishnan wrote: “…Rape and other forms of sexual violence are an assertion of patriarchal dominance and power…”[8] In the same article, she also emphasized that: “Rapes are part of a larger web of violence and subjugation of women. Fear of sexual violence has a disciplinary effect on women…We need to assert the nature of rape as a crime of power.” Taken together, these statements reflect a strong tendency amongst women activists to attribute sexual violence to a game of power initiated by an embedded men-women inequality, which often alone, or together with other “centres of power”, works towards disciplining women’s sexuality and in keeping them in a constant state of fear.

There were at the same time some observers, who attempted to explain urban rapes by drawing on the well-established explanation for rapes that occur in the country’s villages, namely, the prevalence of caste hierarchy and hence casteist backlash by dominant castes. Shuddhabrata Sengupta in his 23 December article,[9] for example, tried to comprehend the 16 December gang-rape through the axis of caste as well as gender inequality when he highlighted that all 6 rapists were upper caste men whose patriarchal conscience was disturbed by the victim’s decision to be out with a man at night. He hinted that migrant upper caste men (like the 6 rapists) were prone to respond in such violent ways as they were unaccustomed to the freedom offered by urban life, especially to women, whom they were used to seeing in an extremely docile and subjugated position. In other words, according to some individuals, such rapes are simply an extension of the rural mentality which informs the conscience of majority of men who migrate to the cities. According to this position, majority of men perceive the loosening of the hierarchy of caste and gender within an urban context as the ‘crossing of boundaries’, which warrants a backlash in terms of sexual assaults aimed at teaching their victims a lesson and instilling fear in everyone to adhere to traditional norms. Of course, by extension of this argument, urban rapes do not have any specificity of their own.[10] This assumption has, in fact, been openly expressed by some who do not consider it important to understand the specific context in which rapes take place, and to account for factors like the social background of rapists and their victims. Instead, in the angst to locate a commonality, the specificities are denied. Hence, arguments which assert that irrespective of whether there is an “urban rape, rural rape, middle class rape, working class rape, modern rape, traditional rape, live-in rape…[r]ape is rape. Everywhere it is an assertion of power and a violent attempt to subjugate.”[11]

Clearly then, despite slight variations, most of the aforementioned assessments are trapped in the problem of not being able to locate any axis of power other than male-female inequality to convincingly explain the substantial increase in urban rapes. It is then brute force emanating from men-women inequality that can supposedly explain why men (like the 6 rapists), despite the poverty and vulnerability of their position, have the ability and intention to rape women. For many feminists and activists, it becomes important to understand rapes as an expression of power and not sex – even if it means working with an abstract notion of power based on an (ever present) men-women inequality – because for them acceptance of the existence of sexual intent is considered as an approach which slips into justification of rape. It is thus to prevent such scope for justification that feminists and several activists deny the element of sexual frustration involved in a large number of rapes. Furthermore, by drawing on such a line of argument, feminists attempt to shield victims from the typical blame game unleashed by society—something that often translates into blaming the victim for dressing well, for moving out of ‘safe’ zones, for encouraging male attention, etc.

However, does such a stance truly help us to understand the source of rapes in urban areas, and to combat the recurrence of rapes such as the one on 16 December? Have we really understood the somewhat concealed factors that played themselves out and made the 16 December assault possible? My contention is that we have not, and will not, until we fail to transcend what feminists have identified as the main fault-line plaguing our society, namely, the prevalence of gender inequality between men and women. By restricting and locking the problem of sexual violence to the question of male-women inequality, there has been an unnecessary downplaying of the (class) inequalities which breed sexual inequities, and hence, sexual frustration amongst a large section of men in our society. In the light of rapes such as the 16 December case where the perpetrators belonged to oppressed, exploited and powerless sections of society, it becomes necessary to rethink given assessments of rape as a mere expression of power. Indeed, can we not develop a sensitive way of approaching the issue of rape while also respecting the specificities related to the rapes occurring in our urban centres? Surely we can, for the increasing trend of rapes and other sexual assaults on women and children in cities is symptomatic of much more than gender inequality. It is indicative of larger inequalities stemming from sharp class divisions in our society—divisions that breed sexual inequalities, that provide little time to nurture human relationships, and that produce phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression, especially amongst men from the toiling masses.

Challenging and uncomfortable though it may be, it is time we account for the role played by the dehumanizing conditions in which a large percentage of our cities’ inhabitants live and work. The city – on one hand with its glitzy malls, air-conditioned offices, bungalows and life in the fast lane, and on the other, its slums, sweatshops, run-down shelters and poverty – has become a haven for barbaric sexual crimes. There is then something specific about the nature of sex crimes in our cities. Here the grid of factors which produce rape is much more complicated – assailants are not necessarily upper caste men or communal rioters. And rather than an expression of power, many such rapes are the outcome of people’s sexual frustration that preys on women and children in vulnerable conditions. The fact that the brutality of city-life is breeding potential rapists and victims in significant proportions is one of the factors contributing to the immense fear that informs the life of the majority of women in cities.[12] While it is an undeniable fact that the larger percentage of such crimes take place within women’s homes and amidst their peer groups, the greater fear that confronts women is rape by strangers – strangers who emerge suddenly, exploit the vulnerability of their victims and the impunity offered by circumstances, and then speedily melt away into the night. It is this fear which makes us think twice before setting out, from venturing out alone, and compels us to take all necessary precautions for our safety.

In this regard, perhaps there is some truth in certain right-wing arguments about rape in contemporary times. The question is whether the Left can rescue the validity of some of these observations about the impact of modern, capitalist development in our country from the usual culturalist, xenophobic clap-trap that right-wing assessments of modern society are usually ridden with.[13] Can the Left direct much-needed attention towards the sexual crisis created by capitalism? Unfortunately, if we fail to step up to the challenge of addressing entrenched class inequalities that prevent the realization of gender equality and make rapes possible; we will be forced to witness the persistence of sexual violence. All efforts to change the law, mindsets, and the bureaucratized and insensitive functioning of the organs of the state, will yield precious little unless we connect these efforts to the struggle which seeks to emancipate all of humankind.

Considering that we are fighting an oppression that is deeply entrenched and entwined with inequalities that go beyond the gender divide, we must consciously delve into the somewhat-concealed underbelly of sexual violence and the general oppression of women. My basic contention is that rape is a historical product of class divisions that emerged in human society—a fact elided or left under-theorized by existing interventions. Rape is then one of the forms of oppression unleashed on those made most vulnerable by class exploitation, as well as on those who are burdened by the images of this vulnerability in spite of being materially distanced from it. In other words, women in present-day society find themselves at the receiving end of sexual violence because most women are reduced to conditions of extreme vulnerability by the given socio-economic system which strives on brutal exploitation of the class workers by the class of capitalists. Trapping working-class women in positions of economic, social, and hence, sexual vulnerability, our given socio-economic structure has created for the female sex, a formidable image of subjugation—an image that returns to haunt even women from non-working class backgrounds.

In addition to this, the paper argues that although from the perspective of the victim there is nothing sexual about rape, from the perspective of the perpetrator rape can still be seen as fulfilling a sexual purpose. It is crucial that we come to terms with this contentious fact since the existing resistance to it has dangerously misdirected public attention from the conditions which produce rape in our society. It is, thus, with this purpose to unpack what makes rape a possibility for some and an everyday reality for the majority of women, that a clear distinction is drawn between the (sexual) intention behind rape and the (non-sexual, traumatic) impact of rape. In order to engage with rape in all its complexities, the paper attempts to trace the history of rape, to contextualize such assault, and hence, to revisit the prevailing feminist assessment of sexual violence and women’s oppression.

A history of rape: an ever present phenomenon?

Since the 1970s and 1980s, intellectual circles influenced by feminist views witnessed a new development, namely, a growing emphasis on the issue of male violence on women. Certain texts that evolved from this particular milieu of debate and discussion became hegemonic when it came to the assessment of sexual violence on women. The reverberations of the debates, movements and campaigns that were stirred up by many such feminist interventions were soon felt in other parts of the world. Influenced by the feminist movement in the United States where several feminist interventions had led to important judicial and policy reform, various autonomous women’s groups emerged within the prevailing women’s movement in India. Indeed, the entire process of the emergence of autonomous women’s groups in India was facilitated by global networks of big NGOs and funding agencies that initiated worldwide campaigns on women’s ‘empowerment’ and legal amendments – campaigns that drew on the views of several American feminists.

In America, amongst the iconic contributions on rape was Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,[14] which was selected in 1995 by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 most important and influential books of the twentieth century. Her work influenced many activists, students and intellectuals across the world—a fact reflected in the popularity of the view within various feminist circles that sexual violence on women, i.e. rape, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation, is not about sex but about power. In her work, rape came to be defined as a “conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a constant state of fear”. In similar terms, we have assertions like: “man’s discovery that his genitalia would serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries in prehistoric time, along with the use of fire and the first crude axe” (Susan Brownmiller); “in terms of human anatomy the possibility of forcible intercourse incontrovertibly exists…This single factor may have been sufficient [emphasis added] to have caused the creation of a male ideology of rape” (ibid.); and man’s efforts to subjugate the woman is the “longest sustained battle the world has ever known” (ibid.). Importantly, this particular focus and emphasis on rape as an oppression stemming from gender inequality is what distinguishes feminism from other accounts of rape.[15]

Ironically, the aforementioned feminist view comes quite close to the highly controversial perspective known as the ‘natural history of rape’.[16] According to this so-called natural history of rape, men are prone to rape because of the aggressive orientation of their sexuality while women are prone to be raped because of their submissiveness, and because their sexuality is less governed by sexual urges than it is by the urge for a strong, stable partner. The capacity for rape is seen either as a form of human adaptation to hostile life conditions, or as a by-product of adaptive traits such as sexual desire and aggressiveness which have evolved since primitive times for reasons that have no direct connection with the ‘benefits’ accrued by rapists or the costs of rape borne by victims. Simply put, according to the theory of sexual selection, copulation and successful reproduction of early humans was only possible in cases where physically strong and sexually aggressive men forced themselves on women. According to this theory, sexual aggression became part of the gradually evolving human male because the early human female evolved in a manner which was based on restrain—a restrain which prevented circumstances of non-aggressive, ‘less fertile’ and ‘less virile’ males from copulating with women.[17]

Be it the ‘natural history of rape’ or views from the feminist camp, both have seen rape in an equally ahistorical manner by detaching it from the kind of society in which it occurred/occurs.[18] Why is this? To explain the problem with such ahistorical approaches to gender differences and human sexuality, let us consider an imaginary survey. Picture a situation where a woman approaches the first ten men she meets in the street and asks them whether they would have sex with her. Similarly, imagine if a man approaches the first ten women he meets on the street and asks them whether they would have sex with him. What would the result be? In the case of the woman, we can easily say that most of the men she approaches would accept her offer. In the case of the latter, most women would take the man’s offer as an affront and complain about his behaviour. The question is if the same man and woman are sent back in time to different periods of human history, would the results of such a situation be the same? Can we assume that the frequency of women saying no to proposals of sex would remain unchanged, or that the man’s overtures of sex would still amount to an affront? Quite naturally, there would be major differences in the responses, for the structure of human society, the nature and form of human relationships, etc. have undergone considerable change from primitive times.

With the evolution from primitive society to agrarian society, and later from pre-capitalist to capitalist society, which witnessed massive demographic changes, urbanization, commercialization etc., it would be incorrect to claim that no subsequent change occurred in the way male and female sexuality developed and expressed itself. These changes in male and female sexuality, as well as in the general position of women would have resulted in a change in the existence, meaning and frequency of incidents of rape. Clearly, rape can present itself as an omnipresent practice throughout the process of continuous social change only if we work with ahistorical notions of gender differences and presume an unchanging human sexuality. There is, unfortunately, a strong tendency towards constituting gender segregation as a system/division that is independent of prevailing historical socio-economic conditions. According to such a reading of social reality, it is easy, if not inevitable, to slip into the assumption that men-women inequality is all pervasive, and is somewhere not entirely attributable to, or explained by the socio-economic structures within which it exists.

Of course, the international communist movement and certain currents in the women’s movement have questioned such an understanding of gender inequality. Due to their intervention, gender inequality has increasingly been historicized in ways that reveal its linkages to the form in which social relations of domination have emerged and evolved in human society. Consequently, it is believed that the gender-based social division leading to a subdued female sexuality and aggressive male sexuality was uncharacteristic of primitive human societies in which such social relations of domination were more or less absent. Years and years of intensive academic research across various disciplines have come to corroborate these claims. Recent research has also shown that even in our ‘contemporary’ society there are some human communities that are free from rape.[19]

Back in the nineteenth century, by studying emerging research on early humans (who lived as hunters and gatherers in small band formations), Friedrich Engels presented one of the first valuable assessments of women’s oppression from the perspective of the international communist movement. His work (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State)[20] showed how the gradual development of surplus production (in the form of agriculture and domestication of animals) created early class societies which, in turn, laid the foundations for the monogamous family unit. According to Engels, when it became possible to produce a surplus of food, society was able to sustain a minority of human beings who freed themselves from the drudgery of daily productive labour. This led to the creation of class societies based on the subjugation of the majority to the minority. The minority could maintain its preeminence only through control over the production of the surplus. This led to emergence of an armed power, the state, as well as inheritance through the family. The question of inheritance emerged alongside surplus production also because those who were involved in the daily grind of productive labour, sought to protect their right and share over the surplus. Children then became important for continuation of elders’ rights over a share of surplus, and thus, became guarantors of this share when their parents aged. However, for a society in which men and women did not practice monogamous pair-bonding, it was difficult to affix the right over the labour of progeny on the basis of who mothered the child as it would have still led to competing claims from all the men who could have possibly fathered the child. To resolve the crisis, early agrarian societies established the ‘father’s right’ instead of the ‘mother’s right’ over progeny—a historical transformation which led to curtailment of the practice of multiple partners, and saw its replacement with monogamous pair bonding.

Prior to the emergence of early class societies, monogamous pair bonding and collective supervision of sexual behavior was not the norm. Instead, early or primitive human groups had less restrictive sexual standards and emphasized sexual pleasure and enjoyment, albeit with some definite rules and constraints to guard the group from possible extinction. In historical conditions, wherein, humans existed in small groups in which everyone performed the same tasks, i.e. hunting and gathering food together, sexual activity was hardly based on preference or choosing one partner over another. For example, there was no choosing between the ‘better hunter’, the ‘better-looking’, ‘the one with the better status’, etc. amongst a small group of equally matched and similar featured persons.[21] Moreover, back then sexual activity was a very common activity which was organically linked to the daily life or routine of early humans and it was unaffected by a sense of hierarchy or proprietorship. A sense of hierarchy was, in fact, absent as social divisions did not exist between early humans. As a result, in early social formations the condition of human females rejecting coital activity from multiple males did not arise. This was all the more plausible considering that unlike other female species that are bound by certain periods of sexual arousal which is linked to their ovulation, the female human has evolved in a manner which enables her to be sexually active and enjoy sexual activity throughout the year. It is, indeed, a fact that unlike other female primates, the female human alone seems to have the capacity to achieve an orgasm.[22]

Here one could wonder whether pregnancy could have acted as a deterrent to unrestrained sexual activity between early men and women. Nonetheless, pregnancy would hardly have deterred women from saying no to sex in a social formation that had not yet comprehended the immediate connection between sexual activity and conception—a fact which was not so easy to grasp considering nine months elapsed before a woman actually gave birth, and that because she was sexually active throughout those nine months, it was difficult for early humans to pinpoint the role of sexual intercourse in conception. Furthermore, in a society in which child care was a collective effort of the group, pregnancy was far from a burden to be borne specifically by the woman who mothered the child. Evidently then, in such a historical context rape would have been a non-existent phenomenon.

However, as human society progressed from primitive times and as the question of ownership over surplus production emerged as a central one, early class societies began to assert the importance of the father’s right over progeny, and hence, promoted the legitimacy of monogamous family units. Engels termed the steady fading away of the mother’s right as the ‘first historical defeat of the female sex’—a process which paved the way for the female sex to be increasingly seen as ‘woman’, and as the property of the family unit/male guardian. In this regard, the female sex’s independent assertion of her sexuality came to be increasingly stigmatized.

While the aforementioned process of curtailing female sexuality in the effort to monopolize women’s reproductive rights unfolded and became increasingly oppressive, it is worth noting how rape came to be gradually identified as a criminal sexual assault on a woman. The generic meaning of the word, rape, is itself indicative of how female sexuality was perceived and shaped over time. The word originates from the Latin verb rapere which means to seize or take by force. It was originally defined as the abduction of a woman against the will of the man under whose authority she lived, and sexual intercourse was not even a necessary element. Viewed less as a type of assault on the woman than a serious property crime against the man to whom she ‘belonged’, ancient law would often demand financial compensation from the rapist (especially in the case where the woman was engaged to someone), which was payable to the woman’s household, whose ‘goods’ were ‘damaged’. Simply put, rape was initially identified as a crime against the concerned woman’s community and family, and not as an assault on a woman’s body without her consent. Not surprisingly then, women too came to be punished for indulging in sexual activity without the permission of their families and communities. As a result, any sexual activity outside set norms such as adultery, elopement with a lover, etc. was also termed as rape. It is only with time (from the late Middle Ages onwards), that in certain parts of the world, rape came to be defined more in its modern sense so as to gradually exclude from its purview practices like elopement without parental consent.

This was a historical development that was closely linked to the emergence of the individual subject position—a creation of the Renaissance period in Europe that witnessed the gradual overtaking of manorial (feudal) law by municipal law which emerged in new towns that prospered due to expanding trade and were controlled by wealthy merchant families. In its contest with community-based manorial law that justified hereditary ownership of resources (even trading profits), as well as rights that were based on one’s membership to an estate, community, etc., the new municipalities (which were the havens of emerging merchant capitalism) began to assert the rights and status of the individual over the community. As a consequence, even rape began to be gradually seen less as an assault on a family or community to whom the woman was associated, but as an assault on a rights-bearing individual.

The birth of the individual subject was not simply a creation of municipal law, but was a product of historic socio-economic transformations through which individuals were weaned away from the community structure as labour and property ownership were no more dependent on an individual’s membership to a community or estate. Amidst this new socio-economic condition, exercising individual choice when it came to seeking a partner became not just feasible but also desirable. The birth of Enlightenment, the gradual decline in the influence of the Orthodox Church, etc. further contributed to the process which necessitated and made it desirable for women to be in a position to exercise individual consent independently of the community and family. As a consequence, a suitable legal paradigm and legal sanctions came forth, albeit with many restraints as the transition from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist system was fraught with complexities (an issue to which the paper will return). Eventually then, individual choice and consent became important, and rape came to be gradually defined as intercourse without the consent of the individual woman. Importantly, giving such consent clearly represented a ‘voluntarist’ action that, on one hand, asserted an independence of position vis-à-vis the dictates of the community, but on the other hand, also entailed the exclusion of certain individuals from the scope of consent. Basically then, a woman’s consent was accounted for and considered only after it was conditioned to mean a consent given just to certain men and not to others.

With the spread of colonialism to countries in the East and in Africa, the resulting economic transformations and the colonial state’s interventions in the social life of the colonies led to the development of a similar socio-economic structure—a development that culminated in the creation of comparable legal regimes in the colonies, which increasingly established the individual subject position and individual rights.[23] In the Indian context, there are two important points to note about how the category of rape evolved. Firstly, the word rape was (and in general parlance continues to be) referred to as “izzat lootna”. This terminology indicates that, just like in other parts of the world, rape was rarely associated with the question of consent of the individual woman. Instead, the term coined for rape signified an assault on the honour of the woman’s family and community. In this light, rape was regarded and identified more in terms of illegitimate sexual access to a woman, which brought dishonour to her family/community, and hence, would include within its purview even consensual sexual liaisons between a woman and man. The second point to note about the development of the category of rape in India is the gradual and conflict-ridden process through which it evolved to include the element of individual consent of the woman.[24] In nineteenth-century India, debates surrounding colonial legislation, such as in the case of sati, the age of consent for marriage, etc. are an important insight into this entire process through which individual consent and choice became a crucial part of the socio-legal fabric of colonized societies.

Needless to say, the process whereby the individual legal subject position emerged with the development of a capitalist economy was one fraught with complications,[25] and hence, was far from a linear process of development. Nevertheless, this process pressed forth various institutional and legal changes, as well as gradually came to constitute new forms of property rights and labour relations that often challenged the system of traditional rights based on birth. At numerous conjunctures, the colonial state enforced the obligations of contract, as well as the obligations of citizenship based on people facing the state as individuals. It is in this complex process to “prevent the individual from sheltering in the anonymity of his community” and “from assuming aliases to escape individual responsibility for a contractual or other legal obligation”[26] that the first signs of women being assigned an individual subject position are to be found.

Indeed, judicial annals of the colonial period are filled with ‘runaway’ cases (essentially inter-caste liaisons) in which male ‘guardians’ try to retrieve their daughters from men with whom their daughters chose to live. The ‘guardian’ usually charged the other man for kidnapping, abducting and forcefully inducing his daughter into wedlock. What is revealed by some interesting research on ‘runaway’ cases is how the colonial state was caught in the process of identifying and establishing individual rights of women, on the one hand, and on the other, protecting traditional rights of the family/community on individual women.[27] It is, of course, only with time, further economic change which loosened the hold of the restrictions imposed by caste and community, and with the entry of a greater number of women in the workforce, that the individual rights of women saw greater if not full realization.

What is, hence, evident from the above discussion is that as capitalism strengthened and bourgeois law and ethics came to gradually entrench themselves, women for the first time, i.e. since the primitive ages when their sexual being was least restrained, were given the ‘freedom’ to say yes or no to sex. Nevertheless, the right of a woman to exercise her choice remained a structured one—a choice-making in which she was conditioned to say no in most circumstances and yes only in certain ones. Hence, while the notion of consent devolved to the individual woman, the logic of proprietary or protected or exclusive rights on the woman’s sexuality remained embedded in the mindset of majority of women, as well as in society’s gaze, which subsequently, informed/shaped what was experienced as rape. With the stigmatization of a woman’s sexual activity prior to her entering a long-term relationship (like marriage) with a partner; the demonizing of the ‘promiscuous’ woman; and the enforcement of the norm of pair bonding within one’s own class, caste, etc., rape emerged as a recurrent assault borne by women.

Given such social conditioning, rape becomes an active possibility for women whereas such an assault on men exists as a rare experience. This is because the historical trajectory of the development of male sexuality shows that men are not culturally and socially conditioned in a manner which leads them to reject sex with the same frequency and for the same reasons as women do. These obvious distinctions in the development of male and female sexuality are attributable to economic transformations that have gradually eroded the ‘productive’ roles of women and overemphasized their reproductive ones, as well as to structures of domination (the family, the state, dominant social groups, etc.) which emerged within class societies. In other words, rather than being an omnipresent phenomenon, rape as an experience and a legally recognized category is a product of a historical process of class formation, and hence, is a late development in human society.

This brings us to the issue of how transformed social norms, family structure and pair bonding since the development of capitalism have resulted in a change in the way rape has come to be defined. It is a question of much historical significance, for how exactly did the birth of capitalism and its spread across various corners of the world impact male and female sexuality, and how has it created a new foundation on which a changed understanding and categorization of sexual assault emerged?

Capitalism and women’s oppression

The development of modern capitalist society produced massive changes, both, in people’s personal and working lives. Capitalism not only restructured the world of work but also the family. With the development of capitalism, the ‘economic’ emerged as a separate sphere of activity from both the family and the state. In other words, the organization of production under capitalism (separating the means of production from the class of producers) and the process of proletarianization eliminated the corporate aspects of kin-group functioning. Increasingly, people came to face the state as individuals; the socialization of labour came to be accompanied by the privatization of personal (i.e. family) life; productive labour came to be separated from kin relations; and the family unit increasingly became just a unit of social reproduction (reducing in size steadily) and of consumption (as basic necessities like food, clothing, etc. came to be produced by the market, and family labour was, consequently, no longer expended like it was when households were spheres of production). Ultimately, with further and further development of industrial society, capitalism subsumed domestic work within definitions of femininity, stripped it of its labour content and denuded it of its economic value for the household. Activities relating to childcare, for example, came to be identified exclusively with women and such household work was denied economic value with the depressing of working-class wages and lifestyle.[28]

By creating a ‘non-economic’ private sphere in opposition to an ‘economic’ public sphere, capitalism came to unleash new levels and a new form of oppression on women. It is necessary to ascertain this particular form in which this oppression, and basically, a ‘women’s question’ emerged within capitalism. Notably, it was within the context of the capitalist dynamics of production and its misuse of the constraints posed by biological reproduction that the sexual division of labour (which pushes women into subordinate economic and social positions) emerged as a historic possibility. Simply put, biological facts of reproduction—pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—are not compatible with the capitalist system of production, and capitalists are unwilling to make them compatible (i.e. by providing ample maternity leave with pay, nursing and childcare facilities at workplaces, etc.) as it would amount to greater expenditure on variable capital which cuts into profit maximization.

As a consequence, the capitalist system has compelled women to either (i) withdraw into full-time domestic responsibilities that were stripped of their ‘economic’ value and which reduced them to a position of overt dependence on their husbands, or (ii) to bear the burden of both (unpaid) domestic work and wage labour. Since domestic work was made non-negotiable, in the case of the former, women chose to (or were made to) give up wage labour as they could afford to due to higher income-drawing male partners. In the second case, because a large number of women came from working-class families that underwent steady proletarianization, they were compelled to participate in the labour market so as to maintain precarious family budgets, and as a result, never withdrew from wage work for long periods of time. These developments were far from the reality of pre-capitalist society where women played various productive roles along with a reproductive one. This is not to argue that women were less oppressed in the pre-capitalist mode of production, but just that they were not distanced from the actual production process.

Thus, the capitalist system has historically (mis)used certain biological differences between men and women by creating a formidable crisis for the working class as it increasingly took control of workers’ time. With the emergence of an average work-day of 12 hours or more, the capitalist class, in its constant endeavour to squeeze out as much surplus value as it can, came to pose a huge threat for the working class’ survival. Long work hours and low wages, for example, made it impossible for workers to reproduce their labour power, i.e. the bare necessities which enable them to return to work every day. They could not, for example, afford to buy goods and services which took care of domestic needs (i.e. nannies, servants, laundrymen, cooks, etc.). Given these circumstances, working-class families evolved around a distinct division of labour in which one person undertook domestic labour along with supplementary wage work, while another earned wages full time. Basically then, the impermanent or supplementary nature of women’s wage work has allowed capitalists to keep wages of the working-class family low, and to draw on women as one of the cheaper sources of labour in a burgeoning labour market. It is then in the interest of the capitalist class to reduce the presence of women in the workforce to a constant state of flux, and thereby, to keep their participation in the least rewarded and ‘protected’ category.

If we closely examine the nature of women’s employment within capitalism, it is clear that women from working class and poor peasant backgrounds have been pushed into low-paying, often unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. In a country like India, a large number of working-class women are slaving away in what is popularly known as the informal sector where they survive on the piece-rate system of wages. Working-class women also constitute a large component of migrant workers who flock to metropolitans in search of employment. It is then only for a small segment of women, i.e. women from middle-class backgrounds, that jobs pay well, and for whom there are (some) opportunities for career advancement and influence in the workplace. Nevertheless, even for women in well-paying professional jobs there is a glass ceiling which very few can break. Disparities in salaries between men and women professionals; limited and delayed promotions; highly sexist (alpha-male) work atmospheres; assignment of ‘woman-centric’ or feminine work profiles; etc., are a concrete part of the life led by women professionals across the board.

Overall, the adverse impact of this precarious and oppressive position of women in the labour market is tremendous. It is particularly so in the case of working-class women whose job-contracts are highly exploitative; whose wage work often requires them to travel during unsafe hours of the night/early morning; whose neighbourhoods are dimly lit, poorly policed and have seen the growing criminalization of (and spread of lumpenism amongst) the youth; whose overt dependence on unregulated public transport compels them to bear with lecherous male commuters day in and day out; etc.

The first striking repercussion of the undervaluing of women’s productive work and the feminization of jobs is the creation of a fertile ground for sexism. With the job market pressing down women’s wages/salaries and pushing them into the least protected category of jobs, what develops is the continuous reassertion of gendered roles and behaviour. Hence, the tendency within male colleagues and employers to work with misogynist attitudes like ‘she’s just a temporary hand’, ‘she’s simply looking for some fun before settling down’, ‘she got the job so she’s probably skrewed the right people’, ‘who does she think she is ordering us around’, etc.

Pushing women into feminine and hyper-femme job profiles creates an additional burden for working women—the repercussions of which are widespread. The tea garden worker with her back bent, picking leaves for hours at a stretch; women embroiderers hurriedly working their nimble fingers through complex designs in order to complete an order and claim a day’s wages; nurses struggling to perform their patient-care duties due to skewed nurse to patient ratios; poorly paid school teachers; etc. are the usual jobs for which women are recruited as they suit the expected (feminine) roles associated with women. Meanwhile, the ‘sexy’ receptionist; the slim, short-skirt attired airhostess; the skimpily-clad dance performers at weddings and other functions; the decked-up, manage-it-all secretary; the emaciated-looking models tottering around in high heels at award functions and fashion shows; the heavily made-up bar dancer; etc. are the typical kinds of jobs in which the physicality of women is used for business profit. In these hyper-femme or hyper-sexualized jobs, women are made to dress and/or conduct themselves in ways which accentuate certain features of their body. This accentuation is least of all in the interest of these women employees (although some women employees may find such roles ‘interesting’), nor is it in the interest of women in general. Such accentuation of women’s body parts ‘for the job’ is purely in the interest of the men who wish to visually (and even physically) consume their sexuality without the element of responsibility that should arise when one links one’s own sexual being with another’s. Moreover, this skewed feminization of job profiles reinforces the stereotype that women’s worth lies more in their body appearance than in their overall personality.

Having said this, perhaps one of the most transformative effects of capitalism worth noting is its impact on human sexuality and pair bonding. With the development of capitalism and the resultant collapse of the family as a productive unit, increasingly men, and eventually even women, stepped out of their homes in search of employment as they no longer inherited occupations and sustenance from their families and community/estate. This historical process created the scope for men and women to interact outside the immediate bounds of traditional community ties. As a consequence, the basis of marriage came to be based on mutual attraction, or as Engels put it, ‘individual sex love’. In modern capitalist society, marriage and other forms of relationships are entered into freely by men and women on the basis of mutual attraction. Even in a country like India where the practice of arranged marriages is still common, tying the knot without seeing one’s future spouse or pursuing a brief courtship prior to the actual wedding, is increasingly uncommon. Moreover, it is mostly in cities, where young people migrate for educational opportunities and employment, that the chance of love/choice marriages, or at least relationships, is possible. This is due to the fact that in cities, young people are removed from the direct surveillance and control of their families and communities. However, although relationships are more freely entered into, pair bonding (between men and women, women and women, men and men) is structured in ways in which inequality and oppression form the basis of such relationships. Thus, even today the mutual attainment of emotional and sexual fulfillment remains an uncommon practice. The question, of course, is why, despite certain social transformations introduced by capitalism, has the emancipation of women (including their sexual liberation) remained a distant dream?

Without a doubt, the 1960s and 1970s heralded a new stage in women’s personal lives due to benefits like the contraceptive pill, abortion rights and greater access to rights of divorce, as well as changes in attitudes towards sex and pregnancy outside marriage. However, what many radical feminists identified as the ‘sexual revolution’ was for a significant number of years limited to the upper echelons of society in First World countries. What is even more important to note is that many such gains were the outcome of a steady growth in the participation of women in the workforce (though not necessarily in the form of well-paying or full-time jobs). Last but not the least, what was heralded as the ‘sexual revolution’ was really misnomer. The reason for this is that capitalism has maintained the structure of family, albeit on the basis of a new form of pair bonding.

This structure of family which evolved under capitalism is what many have identified as the nuclear family. Importantly, in the process of its development, the capitalist mode of production has led to a continuous decline in the size of the family, which has allowed for extreme burdening of women within their homes. Moreover, even today the average woman perceives an active sexual life before or outside the institution of marriage, a taboo and a risk. She also hesitates or finds it difficult, if not ‘unreasonable’, to assert her own choices within the structure of the family.[29] Within this context, how has rape been defined and redefined within capitalism?

Bourgeois law, rape and the importance of intermediate demands

As mentioned earlier, in the process of transition from a pre-capitalist to capitalist socio-economic system, rape came to be defined not by the lack of the community or family’s consent for sexual access to a woman, but by the lack of consent of the individual woman. Nonetheless, the transition from a pre-modern-pre-capitalist to modern-capitalist system has involved multi-faceted complexities driven in process. The result? What arises is the contemporary historical conjuncture: the prevalence of a bourgeois legal paradigm that desists from identifying certain actions (like adultery, elopement, live-in relationships, etc.) as rape, and at the same time, fails to identify many actions (like sexual assaults within marriage or during dating) as rape. This legal paradigm tends to work with an extremely problematic notion of consent, wherein, submission of a certain kind, for example, assent to marriage, accepting a date, etc. is conflated with consent to sex.

Of course, another major limitation of bourgeois law is that even when it accepts and recognizes certain individual experiences as rape, it does so only in a partial form. This means that although notions like harm, hurt and wrong (borne by the individual woman) are now incorporated within the category of rape, they are done so in highly problematic ways, i.e. in ways that  are based on weighing such hurt, harm, etc. mostly in terms of the social loss borne by the victim. To elucidate, the notion of wrong that is now part of the category of rape has been straightjacketed to the position of ultimate violation of the self; the invasion of the individual woman’s innermost, private space; destruction of the self; a form of soul murder since the victim’s body may heal but not her mind or her future; etc. Correspondingly, the harm that is identified with the category of rape has been reduced to losing one’s ‘honour’, and thereby, being exposed to social exclusion. Both these notions are then useful for the category of rape because while they succeed in keeping the sense of individual consent intact, they still succeed in linking individual consent to the question of community or family honour—an honour which is somehow housed only in the woman’s innermost, private space (basically, her genitalia).

In addition to the aforementioned internal problems of the law, is the prevalence of informal ‘legal’ systems (as in ‘law’ dictated by khap panchayas, etc.) that run parallel to the bourgeois legal system, and are based on the ‘moral economy’ and regulative authority of traditional communities. This informal ‘legal’ system is most prevalent in villages where caste hierarchies are sharply drawn, making inter-caste, choice marriages extremely difficult. Here the nexus of the local police and dominant castes makes it nearly impossible for the functioning of institutionalized law that recognizes the rights of adult individuals. Fatwas or diktats of local village bodies which demand annulment of choice marriages, death penalty, social boycott, etc. are more often than not, upheld and implemented. They are overturned only in cases where external pressure brings the local police to its feet and results in subsequent enforcement of state law. It is in urban contexts where bourgeois law has not had to directly compete with a parallel system of informal (community) ‘law’, and where young couples have jobs in the city so as to enable them to reside far away from their family/community, that greater relief for choice marriages has been possible. However, the process whereby the criminal justice system ascertains a woman’s capacity to consent, and adjudicates on whether this consent is acceptable in court, is unwieldy and highly wanting.[30] What all this reflects is that the given form of bourgeois law, i.e. the complete realization of the individual subject position, is yet to fully unfold itself and spread out evenly so as to diminish its internal inconsistencies.

In this light, the restrictive approach of the law— especially in terms of how it has defined the individual consent of the woman, the wrong, the harm and the hurt borne by her— has opened the space for contestation. In countries like America, struggles spearheaded by Brownmiller, Catherine MacKinnon[31] and Andrea Dworkin began to influence the way the law looked at problems like rape, pornography and sexual harassment. Their interventions, for example, paved the way for the removal of significant provisions like the “chastity requirement” within the law. According to this particular provision, the defendants in rape cases were allowed to place their victims’ sexual past on trial—a practice which allowed rapists to easily justify their actions, and which placed the victims under tremendous duress. Due to vocal campaigns and prolific engagements with the legal community, many of these feminists were successful by the early 1980s in facilitating the introduction of a “rape shield law” which came to curtail the ability of defendants to admit the victims’ sexual history in court.

Since then, there has been a growing tendency amongst the women’s movement to challenge the aforementioned (legal-patriarchal) rubric of assessing rape. These challenges have opened up interesting prospects for assessing rape in more woman-friendly terms. For one, there is an increasing tendency to emphasize the physical discomfort, displeasure and pain borne when identifying rape. The emphasis is deliberate as it opens up scope for downplaying the explicit focus on the sexual aspect of the assault when determining the object of punishment. The shift in focus is necessary so as to allow us to rise above the popular belief–which reinforces the tendency to ostracize victims of rape—that sexuality and the sexual organs are ‘sacred’ portions of the self, which must be protected more and differently as compared to other portions of the body and self.

Here it is important to note how some have come to contest the existing legal paradigm by clamouring for a stronger set of laws, which will apparently act as a deterrent to future attempts at rape. Importantly, the demand for iron-fisted laws like death penalty for rape is a highly patriarchal one because it single-mindedly focuses on the sexual aspect of the assault. Instead of emphasizing physical harm and displeasure—something which would facilitate rape to be seen as another form of physical violence which should be punished accordingly—lobbyists for death penalty, castration, etc. end up reinforcing the tendency to view rape as a unique type of assault in which the harm and damage borne is of epic proportions, and thus, should be punished under the severest of laws.[32] The problem, of course, with severe (and hence, unproductive) laws like death penalty, or, corrective measures like solitary confinement is that they reinforce the stigma attached to rape, thereby, closing off any avenue for approaching this problem in a manner which allows victims to move on without feeling scarred for life. Moreover, it is only by questioning the overt emphasis on the sexual nature of the assault that we create the scope for recognition of rape in cases where it is most easily denied. To elucidate, by creating an ambience in which rape is not identified by the notion of violating the innermost, private space of a woman, but by the notion of displeasure and discomfort, we allow for recognition of marital rape, rape of a prostitute, etc. By introducing the notion of violation based on discomfort, displeasure, hurt and pain, we can, for example, be in the position to defend the rights of the prostitute who due to her profession can no longer claim to have an un-invaded, innermost space, but can still experience rape when a client forces himself on her, or, leaves without paying.

In contrast to aforementioned (patriarchal) interventions seeking a ‘strong’ law against rape, feminist demands for legal reform represent noble efforts that press forth the generalization of bourgeois legality, or basically, the further unfolding of the bourgeois legal form so as to incorporate a larger and more varied (dis)content. Indeed, recent efforts within the women’s movement are geared towards expanding the category of rape to include assaults that may ‘start on a note of consent but end in exploitation and feelings of pain, powerlessness, humiliation and violation’. Such interventions from the women’s movement have meant that certain kinds of assault/actions are now increasingly perceived as rape not because sex is taking place in the absence of a patriarchal ‘right’ of sexual access, but that sex is occurring in the absence of complete consent of the woman. What this means is that a lot of ‘bad sex’[33]—in which there is disregard for a woman’s feelings, sexual desire, or even her attainment of sexual fulfilment—can and should be increasingly considered when distinguishing lovemaking from varied kinds of sexual assaults. By extension of this argument (regarding bad vis-à-vis fulfilling sex), even if physical coercion is minimal, and even if consent in some nominal form exists, the experience can still be categorized as rape.

Having said this, we must understand and engage with this feminist position more closely in order to better determine the grey areas surrounding the issue of a woman’s consent. Broadly speaking, feminists have been correct in identifying the prevalence of bad sex as a problem which must be accounted for. It is, of course, precisely because bad sex is rampant in our society that rape and other forms of sexual and emotional exploitation are possible. If we speak of bad sex within marriages, it is obvious that one of its forms of expression is based on the complete lack of consent, i.e. a form of sexual activity usually identified as marital rape. Considering that this form of bad sex (marital rape) is based on the lack of consent, feminists have been able to gradually initiate some debate within the bourgeois legal community, and have thus created some possibilities for older rape laws to be eventually revisited. The process of older rape laws opening up for amendment is, of course, an ongoing process.

However, things get more complicated when another form of bad sex expresses itself within marriages. Typically, bad sex also embodies itself in sexual activity where women have given their consent. Unfortunately, it is in this realm of sexual encounters that feminists actually fail to deliver. Liberal feminists, for example, find it uncomfortable or difficult to accept the wrongness of sexual encounters where women— unlike in cases of rape where a woman’s consent is out rightly violated— have given their consent. Heavily influenced by the (bourgeois) logic of legal transactions to which individuals ‘freely’ consent, liberal feminists have the invariable tendency to beat retreat on the question of bad (consensual) sex. This retreat characteristically articulates itself in these feminists’ undue emphasis on ascertaining whether a woman’s consent existed or not during a sexual encounter. It also articulates itself in their efforts to elide the harm brought on by prostitution, and hence, to press forth with its legalization.[34]

In contrast to the liberals, radical feminists have approached the issue of bad (consensual) sex by arguing that all sex is rape. Such an approach is also ridden with problems. For one, it amounts to the trivializing of rape as a distinct category of sexual assault, wherein, women are exploited through full violation of their ability and right to consent. Secondly, and more importantly, the radical feminist approach unnecessarily conflates the harm involved in non-consensual sex and that which is brought on by (bad) consensual sex. By denying the existence of a different and distinctive kind of harm within consensual sex, radical feminists are failing to expose to their sisters in sexual relations, the dangers of losing an organic right to the ‘autonomy’ over one’s body and mind.[35] By denying that consensual sex can exist in a fulfilling and mutually pleasurable way, radical feminists also fail to expose what pleasurable sex can actually mean for women.

Evidently, as shown by the discussion above, the contestation with the law’s functioning revolves around how the bourgeois legal form is lagging behind the (dis)content created within bourgeois society. Feminists may still be debating the nitty-gritties of consensual bad sex, but it is, nevertheless, an established point within the progressive women’s movement that both rape and consensual bad sex are real problems. In this regard, the women’s movement is right in pressing forth, what I would identify as intermediate demands which aim at ironing out certain inconsistencies within the law.[36] The significance of such intermediate demands is that they serve as grounds for preparation of larger anti-systemic struggles. It is in the process of such preparation that the women’s movement comes to provide relief to the average woman while also exposing the gross limitations of the law and state’s functioning. For example, the demand and subsequent struggle for compulsory filing of women’s complaints (FIRs) in local police stations works towards providing battered, vulnerable women external support, and makes the state accountable for women’s security—a responsibility the bourgeois state is otherwise consciously shunning.

Nonetheless, intermediate demands to combat sexual violence on women have to be substantiated with a politics that is informed by the ultimate vision of liberating human (i.e. both men and women’s) sexuality, and hence, works towards overthrowing capitalism. Unfortunately, the way in which many intermediate demands are being pursued by women’s organizations, such demands are becoming the final demands rather than launch pads for a consistent, long-term transformative politics. Thus, what is often lost in feminist contestation with the law is the simple fact that even if modern society comes to reconcile the form of the law with the burgeoning content (women’s oppression), there will still be a lack of coherence which the law will be incapable of addressing, and hence, women’s oppression will persist unabated. This means that even with the strengthening of the notion of individual consent, bourgeois law will continue to elide the fact that consent is structured by relationalities, and that most women are not in the circumstances to exercise an active individual choice. As often highlighted by communist leaders like Clara Zetkin, Alexandria Kollantai, etc., most women are not in positions to exercise such choice as they are in conditions of overt dependence on male partners. As part of a socio-economic system that thrives on nurturing unemployment in order to acquire as much work possible from fewer people, women are either bound to be unemployed or poorly paid. In such conditions, women’s dependence on the family for economic sustenance is inevitable. What follows are compromises with bad marriages, bad sex, violence, etc.

Clearly then, since the minds and bodies of two people are involved it is important to account for how consent is often structured by the dynamics playing themselves out between the two concerned persons. In this regard, nominal consent may always be present due to feelings of obligation, dependence, etc. The compromises and the forcing (often termed seduction) are clearly made possible by the mind games that play themselves out, as well as the conditions of (emotional, psychological and financial) dependence of women on their partners. Indeed, what we are constantly witnessing are situations where women, due to the fear of being abandoned by partners, and due to their economic dependence, consent to a form of sex in which sexual pleasure is detached from the person-in-the-body, and in which the woman’s body becomes a mere instrument for pleasing only oneself and not her. In fact, such a form of sex never allows for enhancement of gratitude, affection, or the deepening of the relationship between the two persons involved—something which organic sexual encounters should establish.

In this regard, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm resolve this thorny problem of consent as long as the material conditions on which men-women relationships are based are not transformed? After all, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm firmly based on individual consent create the ground for good sex based on intimacy, mutual contentment and commitment? No, definitely not. Bad sex is not an individualized, sexological problem that stems from the lack of a male partner’s understanding of his female partner’s body. In contrast, it is a general social problem for good sex remains a distant dream for the majority in our society. In a socio-economic system where the majority are burdened by long work hours, there is precious little time to nurture human relationships and to understand each other’s bodies. In such a context, most are compromising with bad sex, or pretending to have good sex as is often the case with upward mobile middle-class women.

Interestingly, while it is true that feminists recognize and work with notions of good vis-à-vis bad sex, the larger framework of their understanding is such that these notions are divested of their social complexities. Liberal feminists, for example, perceive the problem more in terms of having bad partners who do not seek the consent of their female partners. And so according to this liberal feminist position, to acquire good sex all one needs is the freedom to choose the (right) partner, the freedom to multiple partners, etc. Lost, of course, is the emphasis on how individual choice is itself compromised by the fact that you choose from what you are given by the modern society. Now radical feminists do accept the presence of a larger problem but do so only in terms of the prevalence of a (broader) male-female inequality in society.

In this context, it is impossible to think that the given legal paradigm is capable of adjudicating on and preventing the harm caused to women in consensual forms of bad sex. In reality, adjudication on bad sex, especially of the consensual variety, is beyond the scope of bourgeois law since its paradigm of legality is based on the notion of ‘free’ individuals in contract. According to its logic, once consent is given, the problem of exploitation within ‘freely’ contracting individuals is effaced/becomes immaterial. This means that the resolution to the question of bad sex and its myriad forms can begin to take place only if society transcends the ideology of free market —a process which can unfold only if human relations are unshackled from all inequalities which breed selfish, dehumanizing sex and feelings of alienation from other human beings. In this light, radical feminist arguments on ‘empowering’ women in order to eradicate male-female inequality, and hence, sexual exploitation of women, are highly misplaced as it is assumed that women can be ‘empowered’ while the other half of humankind remains fettered to the exploitation and oppression created by the larger socio-economic system.

Going beyond feminist contentions: is rape simply about exercising power?

Clearly, feminist contributions have not been holistic in their approach and are ridden with the tendency to misread the complex web of conditions which produce bad sex in general, and rape in particular. For instance, their explanations of rape and visions of eradicating this problem are heavily based on the notion of power discrepancy between (all) men and (all) women—a discrepancy that they believe stems from deep-rooted traditions of overwhelming male dominance and hegemony over all important socio-political and economic activities in society.

What is assumed by this set of views is that all men rape and all women are rape-able due to entrenched gender inequalities. Thus, irrespective of inequalities in terms of class, caste or race, a higher status woman, despite all her power and prestige, can still be raped by a man of a lower status. This perspective comes close to what we know as dual systems theory, according to which upper class women, who are oppressors and exploiters as part of the dominant economic class, can still be oppressed due to the prevalence of patriarchy. According to the same theory, working-class women are oppressed and exploited not just by the dominant economic class but also by patriarchy. In other words, the dual systems theory projects patriarchy as a comprehensive system that co-exists along with capitalism.[37] Nonetheless, the very foundation of such a claim is based on an unsustainable assumption that all men are in the position to exploit all women. Considering this, it is wrong to assume that patriarchy constitutes a system in itself; one which can explain, for example, why women like Christie Hefner (Chairperson and CEO of Playboy Enterprises that produces televised ‘soft’ porn, men’s magazine and owns numerous playboy clubs) and Priyanka Chopra (a famous Bollywood actress) can be raped in certain circumstances. In all likelihood, feminists and adherents of the dual systems theory would explain the possibility of such powerful women being raped by arguing that even the poorest man in the country can overpower them, use brute force and assault them with his sexual organs. What is elided, of course, is the fact that despite the presence of brute force of the male sex, rich and powerful women are less prone to sexual assaults like rape.

Undoubtedly, the feminist understanding of gender inequality does not often gel with the ground reality, for inequalities (like class) play themselves out in more complex ways than feminists are willing to contend with.[38] Indeed, the assumption that men tend to use their physical power in order to subjugate women is a poorly substantiated argument and explains little except how perversely one can use human biology to explain social complexities. Of course, the question is not that men are physically more powerful and tend to misuse this power in the context of gender inequality, but that in spite of this physical power and prevalence of gender inequality, poor men cannot sexually exploit rich women, except in conditions where such women are in positions of vulnerability. A Bollywood actress, a female CEO of a multinational company, or a female entrepreneur can be raped by men of the lower classes only if they happen to be in vulnerable circumstances like being stuck alone on highway because their car broke down, having to manoeuvre through an underground parking all alone, etc. To draw an analogy: lions despite their superior physical strength have not come to rule over humans, and instead the exact opposite is true. It is then only in conditions where humans are in direct confrontation with lions and are in vulnerable circumstances that they are in a position to be overpowered by them.

So rather than invalidating or blurring the role of class stratification in sexual violence, sexual assaults on middle-class and other upper class women by lower class men reveal just how widespread the impact of class divisions can be. As long as the class divided society presses the majority of women (i.e. working-class women) into position of dependence and vulnerability, the image that women are submissive and exploitable will haunt even women from the upper classes. Indeed, it is a fact that the majority of women are highly vulnerable and oppressed within their homes, labour market, etc. As a consequence, middle-class women’s arguments regarding the need to change skewed mindsets about women being weak, fragile and belonging in the kitchen are highly misplaced. This is because they overlook the fact that prevailing mindsets are based on the concrete conditions in which the average woman is positioned—a point explained earlier in the section titled Capitalism and Women’s Oppression. It is then not simply mindsets that need to change, but the conditions which nurture such images and views about women.

Evidently then, by overemphasizing gender divisions, feminists are wrongly glossing over the role of other stratifications produced by capitalism. In fact, many feminist theories collapse with the introduction of such stratifications, in particular, class stratification, within the discourse on women’s oppression and rape. How and why does this happen?

One of the focal points of feminist theory is that rape is not about sex but is a political act of violence and domination in which sex is used as a means to assert male control and power.[39] This argument is articulated in many ways like: (i) rape is motivated by aggression as rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, often not looking for satisfying or good sex; (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control; (iii) rape is commonly motivated by hostility created by conditions like war; (iv) rape is often premeditated; (v) rape is not motivated by sex as many rapists have stable sexual partners; etc. Clearly then, all rapes are regarded not as sexually motivated deeds but as acts of aggression which are attributable to entrenched gender inequality. The logical conclusion of this line of argument is that the higher the level of gender inequality, the higher the rape rate. Concomitantly, the higher the level of gender equality, the lower the rape rate.

Interestingly, when confronted with the fact that rape has persisted despite the development of trends towards gender equality, feminists tend to argue that the short-term effect of such equality—greater visibility of women amidst the workforce, educational institutions, seats of power, etc.—has resulted in a backlash. Distinguishing this period as one of a painful transition in which the hostility between the sexes tends to peak, feminists have pressed that in the long run, equality would produce a social climate that does not foster rape. Clearly, the theory of radical change and gradual stabilization of the changes introduced[40] within the system of gender stratification informs many feminist claims about the importance of eradicating power discrepancies between men and women in order to combat rape. It is argued that with more and more women gaining entrance into the existing workforce, occupational segregation decreases; stereotypes about gender roles weaken; policies are drafted to address new problems (like sexual harassment at the workplace, lack of equal pay for equal work, etc.); women gain decision-making power in relationships and men come to participate more in familial roles as the dynamics of gender-based division of labour within the family undergo gradual change. The net result of all these developments is reduced gender stratification (within respective classes), and hence, rape.

The question is whether this reduced gender stratification is really translating into a decline in sexual violence on women. Unfortunately, statistics reflect no such ebb in sexual violence. Rape rates, in fact, appear not be directly related to gender-stratification or gender disparities in earnings, education, occupation prestige, etc. as is reflected in the shockingly high rape statistics of several advance capitalist countries like the US where higher levels of gender equality (within respective classes) have been achieved compared to other parts of the world (Haryana, for example).[41] Similarly, in metropolitans like Delhi where women have been entering the workforce steadily, rape figures have soared, resulting in city labels like ‘rape capital’. Undoubtedly, while the notion of backlash and the theory of a transition period may appeal at first, they are now inadequate to explain how rape has persisted for decades, despite the continuous entry of women into the labour market and in spite of certain landmark labour legislations. We could talk of a transition period in the 1970s, maybe even in the 1980s and 1990s, but as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the idea of a backlash loses its relevance. Indeed, does this transition period ever end? It seems not. Obviously then, the theory of backlash and a transition period has lost its analytical edge, and presses us to introspect on the direct correlation being drawn between rape and gender stratification.

Let us look at other feminist arguments about rape. Two arguments, in particular, deserve close attention: (i) that rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, not looking for satisfying or good sex but a window to express aggression, and (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control. Both arguments echo the now dominant, majestic view epitomized in many renowned feminists’ claims that rapes are not about sex but are a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. In her iconic work, Brownmiller has even expressed this view in terms like rapists are merely “the front line masculine shock troops” in the war against women, and are “the terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever seen”. The ground reality, however, includes a more complex picture, especially if we closely examine the profile of rape victims as well as rapists. While it is true that rapists target a varied group of victims, we must also contend with the fact that within the pool of rape victims there is greater representation of victims from the lower strata of society. This reflects that most victims are raped because they are in positions of greater vulnerability. In other words, while there can be no doubt that from a woman’s point of view there is nothing sexual about sexual violence, for the average man involved, the act is often about stealing sex by taking advantage of the vulnerability of the individual woman, or the impunity offered by circumstances.

Moreover, a lot of research on the psyche and profile of rapists shows that rapists do not exercise preference for coercive sex. Furthermore, such research has shown that there are no significant differences between the arousal patterns of male rapists and other males.[42] Indeed, if we look very closely at reported cases of rapes, we will find that rapists are not raping women and children because they seek to assert power over them or teach them a lesson for transgressing (certain) norms. I say this because many cases of rape have involved victims who were in no way transgressing given socio-cultural norms, and so, encouraging the (vigilante) rapists to ‘put them in their place’. After all, where is the ‘power’ dimension or ‘teach her-a-lesson’ factor playing itself out when a 5-year old infant is raped by a family member or neighbour? In this case the rapist rapes not because he believes the infant needs to be subjugated or taught a lesson, but because he sees her (childish) vulnerability as an opportunity to ‘satisfy’ himself.[43] Thus, contrary to assumptions reached by feminists, rapists target a somewhat varied group of victims with a preference for those in positions of most vulnerability.

This brings us to the question of certain kinds of rape (gang-rape, etc.), where the supposedly obvious dimension playing itself out is power, or basically, the desire to teach the victim a lesson. Let us look at the recent gang-rape case itself. In his December 2012 article, Shuddhabrata Sengupta asserted that: ‘Rape is not about sex, it is about humiliation, its intention is precisely to make the raped person think that now that they have been subjected to sexual violence, their life will no longer be worth living”.[44] He also repetitively named the rapists (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) in order to emphasize their higher caste status, implying, thereby, that these upper caste men from rural backgrounds resorted to rape as they were angered by the liberated woman of the city, and hence, sought to teach the ‘adventurous’ woman a lesson. Interestingly, news reports of the initial few days after the gang-rape revealed that the six drunken men were perusing the area for a prostitute—something they often did on other nights. This means that prostitution could possibly have substituted (and did substitute on other such nights) for the brutal rape of the 23 year-old paramedic. The question that’s important to raise here is why a sizeable number of upper caste, middle-class men do not act as insensitively as the six rapists, and do not do the same in circumstances that offer impunity? How come such upper caste men have reconciled with women ‘transgressing’ certain norms, while others (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) from India’s villages (and now part of the lowest rung of urban society, i.e. slum dwellers), are failing to ‘reconcile’ to changes surrounding women’s lifestyles?

The answer lies in closer examination of the concerned act of urban violence. In many cases of such sexual violence on women reported from cities, it is not so much the vestiges of village-based, patriarchal mentality, but something much more complex and terrifying—something—if we are ready to see and recognize it—is a product of the urban context created by capitalism—an urban context filled with depravation and dehumanization of the majority. Indeed, why are we seeing so many working-class men—servants, security guards, factory workers, fruit vendors, rickshaw pullers, slum dwellers, chaiwallahs, bus conductors, school bus drivers, maxi cab drivers, daily-wagers, electricians, cable operators, etc.—become rapists and/or molesters? The frequency with which they are committing sexual violence isn’t simply because crimes committed by them are reported more (many cases, in fact, are not even being reported as a lot of such sexual violence is happening within the structure of working-class families—fathers/brothers raping daughters/sisters over many years is a typical manifestation of this). What then is the cause behind this exploitative sexual behaviour; the brunt of which working-class women (wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, female neighbours, prostitutes, etc.) bear?

Is it an imaginary, omnipresent sexual pyramid that renders many bodies ‘agency-less’ by permanently inscribing itself on male psyche? One finds this hard to believe, especially because of this perception’s idealist roots—is this simply about engrained mindsets—the idea of violence which then creates the act itself, or are we looking for a definitive materialist explanation of this worrying tendency in our society. And if we are claiming to draw on a materialist analysis of rape, are we falling back on the fashionable but muddling dual systems theory which postulates an ahistorical form of interaction between our given socio-economic system and patriarchy? If we are, then we will be incapable of developing a more devastating critique of the socio-economic structures or the modes of production that actually create the concrete conditions for prevalence of gender inequality (or patriarchy).

Class and its discontent: The making of rapists and victims

The basic equation-making for which feminists should be critiqued is, namely, that social equality is possible by eradicating gender stratification while doing precious little to eradicate class inequalities. Indeed, rarely affected by poverty, most middle-class women and feminists can really be conscious only of inequality that hits them directly, i.e. unequal relations within their homes and workplaces, between them and men of their class. This is precisely why we find that the tendency to project patriarchy as an overarching, independent system of oppression finds most adherence within the upper echelons of society where women are materially positioned in better terms, like men of their class. In such a position, what confronts them in more accentuated terms is not the materiality of their class position, but the gender difference between them and men of their class. Less affected by class stratification, women from the upper classes are then bound to perceive gender inequalities as a set of behaviours and a mentality that has the independent capacity to breed a system of unequal gender relations and oppression. Not surprisingly, unlike their working-class sisters who are burdened by pauperization, women from the middle class are less likely to comprehend and organize against the material basis on which women’s oppression stands. They are, instead, more prone to organize and speak out against ‘gendered mentalities’, ‘sexist culture’, etc.

Thus, for feminists, the eradication of sexual violence is possible when men and women are equal:

Men = Women

Or basically, men and women are equal within their respective classes

(capitalist) Men = (capitalist) Women

(middle class) Men = (middle class) Women

(working class) Men = (working class) Women

Feminists, thus, envision a world free of sexual violence without concretely addressing the issue of other structuring inequalities. They overlook the fact that sexual violence cannot be eradicated as long as a class divided society exists, and so, end up downplaying or eliding the question of prevailing class inequalities. They can, by ignoring the class stratification assume that:

 (working class) Men = (middle class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (working class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (middle class) Women

(middle class) Men = (working class) Women

What is evident from the above equations is just how fallacious it is to assume that equality between men and women of the same class amounts to equality between men and women of different classes. Of course, sexual violence and oppression of women will persist unabated if class divisions that nurture gender inequality are not eradicated. For example, as long as working-class women are dependent on capitalist or middle-class men for gainful employment, and are discriminated against in the job market, they are in a position to be raped whenever upper class men seek sexual gratification by drawing on the exploitable class position of these women. Similarly, as long as class divisions persist, the working-class family will continue to burden working-class women with the yoke of domestic slavery in order to reduce the costs of its sustenance—a burden which reduces these women to positions of subjugation that can be easily exploited by working-class men in their family. Clearly, until we do not address class divisions, we will not be able to eradicate prevailing gender inequalities. What we, hence, need at this moment is a rigorous critique of class stratification fostered by capitalism. If we do not do this and limit the movement to fighting the mere symptoms of the disease, i.e. patriarchal norms (lakshman rekhas, etc.) rather than the disease itself, sexual violence will continue to persist while we’ll go hoarse shouting ‘let us reclaim the night’.

But why exactly are the peculiar conditions created by the capitalist economy so central to the perpetuation of sexual violence and other forms of oppression of women? For one, the extremely harsh economic conditions imposed on the working class have produced phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression among working-class men. These men do not have access to typical date pools/sites like college/campus circles, social networking sites, pub circles, etc. as they do not have the time or the economic means to be part of them. Returning from long, arduous hours of work; heavily underpaid; and hence, malnourished and poorly dressed, working-class men are hardly in the position to attract women of the upper classes who are in a better position to exercise an active choice when it comes to choosing sex partners. In this regard, the working-class man’s inequality with men and women of upper classes, especially in sexual terms, is constantly creating the scope for potential offenders. With little time for actual coital activity, yet exposed to lots of sex through the capitalist media, working-class men are not merely conditioned to steal sex from unwilling women and children, but are also prone to indulge in unromantic sexual liaisons that are far removed from feelings of love and mutuality, and are basically, embodiments of bad sex. Recall stereotypes regarding youth from working-class and peasant families making out in empty warehouses, fields, desolate buildings and eerie parks. Yes, these are precisely the places where our impoverished youth is experimenting with sex—experiments which, more often than not, involve hurried, uncaring and unfeeling sexual activity.

This, of course, brings us to the question of how the same harsh conditions are producing a ready supply of female victims, who because of their economic deprivation cannot afford a secure life situation which protects them from frustrated and aggressive men from their (working) class, i.e. men who they encounter in their daily life (as husbands, fathers, brothers, colleagues, ‘lovers’, etc.). Unlike higher status women who can afford a better physical and social environment which is more crime free (gated neighbourhoods, personal transport, etc.), working-class women are forced to survive in more hostile conditions (poorly policed neighbourhoods, dimly-lit streets, dependence on public conveniences and crowded public transport, etc.) where they easily fall prey to sexual harassment, sexual violence, etc. Considering their life pattern, these working-class women are not in a position to protect themselves from upper class men who also exploit their vulnerability. It is then apt to say that the majority of rapes represent, on the one hand, the convergence of society’s most frustrated and sexed up men, and on the other, society’s most vulnerable and dependent women and children, i.e. working-class women and children. It is this dismal truth which alone can account for the fact that rape victimization rates are particularly high for poor women.

To elucidate how exactly the brutality of the capitalist production process generates grave sexual inequalities between different classes, it is best trace the average day in the life of working-class men. If employed, most of these men are awake in the early hours of the morning; they commute long distances to work in factories that are located in industrial belts like Faridabad, Gurgaon, Gaziabad, Noida, Okhla, etc. Others amongst them, who are not factory workers, can also be seen in the morning rushing to report for work at malls, sulabs, construction sites, sweatshops located in the heart of Delhi, garages, petrol pumps, etc.—all of which are generally located far away from the slum clusters where these men actually reside. Most of these men are contract workers, temps or daily wagers, who cannot vouch for the fact that they will be employed the next day. As a result, most among them live on a hand to mouth existence, and are often unable to bring their families to settle in the city with them. Earning a pittance for an average work day of 12 hours or more, few can afford to marry as and when they wish, or to bring home their wives and children from the village. Those who do have families in the city are forced to reside with them in small rooms, often with no windows. Indeed, working-class families are typically constituted of family elders, younger brothers, sister-in-laws, unmarried sisters, etc., and hence, entire families end up living in small working-class tenements like packed sardines in a can. Such sub-human living conditions, and the tremendous sense of alienation brought on by dehumanizing work hours, hardly make it possible for egalitarian relationships between men and women, or between human beings in general, to exist.

How does capitalism resolve this emerging crisis of working-class men being unable to have the time to nurture human relationships and to be in the position to cater to theirs and a partner’s sexual needs? It bombards them with portrayals of sex—you may watch, but who cares if you actually have or don’t have the time for the real thing. Indeed, the sexual crisis that emerges within capitalism evolves precisely around the fact that most of the youth spend the greater part of their time thinking about sex, and of course, not doing it. Its actual repression then develops into unhealthy trends in personality. For capitalism, it’s all about the fact that at least these men are watching sex as an entertainment and achieving ‘fulfillment’; an entertainment that happily adds to the billions earned by the porn, prostitution and liquor industries. Thus, the disturbing fact which we mustn’t hide from is that capitalism creates animals on the one hand and victims on the other. In its vicious trap it has ensnared not just hapless working-class women (and occasionally, middle-class women), but also working-class men.

Indeed, all one needs to do is to take a walk through industrial belts to see the filthy B-grade cinema halls showcasing porn films throughout the day. Without a doubt, the actions of male porn stars showcased in these B-grade movies become part of men’s fantasies. So do the actions of mainstream male actors whose ‘stalking’ of female heroines in films and other acts of lumpenism (whistling, staring, grabbing) inspire lumpenism and sexist fantasies about women’s bodies and how they like to be treated. Also lining the circumference of industrial areas are numerous liquor shops that are located strategically at certain transit points, highways, etc. At these transit points and even at the weekly bazars near working-class localities, one is bound to find the scarves, belts and dvd-selling vendor. His collection of dvds is sure to include the famous 5 movies-in-one dvd—a combination of porn, violent action and thriller movies. He is also sure to stock pornographic magazines which serve as nothing but decorative inducements to masturbation. Flipping through newspapers like Punjab Kesari, JagranCity, and supplements of other newspapers, the average reader is sure to feel that in this country, sexuality is shining and unfettered in its expression. At the same time, he cannot help feeling the angst that in real life he is nowhere close to enjoying this show-it-all/free-for-all sexuality.

Of course, to realize the depth of the (civilizational) problem before us, one should observe the average clientele that frequents red light areas like G.B. Road in Delhi. Finally, combine all this with glossy portrayals of actresses/models on almost every billboard in the city—from a billboard advertising a deodorant to one showcasing a bike and men’s underwear. Bombarded with hyper-femme images that objectify women’s bodies and sexuality, it is a miracle if the average (overworked, desensitized) working-class man learns to respect a woman’s body and needs. Ultimately, frustrated with inequalities, especially in sexual terms, many such working-class men seek actualization of their fantasies in any opening/orifice easily available. And that’s when many rapes and cases of molestation happen—when easy/vulnerable targets (burdened housewives, infants, a lone woman returning from work, a prostitute, etc.) become sites for actualizing sexual fantasies and sexual needs of men who are being exposed to nothing else but objectified forms of women’s bodies, while at the same time being denied the time (and other essential conditions) to actually nurture relationships with another.[45]

In such a context, when a sexily dressed middle-class woman happens to be in an exploitable condition, the chances of her being sexually assaulted are large. She is attacked not because her assailants are taken aback by her feminity, but because they are often looking for any vagina, mouth, or for that matter, any orifice in which they can insert their genitals. In reality then, sexual assaults on middle-class women by working-class men are an embodiment of these men’s efforts to gratify their sexual urges, as well as to vent frustrations that arise from social and economic inequalities particular to their class. In such situations, the sexual urge can easily get caught in class hatred, which can enhance the brutality of the assault. However, far from a class act, such sexual assaults represent the expression of this frustration in an individuated form. This means that sexual, economic and social inequalities bred by class stratification have the capacity not merely to elicit a class-conscious, collective and political reaction from the exploited working class, but also have the embedded capacity to provoke individuated, non-political and sexist forms of reaction like brutal assaults through which individual working-class men momentarily overpower women from the upper classes. Of course, by highlighting class divisions and their intricate role, one does not attempt to justify the prevalence of sexual violence in society. But as class stratification is a cause for such violence, the question of fighting it becomes essential for those who genuinely want to eradicate sexual violence from the roots.[46]

Having said this, what about rapes involving middle-class men who force themselves on their wives, girlfriends, an acquaintance at work, etc.? Here too, the acculturation of middle-class men into grabbing sex on their terms cannot be explained by simply drawing on some abstract notion of patriarchy. This, in fact, begs the question as to why notions of sexual hierarchy inform men’s consciousness. Importantly, the substratum of sexual violence perpetrated on middle-class women by men of their class is also shaped by inequalities that are bred by class. This is because many such rapes are occurring in the context of middle-class women joining an extremely insecure job market in order to enhance family budgets and their marriage prospects, dating so as to find partners of their status, adhering to family norms about ‘keeping the family together’, etc.—all of which are historical creations of capitalism. To elucidate, the pressure created by a class-divided society to seek partners from within one’s own class has pushed women into a position of compromise, wherein, they are trapped into adhering to patriarchal feminity and internalizing norms that subjugate their interests to the interests of their partners. In such positions of compromise (like dressing ‘attractively’ for work, going on blind-dates, ignoring sexual innuendos of male colleagues, tolerating ‘overprotective’ partners, etc.), middle-class women become vulnerable to oppression unleashed by men of their class.

Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognize the fact that oppression faced by middle-class women cannot be equated with the exploitation and oppression borne by working-class women. Contrary to the popular belief that there is an equivalence in the experiences and interests of women across the board, it is really hard if not impossible, to place Priyanka Chopra and Soni Sori, or for that matter a female bank manager of an ICICI branch and a woman factory worker, on the same platform. It is difficult to assume that such equivalence exists because, although gender is imbricated in the matrix of power, inequalities stemming from it are contingent on the class position to which women belong. Hence, although men have advantages over women of the same class, women from middle-class families, bourgeois families, and women of advanced capitalist countries are far closer in material conditions and opportunities to men in their class than they are to working-class women, tribal women, Dalit women, etc. This class divide is precisely the reason why the average middle-class woman has come to comprehend equality in terms of gaining equality with men of her own class rather than equality between all human beings (including equality between her and a working-class man).

In this light, notions of equivalence are merely ways in which middle-class women can conceal their guilt of belonging to a higher class and still appear radical. In fact, it is the class blind approach of middle-class feminists, which creates (misplaced) notions of equivalence, and which paves the way for a form of politics that is based on women forgetting their class differences. Regrettably, the politics of equivalence has found its most ardent promoters amongst certain ‘Left’ organizations.[47] In reality, demands stemming from notions of equivalence offer no exit for the most vulnerable women in our society. Instead, such misplaced politics reeks of typical middle class oblivion of class-based exploitation and its debilitating effects.

It is, thus, essential to be conscious of the role that class plays in shaping the content of what is identified as freedom and equality. If we turn a blind eye to its role, we will only slip into a form of feminist politics that elides any real criticism of our society. As a society, we can launch a more formidable form of fighting sexual violence from its roots only if we accept the embedded truths about how human sexuality is shaped by capitalism, as well as how human relationships are impacted by class divisions. The fight against sexual violence is then a fight against capitalism; the struggle for sexual liberation based on egalitarianism is then a struggle for the sexual liberation of all women and all men; and the fight for actual equality between the separate genders is then the fight for a classless society.

Internalizing the male gaze and the co-option of feminism

In order to shield rape victims from the hurtful blame game and social ostracism the feminist movement has tended to completely divest rape of a sexual content. Unfortunately, the strategy of wrongfully divesting rape of its sexual content has not only prevented the feminist movement from completely exposing the complex web of socio-economic conditions that lie at the core of sexual violence, but has also led to several troubling developments, in particular, the birth of certain disempowering and elitist trends in the movement.[48] The development of these trends has blunted the radical potential of the feminist movement, and has further reduced feminism to a clique. Meanwhile, women at large remain trapped in various forms of oppression created by the capitalist system.

The most debilitating repercussion of the capitalist system on women’s sexuality is the co-option of women into the biased, sexist envisioning of their sexuality, as well as their growing participation in furthering their own and other women’s oppression. A lot of this co-option is the result of cultural bombardment, wherein, industries like that of advertising; fashion; media; etc. have popularized and made normative the existence of women’s sexuality in an objectified (consumable) form. However, this co-option has also increasingly emerged from quarters of ‘informed’, ‘sensitized’, feminist camps. While one can appreciate the elements of (ideological) diversity within the feminist movement, it cannot be denied that many currents in feminism have internalized patriarchal feminity, i.e. by claiming that the feminine can be made powerful through proud acceptance of things/behaviour/predispositions as intrinsically feminine.

The growing popularity of slut walks; fashionable flash mobs; support for legalization of prostitution; as well as certain strands of feminism which promote hyper-feminine dressing under the misplaced assumption that such dressing should not elicit a sexist gaze from men—are all recent embodiments of just how distant feminism is from the needs and aspirations of working-class women for liberation. Why do I say this? Without being a defender of sexist men, I place before the readers the intrinsic problems with feminism, in particular, the problems associated with some of its aspirations.

My basic contention is that the gravest problem posed by such feminism is the obstacle it has created for the liberation of the majority of women, i.e. working-class women. It is a fact that the feminist movement of the twentieth century and thereon has been a product of gradual absorption of women into the labour market, the growth in female-headed households and the upward mobility of some women in terms of better paying jobs and influential statuses. It is with this growth in middle-class women’s employment in health, educational and social services (developments which were ultimately furthering capitalist accumulation), that there emerged “a new romance of female advancement and gender justice”.[49] Subsequently, the decades following the 1970s saw many successful campaigns led by several feminist organizations and individuals, as well as socialist mass organizations which pressed the state to guarantee women the rights to bodily autonomy. Across the world, many working-class women too have benefitted from such successful campaigns, i.e. in terms of being granted certain legal safeguards against violent relationships, etc. However, feminist mobilizations were and continue to be characterized by a class bias because middle-class women have come to demand ‘freedoms’ which are abstracted from the need to reorganize the given social and economic structure imposed by capitalism. In fact, the undercurrent of feminism remains the positing of equal rights with men within the framework of capitalism. As a result, it ends up concealing class divisions and the necessity of working-class politics by projecting an artificial division between the class of men and class of women—a division which is wrongly projected as the fundamental division (fault-line) within the capitalist system/bourgeois society.[50]

While gender stratification or men-women segregation may appear as a distinct and an overarching form of social division, there is an undeniable peculiarity to it, namely, that this form of segregation tends to blur when other social divisions (or fault-lines) are brought into the picture. In reality, the position of women is ontologically placed within the complex web of social structure in a way that makes it is subsumable within other segregations. For one, women are not a class in themselves but are divided among different classes. Upper class women, for example, tend to live and work where they associate with upper class men, and hence, remain in a social environment that distinguishes them from the mass of working-class men and women. As a consequence of these material conditions they share with men of their class, i.e. higher levels of education and occupational positions/incomes, women of higher classes are in a position to demand more respect not only from men of their class, but from men of lower classes as well. This means that segregation based on gender tends to blur when we consider: (i) the commonality of interests between men and women of a class; (ii) the sharp inequalities borne by working-class men in contrast to upper class women, and (iii) the inequalities borne by impoverished lower caste men in contrast to affluent higher caste women.

Simply put, while a patriarchal or sexist culture which reinforces gender inequalities may prevail, there is also the tendency for patriarchal households and sexist men to share a common interest with their women. We see such convergence of interests when wages or salaries earned by women are encouraged in conditions where women’s wages substantially improve family budgets. The employment of a maidservant in many upper class homes also reflects how sexist upper class men have come to accept that housework is a burden for their partners, which should rather be shared or passed onto a paid help. All such conjunctures that represent a convergence in men and women’s interests reflect the following: (i) that the gender division is not a universal, independently constituted system of segregation, and (ii) that segregation based on class, caste and race ultimately determine how much and in what ways gender divisions will articulate themselves. Importantly, unlike gender segregation which is subsumable within other segregations, these other segregations based on class and caste cannot be subsumed within the men-women social division.

What this means is that the aforementioned complex web of social divisions tends to separate the interests of middle-class and working-class women to the extent that they are often antagonistic to each other. Hence, once middle-class women gain certain rights due to their membership to a particular class, or due to the struggle for such rights, they do not hesitate in unleashing the whip of exploitation on their working-class sisters. Winning the right to work, for example, has been accompanied by employment of the maid—a development which has culminated in the brutal exploitation of working-class women as domestic ‘helps’. Most of these domestic servants are impoverished tribal girls/women who migrate to cities after marriage or in search of employment. The heavy manual work performed by them in most middle and upper class homes clearly shows just how little the feeling of sisterhood tends to exist amongst women of varied classes.

What is then lost in brazen generalizations about the ‘gender-over-class’ experience are the following: (i) that women are sharply divided amongst themselves along the lines of class and so are men separated from women along class lines; (ii) that some women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality; and (iii) that once the demand for women’s autonomy over their bodies is abstracted from the larger social relations which shape current sexual codes, such a demand can only pave the way for half-baked freedoms.[51]

How is it that a section of women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality? Disturbing as it may be, what we are witnessing today in more and more blatant forms is the constant promotion of raunch culture in the name of women’s sexual liberation.[52] Amongst those who indulge in this perversity are female chauvinists, or what I would like to identify as ‘comprador women’—those women who come to employ the strategy of objectifying theirs and other women’s bodies in the attempt to attain the same elevated status and financial gains of the dominant group (in this case, male entrepreneurs and professionals). Through their work these women not only objectify their own bodies but also those of other women, and more often than not, advocate that women should embrace capitalism and get as much power and money for themselves as they can in order to fight oppression.[53]Examples of female chauvinists or comprador women include: the woman entrepreneur who unhesitatingly uses her class power to unleash aggression on both male and female employees; the woman journo at Playboy, Cosmopolitan and Femina magazines who earns a killing by telling women what’s the “in thing”; the woman fashion designer whose fashion line popularizes Size Zero and whose one flick of the hand sends shivers down the chain of garment workers employed in developing and under-developed countries; the Ekta Kapoor-kind of women producers whose showcase-it-all movies have popularized movie plots evolving around sex scandals; the entire pool of bourgeois artists (Kareena Kapoor, Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra and the likes) who adamantly claim their semi-nude bodies on billboards and the silver screen do not encourage a sexist culture; etc. Ultimately then, the interests of women capitalists and some upward mobile women professionals are linked to the perpetuation of a biased, sexist culture and gender oppression of the majority of women.

Another brand of feminist practitioners includes those who have come to seek ‘empowerment’ in the reclamation of patriarchal feminity, and hence, have come to defend and celebrate this feminity as a feminist action. The general misconception amongst them is that women are exercising an active choice/agency when indulging in patriarchal feminity such as by wearing body-hugging clothes, painting nails, getting piercings, going for implants, looking ‘pretty’ in order to feel powerful, participating in ‘slut walks’, and even reclaiming disempowering terms or language like slut/whore/bitch/cunt/behanchod/chutia. Subsequently, the denial of such choice to indulge in patriarchal feminity is read as oppression and is seen as antagonistic to the goal of feminism, let alone any emancipatory politics.

Such behaviour and politics is troubling because of its ridiculous assumption that women who dress in hyper-feminine ways are beating the patriarchal, sexist structuring of society at its own game. Defenders of such positions also tend to argue that sexualized dressing challenges the predominant image of the docile, ‘traditional’ woman imbued with feminine respectability. For this reason the ‘right’ to hyper-femme dressing has emerged almost like a non-negotiable demand within the current feminist movement.[54] However, it is worth remembering that both the commodified woman and the normative woman or bhadramahila are creations of capitalist society. Both are forms of a woman’s sexual being that are used to keep each other alive. While the former is often despised, she is still desired. Similarly, while the latter is often worshipped, she is also shunned. Hence, both the commodified woman and the bhadramahila are feminine roles which should be smashed rather than incorporated and defended.

What then really happens when middle-class women take to hyper-feminine dressing/behaviour? Like it or not, they end up reproducing conditions not only for their own oppression but for the oppression of the more vulnerable section of women, namely, proletarian women.[55] My two questions then to all those who brandish political slogans of ‘free choice’, ‘meri skirt se tujhe kya’, etc. are: (i) when you find yourself choosing what capitalist patriarchy promotes, is it not worth asking if it is really a choice, and (ii) can you guarantee that your indulgence in patriarchal feminity does not create any conditions for another woman’s sexual oppression?

If we take up these questions critically, it is worth noting that the discourse of ‘free choice’ is a product of a heightened sense of bourgeois individualism and egoism. Individual will and freedoms are prioritized with little or no engagement on the actual form and content of these freedoms and individual desires. Blinded by extreme individuality which is fostered by ruling bourgeois ideology, as well as ignorant of the real socio-economic relationships that are needed so as to transform collective human psyche, middle-class women are being swayed to participate in the making of their own oppression. They are slipping further into objectifying their sexuality and relationships due to greater access to cultural capital, money, etc.—an access which enables them to adhere to given codes of feminine sexuality, notions of beauty, and newer forms of personal relationships (‘free unions’, open marriages, etc.) more easily as compared to working-class women who have little or no access to such financial resources, cultural capital, etc.

By asserting ‘individual choice’, these women are happily concealing how their efforts to map down to patriarchal feminity signifies acceptance and normalization of given sexual codes of behaviour for men and women. It is, indeed, difficult to even imagine how wearing high heels, skin-tight jeans, hot pants, see-through tops, miniskirts, huge earrings, anklets, etc., does not automatically elicit certain types of hyper-femme behaviour that are easy to exploit simply because of the way these accessories end up impacting the woman’s gait, her weight, her stamina, etc. In this context, one cannot help but appreciate the significance of warnings such as ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ which indicate that adherence to things which are not in our interest will surely work against us and keep intact the status quo.[56]It is also difficult to support the free-to-be-me feminism in which people (the masses) can hardly tell the difference between a woman who has been duped into indulging in patriarchal feminity and a woman who is purposefully adhering to this feminity in order to circumvent it. If such a difference cannot be maintained nor does such dressing or behaviour change the way women’s sexuality is perceived and consumed, then one would rather propagate a different strategy.

In actual terms, patriarchal feminity is yet another expression of restrained and subjugated female sexuality. Importantly, restrain has been the characterizing feature of female sexuality despite the emergence of effective contraception post the 1960s. Contraception, by freeing women for the ‘first’ time from the fear of unplanned/undesired pregnancies, has had profound repercussions on women’s sexuality. However, despite the emergence of contraception, it is only bourgeois women and a small segment of middle-class women who, on achieving material equality with men of their class, have come to explore their sexuality in certain ways and exercise an active choice in choosing their sex partners. Nevertheless, these women ultimately fall for a form of sexual adventurism which, many a times, provides the space for sexual opportunism of men—an opportunism that frees men of responsibility, care and commitment.[57] This is exactly why many middle-class youth can be seen indulging in sexual acts in which they and/or their partners have divorced sexual gratification from genuine love, mutual commitment and intimacy. Moreover, upper class women’s sexual adventurism exists in a form that actively assists them in finding partners who enable them to remain in their class, or to move up to a higher status. There is then, nothing commendable in upholding this form of sexual adventurism nurtured by capitalism.

In order to prove this, let us explore the issue of seeking partners within one’s own class more closely. Expectedly, in a socio-economic system in which large numbers of women are unemployed and the job market is highly insecure and discriminatory towards them, women are compelled to seek security in male partners belonging to theirs or a class above. Marriage is then the means through which a woman and her family can either sustain an existing lifestyle, or access a better one through the practice of hypergamy, i.e. marrying into a higher social status. This development has to be understood in a larger context. As explained above, community-based regulation has reduced with time, and as a result, modern society has increasingly witnessed the assertion of ‘individual’ choice. Individual men and women, particularly in urban areas, are now progressively opting for marriages outside their communities. Inter-caste marriages are indicative of this trend.

Interestingly, in many parts of India, in particular, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, inter-caste marriages are in the noticeable range of 15 to 20 per cent of marriages recorded. These states represent high levels of prosperity due to a flourishing agricultural economy (the profits of which have been diversified into sectors like transport, real estate, etc.). This prosperity has fuelled greater aspirations of upward-mobility. Importantly then, a bulk of inter-community marriages involve hypergamy. In such cases, women are opting for matches which ensure a similar, if not better lifestyle than the one provided by their parents. Simply put, majority of women do not tend to ‘marry down’ the social ladder, and hence, opt for partners who can offer them a better life and status, even if these partners are not from their community. Meanwhile, men tend to accept partners from a status below them if they look ‘attractive enough’. Ultimately, the practice of hypergamy has put women under tremendous pressure. This pressure manifests itself in the quest to not simply look attractive, but to look ‘better than the rest’. This quest to always look young, attractive, etc. requires some elaboration.

The problem with the pressure to fit into prescribed notions of ‘beauty’ is not simply that it compels so many women (in particular, middle-class women who have greater access to resources) to invest their time, energy and money on looking ‘desirable’ and for inculcating all the expected mannerisms which appeal to men who are likely to be their partners. The graver problem with this particular form of oppression is that it paves the way for a never-ending process of compromises. It’s not just what women end up doing to their own bodies in order to ‘stay young’, ‘feel beautiful’, ‘catch his eye’, etc., but what they end up allowing men to do to their bodies. Not surprisingly, in order to keep things going so many women end up compromising on various fronts: careers, fulfilling sex, self-respect, etc. It is in this process of maintaining ‘respectable’ matches/relationships that so many middle-class women come to tolerate bossy boyfriends, domestic violence, unfaithful husbands, etc.

Clearly, what is then lost in the deafening screeching about ‘it’s my body, it’s my life’, is the simple fact that by indulging in hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, many women are using their body and sexuality to satisfy partners whom they have chosen from within their own class, as well as to move up the social ladder by attracting men of upper classes. Repartees like ‘I’m doing it because it makes me feel good’ and ‘what’s it with you—it was a free country last time I checked’ are hardly convincing when we place them within the context of the kind of men-women relationships that exist in the larger society, as well as in the context of the kind of relationships built by many such self-proclaimed feminists.

Unfortunately for all of us, we are part of a society where the potential for loving is at its lowest. In the context of fragile and selfishly oriented men-women relationships nurtured by capitalism, a woman’s indulgences in the very practices which suit the male gaze and presumptions about women’s sexuality is simply an effort to attract the attention of her partner (and also, willingly or unwillingly, of other men). Such attention is sought in the form in which he (the partner) is used to seeing her and in which he expects to see her so that he can ‘feel the love’. Let us then not be mistaken into reading ‘empowerment’ into actions that are simply our slippages. Of course, women are now increasingly seeking out their own partners as compared to earlier times, but the starting point in the majority of such relationships is looking desirable in ways decided not by the individuals ‘in love’, but by external social forces. Thus, what some women are identifying as an ‘individual choice’ when it comes to exercising their sexuality is actually creating grounds for the substitution of genuine (egalitarian) love/feeling by a dishonest kind of closeness brought on by men and women who have entered physical relationships while objectifying each other’s bodies (and often after checking each other’s bank balances).[58]

Indeed, dressing in hyper-femme ways is a class-informed act/practice. It is a trap that middle-class and bourgeois women are perpetuating in order to tackle oppression unleashed by men of their own class. The class-biased nature of the various strands of feminism which support hyper-femme dressing is, perhaps, best reflected in the fact that these women who demand equality no matter what they wear and what they do, rarely seek partners outside their class. Somehow, the nature of their demand for equality, as well as the form of sexual liberation posited by them, never really allow for expansion of their date/marriage pool. This is why, despite all their claims about sexual liberation, hardly any transgress the sexual codes of their class so as to search for love amongst working-class men (or working-class women, if we talk of lesbian feminists). Hence, their idea of liberation stops at gaining unprecedented rights and privileges that men of their class enjoy—the right to wear what she wants, go where she pleases, date whoever she wants and basically do as she pleases. So sorry, but her idea of liberation says nothing of fighting wage slavery, nor does her idea of liberation accept responsibility for the enhanced oppression unleashed by middle-class notions of ‘freedom’ on working-class women.

In reality, the relevance of rhetoric like ‘my body, my life’ holds little water. Instead, the hyper-feminine images propagated by the capitalist media as well as repetitive and uncritical indulgence in patriarchal feminity by middle-class women, has created huge problems for women across the board. Now Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Sunny Leone, etc. can indulge in patriarchal feminity and earn in lakhs by objectifying their bodies while, at the same time, not be in a position to be raped by the average man who watches their films, posters, etc. Really, which ordinary man can bypass their bouncers, crew, security systems, etc. so as to physically acquire/consume their bodies?! Similarly, the sensuously dressed pub-going university student may only be visually consumed by male pubbers, waiters, security guards and the auto driver who drops her home—but does anyone check how hers, or Sunny Leone or Priyanka Chopra’s bodies become the object of those men’s fantasies? Indeed, the tendency of middle-class hedonism[59] seeks expression in middle-class notions of civility and freedom, which are then imposed on the larger mass of people. Without a doubt, this middle-class ‘civility’ needs artificially created and pacified zones (university campuses, malls, discotheques, etc.) for it to express itself. The creation of these pacified zones is largely possible by drawing on the police, which reluctantly concedes a role in maintaining safe/safer havens for the upper classes to enjoy such ‘azaadi’.

Of course, these women may not be raped or molested (and one hopes they never are) when they do what they do. However, their bodies become fantasies for the average man, such that depending on the vulnerability (of the next woman/child he comes across) and the impunity offered by circumstances, rape of a (more vulnerable) other becomes possible. This takes us back to the oft repeated repartee: skirt mein, burkhe mein, dono mein rape hota hai—we should now really qualify this, and say that women in skirts and revealing tops are somewhere responsible for the rape of women in burkhas and ghunghats.

Feminist defence of hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, thus, makes little sense considering that it has accepted the fact that such dressing and behaviour is mime attention seeking which is supposed to, on the one hand, attract attention of a particular individual, but on the other hand, is supposed to repulse or elicit indifference from others. Quite naturally then, feminist rhetoric on hyper-femme dressing and behaviour does not make sense to the majority of men and women, and although feminists would defend their position by terming all these men and women who critique hyper-femme dressing/behaviour as patriarchal, such a defence is really far too shallow.

Hence, while there is need to critique the treacherous blame game let loose by (the hypocritical) capitalist society when it comes to rape, molestation, etc., there is no need to throw the baby with the bathwater. At the end of the day, the complete denial of the uncomfortable truth underlying women’s efforts to ‘do as they please’ is preventing the women’s movement from pursuing a more rigorous assessment of what makes sexual violence possible and persistent in capitalist society.

Socialism: Going beyond feminist notions of freedom

A more detailed exploration of the strained relationship between feminists and the working-class movement is currently outside the scope of this piece. However, there are few observations on the issue which must be spelt out. The most important of these is that the international working-class movement has always questioned the feminist assumption that the oppression of women can be eradicated by fighting merely or specifically for gender equality. It is worth recalling Alexandria Kollantai who lucidly articulated that many claims for equality made by feminists were not simply misplaced but also detrimental to the interests of working-class women because such claims did not speak of larger equality. Indeed, for majority of women, i.e. working-class women, equal rights with men would only mean an equal share in inequality. Of course, some feminists would always claim that their assessments of gender inequality have not been oblivious to class, but the truth is that even if, apart from gender, other articulations of inequality (like that of class, caste, race, etc.) are taken into account, they are usually seen as yet another variant of discrimination and simply a greater burden to be borne by women. The question, however, is whether class is just one of a list of discriminations—can it be reduced to another “ism”? The answer is an obvious no for class is a structuring force that cuts into gender, caste, etc., and hence, gives gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc. their particular form of expression.

Given this ontological positioning of gender vis-à-vis class, the working-class movement has always, in contrast to feminism, posited that gender inequality can be eradicated completely only with the demise of class stratification. It is for this reason that the working-class movement has posited equality between men and women, not as a part apart, but as a part of a larger emancipatory project, which connects women’s emancipation to the liberation of the majority, i.e. working-class women and men.

Consequently, with the melting away of class divisions under socialism, various revolutionary possibilities open up for human society as a whole. In a socialist society, all women, for example, would be empowered with gainful employment and education—a facility that would free the majority of women from their current position of overt dependence on male breadwinners. In a similar vein, with the achievement of new levels of socialization of labour (collective childcare, community kitchens, etc.); women would be freed from the yoke of domestic slavery which has burdened and subjugated them since the inception of capitalism. By freeing the majority of women from positions of dependence and (devalued) domesticity, socialism will nurture a new image of women; one that is far removed from the wretched, vulnerable and exploitable image nurtured by capitalism. With no such spectre of vulnerability to haunt women, no woman would have to face the brunt of sexual violence or live a life of fear.

Moreover, the provision of full employment offered by socialism would ensure that no man or woman performs more than his/her share of work—a mandatory provision that will drastically reduce the working hours that now prevail in society. With this much needed decrease in working hours, men and women will be in the position to enjoy greater leisure time. And it is precisely in such a condition of enhanced leisure time that human relations can be nurtured, and that progress towards true love and romantic/fulfilling sex can be made. In other words, unlike the capitalist system which has created more conditions of coercive coitus than of voluntary sex and true love, socialism’s restructuring of human leisure and work time will pave the way for an actual sexual revolution. Undivided by class, unfettered by inhumane work hours and unburdened by artificially accentuated male-female differences, human beings under socialism will find no reason to and have no basis on which to rape, to subjugate, or to use another’s body for selfish gains.

Thus, till the time that gender equality simply manifests itself in equality between men and women of the same class, romantic sex or the sexual revolution is clearly misnomer. It is only when gender equality has come to manifest itself through an equality of a larger kind, wherein, distinct classes, castes and races have been obliterated, that the sexual revolution can be set to begin. Evidently then, if our civilization wants to overcome the conditions that foster sexual violence and oppression, and if we truly desire a sexual revolution, then our efforts should be aimed at building socialism—a transformation which alongside the struggle against oppression stemming from various identities (gender, caste, religion, tribe, etc.) also requires the intensification of the struggle against class stratification.

Maya John is associated with the Centre for Struggling Women (CSW), and is a researcher working on labour law at the Department of History, University of Delhi


[1]The 23-year old victim was studying to be a physiotherapist. She was accompanied by her engineer male-friend and was returning after watching “Life of Pi” in South Delhi’s multiplex/shopping mall, Select Citywalk. After the movie they tried to get an auto-rickshaw, and failing to get one, they waited at the bus-stop for public transport (i.e. the Delhi Transport Corporation/DTC bus service). Since public transport in the city (the bus service in particular) is in shambles, the couple, expectedly, did not get a DTC bus either. They were easily lured into the private bus after waiting for public transport for nearly 45 minutes. The victim was raped by six working-class men on the private bus as it plied through the streets, and succumbed to her injuries 13 days later in a Singapore hospital. The victim was not only raped but brutalized.

[2] For example, the Delhi High Court filed a suo motu case. Meanwhile, the Delhi Police were unusually swift in their investigation and caught the accused within 3 days. The national media provided continuous coverage of the case, as well as of student protesters who poured onto the streets in agitation. Corporate houses started using this issue as part of their ad-campaigns. Many protestors demanded capital punishment for the accused, and were seen occupying Raisina Hill (near the President’s residence and Ministry of Home Affairs under whose authority the Delhi Police functions). Here, generally no protests are allowed. The police remained relatively restrained, and only resorted to force under the pretext of stone pelting started by some agent provocateurs. Sonia Gandhi [head of ruling ‘United Progressive Alliance’ (UPA)], Sheila Dixit (Chief Minister of the Government of National Capital Territory), Manmohan Singh (Prime Minister of Government of India),  Sushilkumar Shinde (Union Home Minster) visited/assured justice to the victim’s family. Just few weeks before this 16 December gang-rape, a 16-year old girl from an oppressed caste was raped on 9 September by 12 men in Haryana. Only some members of the oppressed caste/s and communist organizations agitated for justice to be provided to the victim; media largely ignored the incident. The Haryana High Court did not file suo motu case. The state police did not register a complaint till the victim’s father committed suicide. Sonia Gandhi, Bhupinder Hooda (Chief Minister of Haryana), Manmohan Singh, Shinde, etc. never visited the victim.

[3] Sanik Dutta (2013), “Citizens United”, Frontline, 25 January.

[4] The general male chauvinist response is to protect one’s own womenfolk, but to do the same to others. This is precisely why at various venues of the anti-rape protests, many male ‘agitators’ were seen harassing (ogling, touching inappropriately, etc.) women protestors. Following the incident of gang-rape in the capital, various groups mushroomed at protest venues demanding death penalty for rape. Not to say the least, their participants were misogynist—a fact reflected in the nature of their slogans against rape. To give an example, up till recently there was a dubious group of people sitting at Jantar Mantar (wearing black bands and black stickers that carry slogans of death penalty). This group had placed a memorial stone called ‘Damini’ (a fictitious name given by the media to the 16 December gang-rape victim) at this prominent place of protest. They sat around this without any concrete demands in hand. They claimed they were instigating a ‘kranti’/revolution against rape, and would not move till the accused were hanged. Even the recent rape of a woman factory worker in Welcome area of northeast Delhi by a rapist whose own daughter was raped earlier (19 December 2012, Times Of India) points to the hypocrisy with which male chauvinism functions. Even a rapist can fight against rape, and so the fight against rape is itself not struggle for the liberation for women.

[5] Many a times the victim/s in villages is/are forced to keep her/their mouth shut by her family or village ‘elders’. The police do not register the crime under the influence of the accused party or panchayat, and doctors at times manipulate the medical reports. Instances of rapes in rural India which indicate the prevalence of rampant sexual violence include: Bhanwari Devi in 1992, was raped by upper caste men in a village called Bhateri in Rajasthan; Phoolan Devi was raped in 1979 in a village called Behmai in Madhya Pradesh by upper caste men; two Dalit women (a mother and daughter) were gang-raped in Khairlanji village (Maharashtra) in 2006, and almost their whole family was lynched to death by members of the dominant OBC caste, Kunbi. The outcome of all these cases shows clear presence of police-judiciary connivance, and hence, complete miscarriage of justice.

[6] I refer to patriarchy not as a ‘system’ which exists parallel to the given socio-economic system that envelops us, but rather, I equate it with sexism. For me, sexism or patriarchy is a historically evolved behaviour pattern which differs from era to era, and thus, patriarchy in capitalism is distinct from that which existed during feudalism or slavery. There are also other equally engaging interventions in the ensuing debate on rape, which have delved quite closely on the question of short-term and long-term strategy required for fighting the growing oppression of women in our society. Critiquing the ensemble of demands that erupted from protest venues, some of these interventions have posited the need for impossible demands which, by their very nature, are expected to smash the entrenched conditions that foster gender inequality. It goes without saying that we cannot merely raise slogans that bolster the legitimacy of the bourgeois state, but surely, there can be a Leninist way of raising the ‘intermediate demands’, i.e. demands that have some immediate resonance with the people’s aspirations, and at the same time, pose a challenge to the state. In the process of rallying around these ‘intermediate demands’ we may organize ourselves, strengthen our cadre base, raise the aspirations of the masses and build a lasting influence amongst them, etc. so that when we are ready, we pose the (im)possible demands before the state. Unless we proceed in this way, we are faced with the two-fold danger of either, left wing deviation (a situation in which we are raising slogans that are completely out of sync with the masses, and hence, leading to our isolation), or a right wing deviation (a situation in which by merely raising popular slogans, we fall prey to petty-bourgeois slogans, lose our critical tinge, as well as our independent proletarian will and action).

[7] See, Kavita Krishnan (2013), “Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism”,, 25 January, accessed on 3 February 2013.

[8] Kavita Krishnan (2012), “Some Reflections on Sexual Violence and the Struggle Against It”,, accessed on 26 December 2012.

[9] Shuddhabrato Sengupta (2012), “To the Young Women and Men of Delhi: Thinking about Rape from India Gate”, December 23,, accessed on 30 December 2012.

[10] Reports from the National Family Household Survey, which arguably provide a more accurate picture of the actual rate of violence than the reported data calculated by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), confirm that city-dwelling women are more likely to face sexual violence/abuse than women living in villages.

[11] Devika Narayan (2012-13), “Some Thoughts on Rape, Sexual Violence and Protest: Responding to Responses”, Critique, vol. 2 (2): 39-40.

[12] Now with the spread of cities into what we would call the ‘suburbs’, many villages bordering large cities have seen a spate of rapes conducted on highways, etc.—a fact which reflects that easy targets are also being sought in the peripheries of cities. Incidents of village women or women factory workers being pulled into cars, empty warehouses or waylaid on such highways are now very common, which goes to show that just as in the city proper, even bordering villages are witnessing rapes that don’t necessarily fit the paradigm of power rapes because of the nature of perpetrators and because the rapists sought to exploit the vulnerability of the victim rather than teach her a lesson. The main point is that people circulating to and fro from urban to rural areas is leading to the gradual spread of the urban pattern of rapes to the rural milieu.

[13] Some right-wing bigwigs have argued that rape is an urban and modern phenomenon, fuelled by the anonymity somewhere offered by the city. The statement of RSS supremo, Mohan Bhagwat on 4 January 2013, who was addressing a group in Silchar, further complicated the issue by claiming that rape is a phenomenon which ‘takes place in India, not in Bharat’. For Bhagwat’s discourse, India is the substitute for urban areas, and Bharat stands for rural India. For him, it is the ‘Western’ lifestyle adopted by people in urban areas which is leading to an increase in the crime against women. In his address, he stated: “You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes”. He further implied that while urban areas are influenced by Western culture, the rural areas are nurturing Indian ethos and glorious Indian traditions. For him, ancient Indian traditions gave great respect to women, and it is due to these values of Indian tradition that the country’s villages are free from crimes against women. Needless to say, India’s ancient traditions are glorified by people like him without going into the core of social relationships. In this light, it is essential to understand the past in the context of its the social milieu, the system of production, the level of education etc. The blind glorification of the past leads to conclusions that are off the mark. It is a fact that during the long span of India’s ancient past, the status of women kept changing. Nevertheless, women as subordinate beings was the running theme. We also know for a fact that Indian villages have seen brutal sexual assaults on women.

[14] Susan Brownmiller (1993), Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Ballantine Books).

[15] See, Lee Ellis (1989), Theories of Rape: Inquiries into the Causes of Sexual Aggression (New York: Hemisphere): 10.

[16] See, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer (2001), A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge: The MIT Press).

[17] The undeniable problem with the theory of ‘natural history of rape’ is the fact that it is based on many unsubstantiated views, such as rapist men differ genetically from men who do not rape, and that sexually aggressive (rapist) men are more capable of impregnating women than men who do not force themselves on women.

[18] This ahistorical approach to gender inequality is something which informs the views of several renowned feminists. For example, Simone de Beauvoir is known to have argued that women “have no past, no history” (cited by Lerner (1986), Creation of Patriarchy, New York: Oxford University Press: 22). In similar terms, Andrea Dworkin in an interview, stated: “I think that the situation of women is basically ahistorical.” (See, E. Wilson (1982), “Interview with Andrea Dworkin”, Feminist Review, vol. 11: 27).

[19] Christine Helliwell (2000), “It’s only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference,” Signs, vol. 25 (3): 789-816; Peggy Reeves Sanday (1981), “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross Cultural Study,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 37 (4): 5-27. Christine Helliwell and Peggy Sanday have successfully demonstrated that certain contemporaneous communities like the Gerai of Dayak communities (Indonesia) and Minangkabua, are rape-free.

[20] Friedrich Engels (1973), The Origin of Family, Private Property and State (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

[21] The existence of small band formations within which sexual activity took place led to the development of a relatively small genotype, and hence, the reproduction of very similar featured progeny. In addition, the nature of hunting-gathering subsistence was such that individual traits and capabilities were much too entwined with the human collective so as to socially distinguish one individual from another. Hence, variable factors leading to differential preference for pair-bonding, such as status, individual physical traits and capabilities, etc. were not so prevalent.

[22] Just like the male form of the human race, the female has developed certain muscle memory and sensitivity to touch in the pre-natal stage, i.e. during the nine months of existence in the amniotic sac of the mother’s uterus. Protected and fondled by the warm and thick amniotic fluid of the womb, the human specie has inculcated a sensitivity to touch with some body parts developing a more heightened sense of touch, i.e. the erogenous zones which include the genitalia, mammary glands, ear lobes, etc. Engrained with this sense of touch which soothes the nerves, muscles and sensory ends/organs, the human specie seeks to replicate what it has learnt from the pre-natal stage. In this regard, sex amounts to an advanced form of touching and sensation to which the human specie has been conditioned during a long pre-natal stage. Indeed, just as singing is a complex form of speech, sex can be seen as a complex form of human touching. Of course, the consequences and intentionality involved in sexual interaction are determined by the form of the relationship shared between the two individuals. Hence, sex is not simply physiological, but highly mediated and transformed by the social milieu in which humans find themselves. In class stratified societies, our cultural and personal meanings associated with individuals, objects and situations greatly influence our sexual desires.

[23] See Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practices in Colonial India”,, accessed on 12 April 2013.

[24] See Radhika Singha (1998), A Despotism of Law (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[25] The transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist structuring of Indian society and economy was both restrained as well as facilitated by the colonial state, which marked the survival, re-creation and reproduction of older social forms. Further development of this point is, however, beyond the scope of this paper.

[26] Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practice in Colonial India”.

[27] See Prem Chowdhry (2007a), Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[28] By depressing the family wage of the working class (i.e. wages earned by the breadwinner of the family), and by pushing women out of jobs once they gave birth, the work of child bearing and rearing were established as tasks which were to be ‘done for free’, i.e. which had no role in sustaining the economy, and hence, for which the capitalist was to bear no cost.

[29] In India, for example, the tendency of young women to marry even before the completion of their higher education is significantly noticeable. Those who do manage to attain a certain level of education are often given no opportunity to pick up jobs before they enter marital relations. This reflects the fact that women are often made to forfeit education and career interests for the sake of ‘suitable’ marriage offers. Many, of course, are unable to return to their studies, etc. after tying the knot.

[30] In urban contexts, the provisions of the criminal justice system (pertaining to abduction, etc.) are often misused by the families of couples who have gone for choice marriages. The procedures of the court and the connivance of the local police with the family have allowed many male ‘guardians’ to exhaust such couples in months and sometimes years of litigation. On the other hand, informed by a class bias, the local police have also been seen circumventing procedures of the criminal justice system to the extent that they have often refused to file missing person reports of working class girls who have gone missing, or have declined to file FIRs of abduction when these girls’ families name suspects. Clearly, when it comes to women of poorer sections of society, the police generally assumes that they have left their homes willingly—a practice which allows them to waste crucial time in locating these missing girls and ascertaining, under section 164 of the CrPc, whether they wilfully left their homes.

[31] Catherine MacKinnon is a highly cited and influential legal scholar. See, Fred R. Shapiro (1996), “The Most Cited Law Review Article Revisited”, Chicago-Kent Law Review, vol. 71. Also see, Catherine Mackinnon (1987), Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press). Interestingly, hers as well as the views of Dworkin, etc. spread across other parts of the world through networks of global NGOs and funding agencies which were part of international level campaigns on women’s rights.

[32] Surprisingly, even progressive intellectuals who were, obviously, moved by the emotional and tense atmosphere emerging post the 16 December gang-rape case, slipped into demanding greater severity of punishment, albeit not in the mould of death penalty and castration. For example, a prominent progressive blogger, Shuddhabrato Sengupta floated the idea of life-long solitary confinement for the rapists. Op. cit., endnote 9.

[33] I use the term bad sex in lieu of any better concept which can be used to explain the lack of mutuality, care, and fulfilment in many sexual encounters. The concept of bad sex hence refers to sexual encounters where someone’s pleasure is another’s pain, discomfort and displeasure.

[34] It is to be noted that in direct opposition to such liberal feminist views, others have argued that prostitution (in cases where consent exists and even in cases where it doesn’t) is sexual violence in itself, and amounts to paid rape as the money given only appeases the men’s guilt. For elucidation see, Trisha Baptie (2009), “”Sex worker” ? Never met one !,”, 26 April, accessed on 28 March 2013.

[35] By loss of autonomy I do not mean individual choice in conflict with other individuals and social interests. For me, both the self and the autonomy that self seems to enjoy are conditioned upon the relations where it is vested. Self is never alone and it can only come on its own by continuously engaging with other human beings. What in real terms the loss of autonomy of sexual choice means is the breakdown of the psychic connection between pleasure, desire, motivation and action. So the real question is not to restore autonomy in la liberal way, but to re-create different form of (social) relations.

[36] See, Appeal to All Concerned with Violence Against Women and Demand Charter (2012), released by Maya John on behalf of Centre for Struggling Women (CSW) and supported by many other organizations, 26 December, Also see press release released by CSW and Nurses Welfare Association, “Nurses and women’s groups demand safety audit of workplaces”, The Hindu, 22 January 2013. Here, the demand for necessary amendments to laws and state regulation in order to create safe workplaces has been discussed in the context of varied concerns of working women. Amongst one of the suggestions pressed forth by nurses as working women is the conducting of regular safety audits of all workplaces by the state.

[37] Kavita Krishnan recently articulated such a position in her 25 January 2013 article, where she said: “…capitalist exploitation of women involves much more than just ‘denuding’ women. It exploits women by profiting from their unpaid labour in the home; by paying them less than men for the same work at the job – and it is able to do all of this because of women’s unfreedom as imposed by patriarchy [emphasis added].” The statement clearly assumes that capitalism is a system which functions in the manner it does because of the prevalence of another system, namely, patriarchy. By this logic, it is patriarchy as a separate system in itself which makes capitalism patriarchal, and not the inner logic of capitalist exploitation which breeds patriarchal functioning of society.

[38] Rejecting the primacy of class, as well as the radical feminists’ attempts to install gender in the same position of categorical privilege, some feminists have propounded the theory of ‘intersectionality’ (of class, gender, caste, race, sexuality and nationality). This is, in fact, a very common route of escape for many feminists when articulations of class, race and many other social positions confront feminist categories of analysis. The problem with the argument of intersectionality is that it works with nothing less than a pluralism of identities. This pluralism ensures a never ending list of identities to be distinguished and accounted for. What is lost in this analysis is, of course, the ontology of social positioning. In other words, the hierarchy prevalent in social positions and the objective interest involved is completely overlooked as constitutive of the social reality. In reality, certain positions and identities are subsumed into others, even though they may not appear to be subsumable, or do not appear to have been subsumed. This is not to argue that everything can be reduced to class and is about class, but to show (as is clearly reflected in the conditions surrounding us) that other experiences, identities, social phenomenon, etc. exist in relation to class/are in negotiation with class for their articulation. One is aware of Laclau’s and Mouffe’s critique of the notion of “objective interests”. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics, p. 76-77. However a convincing defence has been provided by E.M. Wood in “The Autonomization of Ideology and Politics”, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism.

[39] For a fuller critique of this view, see Craig, T. Palmer (1988), “Twelve Reasons Why Rape is Not Sexually Motivated: A Skeptical Examination”, The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 25 (4): 512-30.

[40] Chafetz, Janet Saltzman (1990), Gender Equity: An Integrated Theory of Stability and Change (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications).

[41] See ‘National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), a 2010 survey by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in USA. It was reported that in America, rape was more common than smoking.

[42] See, Freund, K., H. Scher and S.J. Hucker (1983), “The Courtship Disorders”, Archives of Sexual Behavior  vol. 12: 769‑779; Michael T. Dreznick (2003),  “Heterosocial Competence of Rapists and Child Molesters: A Meta-analysis”, Journal of Sex Research, vol. 40 (2): 170-08; Marshall, W. L. and Eccles, A. (1991), “Issues in Clinical Practice with Sex Offenders”, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 6: 79–79.

[43] Praveen Swami (2013), “The Rapist in the Mirror”, The Hindu, lead article, 11 January. Sexual violence by men is not just unleashed on women but also on children. As a consequence, men also rape boys. In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India surveyed 12,477 children to learn of their experience of abuse. Of these, 68.99 per cent children, over half of them boys, reported that were victims of physical violence. One in 12 children, a majority being boys, reported that were suffering under sexual violence. It is, indeed, a staggering fact that half of our Indian population has encountered abuse before becoming adults.

[44] Op. cit., endnote 9

[45]  It is necessary to account for rapes that occur on a day to day basis, and thus, constitute what the average or lay people experience as rape. As argued above, these constitute the majority of rapes in our society, and have a definitive sexual content because the average perpetrator of this assault is looking for sexual gratification. But what of rapes which can be easily identified as ‘power rapes’, i.e. rapes which occur in the context of military conquests, forceful occupation, insurgency, counter-insurgency, civil war, racial/casteist backlash, etc.? The first point to note here is that within such contexts, rape is occurring in conditions which are unlike the average conditions prevailing in society, and hence, these rapes constitute only a particular component of total rapes in our society. More importantly, even in such cases, rape is about sex because it is an act which is not merely an expression of hostility and revenge, but is also a product of the extreme vulnerability of the captive/politically and socially subjugated women, as well as of the impunities offered to men during war/conflict.

[46] By failing to present a cultural critique of capitalism and its influence on human behavior, the Left has allowed the space for right-wing forces to consolidate support amongst the masses. The right-wing discourse on ‘westernization’, ‘consumerism’, etc., which is based on a reified notion of modern culture that is detached from prevailing class stratification in society, has successfully touched a raw nerve amongst the majority who are otherwise disoriented by socio-economic inequality and by the hedonism of the rich. In reality, this (oppressed) majority which is easily influenced by the right-wing, stands in opposition to the (protesting) middle class which is influenced by certain feminist views. The challenge for the Left is that it must present a critique of the cultural, sexual and social impact of capitalism so as to, on the one hand, wean away the majority from the clutches of the right-wing, and on the other, prevent the consolidation of feminist politics within the middle class.

[47] Amongst these so-called Left organizations are the “new” socialists who have recently resolved to “change the language of Left”. See the leaflet released by New Socialist Initiative on the occasion of their Founding Conference, 22-24 February, 2013. It is precisely in tune with such visions of (class-eliding, eclectic) politics that some have been recently propagating a “new” (pub)socialism, whereby, pubs are sought to be made affordable for poor people, who can use the space, now and then, to stop feeling poor all the time. See, Amrapali Basumatary (2013), ‘Come Frolic with Me in the Streets of Delhi’,, 5 January, accessed on 3 February 2013. The piece was republished in ‘Critique’, March 2013 which was released by New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Delhi University. Amrapali Basumatary suggested that massively subsidized pubs to which all classes will have access, can be a truly emancipatory project as it will allow the poor to let down their hair “once in a while without feeling poor”. Her argument was based on eliding, altogether, the issue of class divisions and resulting equalities. To this effect, note her assertion that, “freedom cannot be and is not limited to the issue of ‘national shame/pride’ or class” (emphasis added). Clearly, it is assumed here that by uniting all classes on the issue of fighting the taboo associated with drinking, the sharp contradictions in their interests will resolve themselves and lead to a better life for all. In other words, poor men and women can then stop feeling denied and agitated about their social, sexual and economic inequalities vis-à-vis the upper classes; leading, presumably to less barbaric desires to assault women who enjoy a better lifestyle (!)

[48] Certain writers who have been closely observing the feminist movement have come with certain terms, which according to them encapsulate some of the worrying trends in feminism. See, Melody Hoffman (2010), “Teaching with Feminist Contradictions: The Debate of Dress in Theory and Practice”, with_Feminist_Contradictions_The_Debate_of_Dress_in_Theory_and_Practice, accessed on 29 January 2013. Hoffman coins the terms “girlie” feminists for those who resort explicitly to hyper-feminine dressing and behavior as an expression of ‘feminist’ action. Also see Ariel Levy (2005), Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and Launch of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press). Levy has coined terms like “female chauvinists” and “raunch” culture to explain the growing trend of ‘power’ feminism.

[49]  Nancy Fraser (2009), “Feminism, Capitalism and The Cunning Of History,” New Left Review, vol. 56: 110.

[50] The feminist movement has been continuously critiqued across the world for such a reading of social reality and its concomitant mobilizations. Much of this criticism has come from marginalized groups of women (Afro-American women, Hispanic women, Dalit women, etc.) or from Marxist organizations that have questioned the predominance of gender as a rallying point. Communists, in particular, point out that the problem with feminism is not that it talks of men-women equality – something which even communists are committed to – but that it particularizes this aspiration which leads to parcelization of society between men and women. See Clara Zetkin (1896), Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious, Also see Alexandria Kollantai (1909), The Social Basis of the Woman Question,

[51] See, Rachel P. Maines (1989), The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press).

[52] Ariel Levy (2005), Op. Cit., endnote 48

[53] See, Naomi Wolf (1993), Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It (New York: Random House). Wolf propagates that “enough money buys a woman out of a lot of sex-oppression”, but in actual terms her ‘grow rich’ line simply caters to the needs of upward mobile middle-class women.

[54] See, Sreenanti Banerjee (2013), “Sexual Violence, Consumer Culture and Feminist Politics – Rethinking the Critique of Commodification,” 03 FEBRUARY,, accessed on 11 March 2013.

[55] See, Sheila Jeffreys (2005), Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West (New York and India: Routledge). Here Jeffreys argues how a cultural imperialism spearheaded by the international beauty industry has imposed harmful practices which are popular amongst wealthy women of developed and developing countries, on non-elite sections of women across the world.

[56] Audre Lorde (2000), “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Women,” in Wendy Komar and Frances Bartkowski, eds., Feminist Theory: A Reader, p. 292.

[57] See, Lynn Phillips (2000), Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination (New York: NYU Press). Many of the young women interviewed during this research revealed that most of their sexual encounters were for men’s sexual pleasure rather than meeting any desire of their own.

[58] How capitalism is influencing our lives, including the most intimate part of it is well documented in Arlie Hochschild (2003), The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feelings (Berkeley: University of California Press). Also see A. Hochschild (2003), The Commercialisation of Intimate Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

[59] As captured uncensored in many of the slogans which erupted during the anti-rape protests, such as pub jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to pubs), marji ke kapde pehenne ki ya na pehenne ki azaadi (freedom to wear what one wants or not wear anything), disc jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to discos), and piney ki bhi azaadi (freedom to drink whenever, wherever).

Nurses celebrate International Women’s Day

Today (9 March), large numbers of nurses from Delhi & NCR hospitals gathered under the banner of Nurses Welfare Association and Centre for Struggling Women (CSW) to celebrate International Women’s Day. The meeting was called to discuss problems such as lack of safety for women nurses, strenuous work schedules due to poor nurse to patient ratios, pay disparity between private hospital and government hospital nurses, etc. The nurses decided to use the historic occasion of International Women’s Day to come together, especially due to growing concerns regarding rising incidents of sexual violence on women in the city.

The meeting commenced with two prominent panelists, Dr Mary John (Professor of Economics, J.N.U.) and Dr Bijayalaxmi Nanda (Asst. Professor, Miranda House, D.U.), addressing issues like gender discrimination in workplaces. Other speakers like Mrs. Krishnakumar from the Nurses Welfare Association encouraged the nurses to voice their concerns about harassment and exploitation at workplaces. Maya John from the woman’s organization, Centre for Struggling Women, emphasized that for sexual violence and discrimination to come to an end it was necessary for greater numbers of women to enter public spaces, and hence, for greater employment generation. She argued that such enhanced participation of women in the workforce would effectively challenge existing discrimination in workplaces.

Maya speaking at Public Meeting of Nurses

Anxious about the daily risks they face while commuting to work as well as when at work in hospitals, women nurses discussed how existing laws regulating workplaces need to be re-assessed. Many of the nurses complained of harassment by patients’ visitors, as well as male hospital staffers. However, they felt that such sexual harassment was made worse by the fact that most of them were in highly exploitative work contracts. Many nurses, for example, expressed how growing contractualization of work was forcing them into more vulnerable conditions. They discussed how the lack of government hospitals was compelling most nurses to enter contract jobs in private hospitals/clinics where salaries were low and on an average ranged from just Rs. 5000-10000 rupees per month. Moreover, the simple fact that many private hospitals force their nursing staff to work extra shifts, do overtime, etc. and do not at the same time provide for something as basic as transportation to their women employees, is indicative of the conscious ways in which hospital managements’ are putting their women work force at continuous risk. Similarly, by not providing on-campus accommodation to their nursing staff, most hospitals were compelling nurses to commute unsafe distances after their evening shift.

Public Meeting of Nurses

Many nurses employed across Delhi-NCR hospitals also complained that hospital bouncers are often used to physically and verbally intimidate nurses who speak out about unsafe and exploitative work conditions. The nurses also highlighted how the local administration and local police stations have proved to be very lax in their response to complaints made by nurses about sexual harassment, stalking, and even complaints concerning the use of bouncers by hospital managements during nurses’ strikes.

In this light, the nurses discussed and passed a resolution/demand charter. This charter included demands like pressing the Government to constitute a wage board for the health sector, to create more government funded nursing colleges and government hospitals, and to properly regulate work conditions in hospitals, i.e. by conducting regular safety audits. According to the nurses, the safety audits would help regulate: (i) work hours/shifts given; (ii) whether a safe atmosphere exists in and around hospitals; (iii) whether the recent Supreme Court ruling against the bond system (i.e. surrender of original certificates to the hospital management for the period of contract) is being followed in all hospitals and nursing homes; (iv) whether written work contracts are being provided to all employees; etc. The nurses believe that it is through such regular safety audits that the Government can assess whether such essential work conditions exist in workplaces or not. Moreover, in the light of how unregulated private transportation is in the Delhi-NCR region, the nurses also resolved to petition the Government to make it mandatory for all hospitals to provide transportation to their staff. In addition to this, it was also felt that a better managed and more accountable public transport had to be introduced by the Government in order to replace various modes of unregulated private transport—a measure which will go a long way in ensuring safety of women commuters.

Lastly, the issue of regulating the functioning of police stations was also raised in the meeting. After many nurses recounted their experiences at local thanas where their complaints were not entertained, the gathering of nurses decided to press for some concrete action on this front. The nurses felt that lodging of FIRs and placing of police stations under CCTV surveillance in order to encourage prompt police action, has become a non-negotiable demand. The fact that many women, including those who face sexual harassment at home or in workplaces, are still afraid to file complaints with the Police, or, have been turned away by police stations, is a serious problem that the nurses will address collectively, and raise with the concerned authorities.

Maya John, Convener, Centre For Struggling Women, 
Contact: 9350272637, 9540716048,


We, members of the nursing community in India, solemnly resolve to press forward with the following common concerns and demands:

  1. Organize and mobilize other nursing and health personnel on the need for a wage board for health sector

  2. Expose institutions that are violating the recent Supreme Court ruling against the bond system

  3. Intensify the struggle for more public-funded nursing colleges

  4. Provision of compulsory transportation for all nursing and health personnel

  5. Provision of on-campus residential facility by hospitals

  6. Enhanced security provisions in and around hospitals so as to prevent assaults (including sexual assaults) on nursing staff

  7. Mandatory consultation with nursing representatives while formulating work-related provisions such as shift-timing, dress code, etc. This is essential so as to prevent practices like assigning night duty to a single female—a practice which often exposes the lone nurse to harassment by ward-boys, other male staff, etc.

  8. Provision of greater educational and job opportunities for women, especially in terms of starting more government hospitals

  9. Intensify the on-going struggle against contractualization of the nursing profession

  10. Parity in the salary-scales of nursing tutors and government college lecturers

  11. Complaints of sexual harassment, violence and intimidation of women should be filed immediately by the concerned police station. Non-filing of FIR and/or lack of prompt police action should result in severe action against concerned SHO as such behaviour amounts to dereliction of duty

  12. Conducting of regular safety audits of hospitals by the Government so as to assess whether necessary conditions of security are provided to hospital staff and whether nursing staff are not being exploited

  13. Parity in salaries of nurses working in private hospitals and those working in government hospitals

  14. Protection of labour rights and fundamental rights like freedom of speech and assembly, during agitations/strikes called by nursing staff. District officials and police authorities should take strict action against hospitals for using bouncers to intimidate nursing staff. The responsibility of any untoward incidents like assault on nurses in struggle lies with local/district authorities who should be made accountable

For Amendments to Laws in Order to Create Safe Workplaces

As one month passed since the young physiotherapist was brutally raped in Delhi while traveling in a private chartered bus, working women who are frequently at risk on Delhi’s roads as well as in their workplaces, have been consciously raising the issue of how much more needs to be done to ensure safe and conducive work atmosphere for women. Nurses from across big hospitals in Delhi such as AIIMS (Delhi) held a peaceful protest rally in order to keep alive the issue of safety for women.  

Anxious about the daily risks they face while commuting to work as well as when at work in hospitals, women nurses strongly believe that existing laws regulating workplaces need to be re-assessed. Many of these nurses complain of harassment by patients’ visitors, as well as male hospital staffers. However, they felt that such sexual harassment was made worse by the fact that most of them were in highly exploitative work contracts. The simple fact that many private hospitals force their nursing staff to work extra shifts, do overtime, etc. and do not at the same time provide for something as basic as transportation to their women employees, is indicative of the conscious ways in which hospital managements’ are putting their women work force at continuous risk.

Many nurses employed across Delhi-NCR hospitals also complain that hospital bouncers are often used to physically and verbally intimidate nurses who speak out about unsafe and exploitative work conditions. In recent strikes in hospitals like Asian Institute of Medical Sciences (Faridabad) and Sharda Hospital (G. Noida), such private (male) security guards entered the nurses’ hostel attached to the hospital and physically threatened many nurses who were on strike. In such cases, the local administration and local police station have proved to be very lax in their response and are, more often than not, seen washing their hands off dangerous situations where the safety of working women is constantly at risk.

In this light, nurses and other working women are pressing the Government to properly regulate, or basically, to conduct a regular safety audit of workplaces across the city. Regulation of work hours/shifts given, creation of a safe atmosphere in and around the workplace, provision of written work contracts for all (even contractual and daily-wage) employees including women etc., are the need of the hour. It is through regular safety audits that the Government can assess whether such essential work conditions exist in workplaces or not. Moreover, in the light of how unregulated private transportation is in the Delhi-NCR region, working women across the city strongly feel that it should be made mandatory for all employers (private offices, hospitals, factories, etc.) and not just for owners of call centres to provide company transport. It is also necessary that better managed and more accountable public transport is brought in so as to replace various modes of private transport—a measure which will go a long way in ensuring safety of women commuters.

Lastly, the issue of regulating the functioning of police stations is also of major concern to women across the city. It is necessary that lodging of FIRs and placing of police stations under CCTV surveillance becomes a non-negotiable demand. It is extremely troubling that many women (including those who face sexual harassment at home and/or workplaces on a daily basis) are still afraid to file complaints with the Police, or have been turned away by police stations. Such negligence is a serious problem that has to be addressed immediately.

Maya John                                                                                       Ms. Tangama

Convenor, Centre for Struggling Women (CSW)               Vice President, Nurses’ Welfare Association

Contact: 9540716048, 9350272637 

Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

Pothik Ghosh

Demands for harsh and summary punishment for rapists, or for that matter, stringent laws to deal with  rape – fuelled as they are by moral outrage – do little else than reinforce the capitalist structure of patriarchy that thrives on gendered division of labour between waged productive work and unwaged reproductive work. For, any such legal-juridical demand or move is willy-nilly grounded in the assumption that the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations need not be transformed to protect women from sexual violence. In fact, such self-righteous moral outrage underpinned by the lust for inquisitorial-gladiatorial spectacle is, at the systemic-structural level, nothing but an ideology that legitimises the capitalist-patriarchal structure. It tends to reinforce the general consensus – precisely by marshalling the crises of the system it can no longer conceal – that the only matrix capable of protecting women against violence is one that is normatively capable of instituting stringent laws against perpetrators of such sexual and/or gender violence, ensures their strict enforcement and delivers harsh punishment to offenders. The reinforcement of such a consensus does no more or less than preserve and reproduce the structure of gendered division of labour, and sexual inequality.

Moral Outrage and Capitalist Juridicality

The legal-juridical approach to protect women not only denies them autonomous agency, as it serves to interpellate them as unequal subjects of a gendered socio-economic system, but also masks the implication of the agency of all its citizen-subjects in that gender-unequal structure of social power. Meanwhile, those citizen-subjects, who turn agents of such legal-juridical approach to anti-systemic politics, live in the neurotic comfort of condemning rape and baying for the blood of rapists even as they perpetuate the gender-unequal structure of social power through their agency as citizen-subjects of civil society and its constitutive unit: the family. This structure of social power is the very condition of possibility for such gruesome acts of sexual and gendered violence, which are, therefore, its cultural and ideological embodiments or mediations. Hence, such moral outrage of citizen-subjects ties up neatly with the legal-juridical approach that serves to sidestep the fundamental question of socio-economic transformation by sweeping the collective consciousness clean of it, thus enabling the system to manage its structural crisis by transferring it, either fully or partially, from one location to another. As a consequence, the system is not only preserved but it also reproduces itself through the further extension of its panoptic web of biopower and the political-economic logic that inheres in it. Clearly, morally outraged demands for fixing gruesome acts of sexual violence such as rape in their sheer immediacy is the political language constitutive of a subjective agency of opposition that is integral precisely to the extended reproduction of the very system it seeks to oppose in one of its many determinate moments. That, needless to say, reinforces the legal-juridical approach even as it precludes the transformation of the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of socio-economic power through its decimation.

The immediate fight against sexual violence such as rape must grasp such despicable violence not as a problem of sheer lawlessness that, therefore, can be eliminated through the enforcement of the law and the reinforcement of its concomitant system, but as a crisis of the very system and its structure that, therefore, needs to be destroyed in order to abolish such crises integral to it. Rape is not an aberration of the system that the latter can eradicate by asserting – instituting/enforcing – the law that holds the system together as its raison d’ etre. Rather, it is one of the many forms of heinously oppressive violence that is integral to regimes of class domination that is enshrined in and as the systemic rule of law. Hence, the eradication of rape and other such forms of coercive patriarchal oppression, which make for the constitutive exception of the law, is contingent not on extending the remit of the legal. Instead, it lies precisely in the abolition of the law and the capitalist socio-economic structure coeval with the legal and, which to reiterate the earlier point, is the condition of possibility of patriarchy and all its forms of control and coercion.

It is no accident that moral outrage against gruesome acts of rape and sexual violence, which fuel demands for either more stringent anti-rape laws or harsh punishment for rapists, or both, is inseparable from disciplinary control over the vector of women’s bodies and lifeworlds. All for their safety and security. The social, if not the individual, subject that articulates both those discourses is indivisible.

This argument does in no way, however, preclude the question of politically fighting rape in its immediacy. Rather, what it insists on is the inescapable need for such a struggle to figure how the general strategy of fighting capital in order to overcome it should articulate its tactics in their immediacy, and not be conflated with it to be hypostatised. The legal-juridical fight against rape is a tactical position that ought not to be blinded by the affect of moral outrage that animates it to the strategy of decimating the capitalist-patriarchal structure. A strategy that ought to inform, articulate and orientate the social subject waging the immediate, tactical struggle for legal-juridical measures against rape. As for the question about whether or not moral outrage about rape is necessarily inseparable from patriarchy, the need is clearly to deal with it at its two different levels of determination: one of individual subjectivity and the other of social subjecthood. In the first instance, the correlation is not necessary, while in the second case, if the morally outraged social subject is interpellated by the legal-juridical approach and is thus rendered incapable and/or unwilling to pose the fundamental structural (or mediated) question then moral outrage is doubtless coeval with patriarchal power. It is actually no less than the ideology of capital in this, its late conjuncture. Of course, there is no duality between the two subject-positions as they are in a dialectic. And precisely, therefore, there can be no unidirectional determination. That is, an individual subjectivity of moral outrage, even if it is informed by a conception of social subject for structural transformation, cannot, merely by claiming to be informed by such radical subjectivity, stand in as such for the actuality of the radical, system-transforming social subject. That social subject, which is incipiently present in the subjectivity of a radical individual, has to be generalised beyond that incipience for it to be sustained in its actuality. Politics is what politics does. Not what it says it does.

Class Struggle on the Woman Question

Therefore, the woman question should not be reduced to a question of juridical identity and that it should, in its tactical determinateness, articulate the generalised strategy of class antagonism. This is not to say that rape becomes a secondary question from the vantage point of revolutionary working-class politics. And that, therefore, the struggle of the hour is for socialism, whose coming would automatically take care of gender inequality and sexual oppression. Instead, there is an urgent need to stake out a revolutionary working-class position with regard to intervention in gruesome instances of sexual violence where the public consensus is single-mindedly focused on meting out harsh punishments – death by hanging, castration, etc – while remaining incapable of or unwilling to question how gender-insensitive laws and law-enforcement are integral to the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations, or social power.

However, what must at this juncture be openly acknowledged, and admitted – without a shred of ideological sophistry – is that the dominant current of movements, which have based themselves on the conceptual centrality of the class question, have been paradigmatically blind to how, among other things, capital has engendered class. In other words, the working-class movement should recognise that its dominant tendencies have failed to foreground how the structure of capital has divided labour and thus segmented the working class through the political-economic specification, re-inscription and re-articulation of the pre-capitalist gendered power relations. The capitalist structure has specified pre-capitalist patriarchy to effect gendered hierarchisation of the domains of productive and reproductive work to enable transfer of value to preserve and perpetuate a system constitutive of differential rates of exploitation (extraction of surplus value). Not just that. The capitalist-patriarchal ideology of ‘legitimate’ sexual inequality generated by this gendered privileging of productive over reproductive work has been instrumental in the gendered segmentation of labour – through unspoken custom if not enshrined contract – in the productive sphere itself as also the larger sphere of so-called non-work socialisation. The working-class movement would, therefore, do well to realise that the paradigmatic blindness of its dominant tendencies to this dimension of our political-economic reality has yielded a conception of working-class unity that is nothing but the instrumentalisation of the everydayness of working-class women by the politics of the male proletariat. That has rendered the latter the oppressive intermediaries of capital and dominant petty-bourgeois agencies of property-forms vis-à-vis the former. In short, such ‘working-class unity’ has been integral to the restoration of capitalist class power.

The women’s movement would, meanwhile, do well not to repeat such a paradigmatic error. The specification, and rearticulation, of the gendered relations of power by the capitalist structure cuts both ways. Capital does not merely engender class but also, in the same movement, classi-fies gender. It marshals gender inequality to segment the working-class even as the homogeneity of gender is itself subjected to a class-based internal differentiation based on a hierarchically relational gradation of property-form and labour-dimension. In such circumstances, to target only patriarchy as the root of such gender oppression and sexual violence as honour killings, rape and so on is to attack only the ideological form – culture if you will – of gender oppression and violence while leaving the capitalist structure that animates or articulates it intact. A structure that is capable of coopting anti-patriarchal women’s  movements by articulating them in a manner that enables such movements to raise the perfectly just demands for the abolition of various unfreedoms that shackle womankind in its gendered entirety even while bringing emancipation from such gendered unfreedoms to certain locationally select segments and sections of women to the exclusion of the rest, and thereby neutralising the movements by weakening the strength and/or energy of the mass that drives such movements by accentuating the segmentation within it.

Towards the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

The point here is certainly not to join the chorus of status-quoist cynics, who are seeking to diminish the current anti-rape mass upsurge on the streets of Delhi as a middle-class fad. Such cynicism is insidious to say the least. Sexual violence and gender oppression cannot, by any stretch of imagination, qualify as a middle-class or petty-bourgeois concern. Insofar as gender inequality, which is a form of class domination, is co-constitutive of such violent oppression, sexual violence is a working-class question at its core. Rather, the point of the argument really is that the mass upsurge should recognise its objectively incipient working-class character so that it can be generalised. In short, this movement against sexual violence must not only challenge the dominant culture of patriarchy – which it is doing in large measure, thanks to the participation of various communist-left mass organisations and other radical women’s groups – but must also simultaneously become a struggle against segmentations and divisions within the gendered class of women proletarians if its battle against patriarchy has to really succeed. In other words, an effective struggle against patriarchy can only be a revolutionary working-class struggle. One that doesn’t evade the gender question in the name of some larger, beyond-gender working-class unity, but focuses on the gender question in its specificity in terms of rearticulation of the culture (ideology) of patriarchy within and by the materiality of capital. To do merely the former is the path of radical feminism while an approach that dialectically articulates the former with the latter is the feminism of proletarian militancy.

What would the adoption of such an approach mean in the concrete specificity of the current anti-rape mass movement in Delhi, though? For starters, it would not only mean stoutly resisting calls for capital punishment for or emasculation of the perpetrators of sexual violence but even steering clear of such juridical-legal demands as improving the abysmally low rate of conviction  in rape cases, making rape investigations less patriarchally prejudiced and strengthening our frail and ineffectual anti-rape laws. Such demands – which are currently emanating from the more politically progressive tendencies in the movement – presuppose that the current system is capable of delivering on them and that such delivery is contingent merely on some disembodied, spiritualised will of the system. In other words, the socio-political subject that articulates such demands is a subject of reformist politics interpellated by the juridical-legal ideology and the concomitant hope that the system is structurally capable of reform. It is, therefore, unwittingly or not, complicit in the perpetuation of the capitalist systemic structure that is the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the generation of cultures of gender oppression and sexual violence. Clearly, the stress of radical politics cannot, for that reason, lie on mobilising the street to berate and condemn the patriarchal mindset of the administrators either. Such an approach to the state of affairs dovetails nicely with the juridical-legal mode of reformist politics because such condemnation implies that it can shake a patriarchally callous and prejudiced administration from its anti-woman mindset by the sheer force of its intensity, and that therefore there is no structural constraint on the latter to transform itself for the better. Nothing, as we have seen, is farther from the truth. Worse, the discourse of such politics, thanks to its reformist modality, is inevitably populist that can (often has) dangerously veer to the right in the course of the mass movement. For, registers and idioms have a way of taking a life of their own, not least because they are inscribed within systemically operational structures.

Radical political intervention should learn to shun the discourse of crime and punishment to relearn its classical language of oppression and resistance. A language that disentangles the question of justice from that of law by freeing the former from the hypostatized prison of the latter. It should pose the very same systemic problems – low conviction rate, weak laws, culturally biased investigation and custom-based, communitarian subjugation of bodies and lives of women – with regard to gender oppression and sexual violence such as rape to expose the structural incapacity of the system to reform itself and remedy the situation. And through such exposure conscientise – orientate if you will – the mass upsurge triggered by perception of such ‘crimes’ to demand the impossible of the system: that its administration, police and, eventually, its private and public corporations, must cede their governmentalised control over and determination of every aspect of the lifeworld of the working masses to the popular subjectivity of the mass movement. A politics based on demanding the impossible is needed in this case not only because the system is structurally incapable of riding itself of gender-inequality and the patriarchal ideology co-constitutive of it but also because the juridical-legal approach legitimizes the politics of demands the system can possibly deliver on and, in the process, articulates a subject that reproduces the logic of duality and determination – which is constitutive of the capitalist law of value and phallocentric patriarchy, both embodied by the state.

Only when the current mass upsurge comes to be animated by this radically (im)possibility will it have begun actualising its revolutionary incipience by struggling to not merely occupy Delhi but seeking to take control of that occupied urban spatio-temporality by re-organising the social relations constitutive of it through the general assembly-driven mode of popular vigilance into a free associational or solidaristic sociality. The actualisation of such a radical subjectivity by the movement in question would enable it to see and envisage its struggle against the system in its dialectical indivisibility with the task of re-organising the given social and production relations. Something the class power constitutive of the system in question tends to render impossible, thus making the deployment of popular force by those who struggle indispensable for their task of generating counter-power through such re-organisation of the given socio-economic relations. That would, inter-alia, put an end to the false and grossly counter-productive binary between violent and peaceful protests that we have seen emanating from within the movement over the past few days. One that threatens to sap the movement of its unity and energy, what with the clear and present danger of the movement being hijacked from within – either by the reformists or the petty-bourgeois right – staring it in the face.

That this is no flight of fancy is more than evident in what the anti-rape mass movement itself has thrown up. Some radical students and youth organisations and individuals of Delhi have imagined into being a campaign, as part of the ongoing protest movement, to “reclaim the nights of the city”. The carnivalesque spontaneity of this reclamation campaign posits – of course, in a rather nascent form – the possibility of an insurrectionary sociality of people’s militias that wrest Delhi and its streets from all oppressors – the rapists, as much as the police and administration that is structurally complicit in such oppression – for popular vigilance and control. That possibility must, however, be recognised if the campaign is not to get caught in its carnivalesque spontaneity and degenerate into another festival of the anarcho-desiring petty-bourgeois youth. Only through such recognition can the politically conscious elements of the revolutionary left that is part of the campaign seriously strive towards building wider solidarity networks with the larger sections of the working people of the city, beyond the student-youth axis of the current campaign. Such wide-ranging solidarity networks are, needless to say, indispensable and integral to the process of occupation of a city and the simultaneous subordination of the socio-economic process constitutive of it to popular vigilance and control. Ironically, it is only by organising the carnivalesque spontaneity of the so-called reclamation campaign into a mode of popular control and vigilance of the sociality that are the nights, as also the days, of Delhi can this carnival preserve itself by obviating its day-after to become, in Ernst Bloch’s words, a “concrete utopia” of uninterrupted insurrection.

Instead, what we have so far  from the radicals in the anti-rape mass movement, the communist left groups included,  is, at best, a version of the juridical-legal approach tinged with the rhetoric of radical feminism. This approach has given their politics, even though they raise precisely the very same set of pertinently concrete questions they ought to have raised in order to radicalize the situation, a disagreeably unradical populist odour. It even risks reversing the good faith of such politics into bad. Such juridical-legal demands, regardless of the nobility of intent of the subject of such politics, can only serve to further securitise and thus governmentalise the political discourse and enable the extension and intensification of repressive state apparatuses and biopolitical instrumentalities such as the police force, and CCTV cameras and global positioning systems in public spaces respectively. And that is because the nobility of its intent does little to change the fact that such politics is wholly geared towards eliciting governmental – executive, legislative and judicial – responses from the system. Those are not merely the only responses the system can possibly come up with but ones it must come up with in order to extend its dominion and thereby reproduce itself.

In a more general sense, the communist left must remember that a revolutionary subjectivity is not one that evades certain immediate questions that history/capital throws at it. Rather, that every such question is a ground for leap against capital and its history, and that such a leap can concretely, as opposed to abstractly, come about only if it is able to understand and plot its interventions with regard to the concreteness of those immediate or determinate questions in terms of two mutually related characteristic features of our responses as subjects situated within and informed by capitalism and its history: one, commonsense is ideological and two, our struggle against any immediate domination must in the same determinate instance also articulate a struggle against the generalised hegemony within whose structure both immediate domination and the struggle against it are situated. A social subject of opposition that is not orientated by such knowledge runs the grave and virtually imminent risk of falling prey to the cunning of capital in precisely the same moment when it puts up its most spirited fight against it.

Centre for Struggling Women: Appeal and Demand Charter on growing sexual violence

The recent brutal gang-rape of a 23-year old woman in Delhi has left the entire nation shocked and outraged. The fact that the woman was picked up along with a male companion from a crowded bus stand and then raped in the moving bus has left the public stunned. The sheer brutality with which the rape was committed has fuelled large scale protest. This widespread agitation by women and general masses all over the country reflects not just shock, but is also an expression of tremendous anger against continuous and growing violence on women. After all, the recent case of gang-rape is not an anomaly but a latest manifestation of a deeply ingrained rot that corrodes our lives, now overtly and at other times covertly.

Unfortunately, while there has been massive public outrage and a long dormant anger has spilled onto the roads, there has been little effort to tackle this issue in a rational manner. Spontaneous anger and symbolic violence have given vent to our frustration, but also carry the danger of being co-opted by the vested interests of the ruling class and its decadent culture. Therefore, this is an opportune (and imperative) moment for us to envisage ways in which to prevent such incidents from recurring in the future, and to ensure that the agitation against violence on women is not misused by vigilante groups (and other dubious social forces). We have to keep our autonomy of action, as well as the independence of our will intact. Thus, we must consciously deliberate upon the direction and content of the ongoing struggle.

It is important to remember that we are not fighting against only one brutal incident of rape, but against an entrenched phenomenon. It is a fact that women in this country have and are facing sexual exploitation and oppression in diverse forms. Recently cases of rapes have been reported from Haryana, Gujarat, UP and other states but the media has made the current case a city specific issue. Clearly, not all incidents of rape have met with the same quantum of media coverage and public outcry (at least at the level of the capital and its corridors of power). This is not to say that there have been no movements or agitation against sexual violence on women. Indeed, the ongoing protests should be seen in continuation with and connected to other protests against similar violence on women. Hence, the current protests should not be de-linked from, or stand unaware of the ground prepared by preceding struggles like those of the stone pelting spirited masses in Kashmir, the naked protest by Manipuri women against the sexual offences committed by army personnel, the protest against the rape and murder of Dalit women in Khairlanji (Maharashtra), etc.

Of course, for many, the current protests in Delhi might be a belated response to all these equally spine-chilling incidents of rape and brutality. However, for many others, it is the (uncomfortable) proximity of the incident (the feeling that the rape took place in the capital itself and could happen to anyone) which might be propelling the response. Moreover, some are troubled by the fact that political opportunists have increasingly taken hold of the spontaneous mass reactions. From the unfortunately named Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (which has absolutely no relationship with the progressive ideology of Bhagat Singh, nor any connection with kranti), Shiv Sena activists, misogynist ‘babas’, funded ‘anti’-corruption crusaders, cadre from a Party of rapist-rioters to all kinds of agent provocateurs have high jacked the reactions of common masses. Some have rightly pointed to the hypocrisy of the media which has been ‘earnestly’ covering the current protests. Indeed, the very media which talks about reform measures to curb such incidents also projects women as objects of sexual fulfillment through advertisements, promotion of nudity through newspapers, etc.

In this light, we must realize that we need to assert our autonomy from such elements, and recognize who are the genuine and authentic fighters. We must also plan and prepare for the long run so that the next time, instead of them outnumbering us, we overpower them with, both, our ideological preparation and organizational resilience.

We need to realize that in no movement or mass reaction of such kind can we find a pure constituency, i.e. people who want to genuinely fight against women’s oppression because in the safety and freedom of all women they see the liberation of women they know.  Of course, the general male chauvinist response is to protect ones’ own womenfolk, but to do the same to others. This is precisely why at various venues of the ongoing protests, many male ‘agitators’ were seen harassing (ogling, touching inappropriately, etc.) women protestors. Even the recent rape of a factory woman worker by a rapist whose own daughter was raped earlier (19 December 2012 newspaper reports from Welcome area in northeast Delhi) points to the hypocrisy with which male chauvinism functions.

This then brings us to the question of the mentality and conditionswhich perpetuate inequality and violence. While we need to continue our struggle against all odds like Article 66A of the IT Act which prevents us from protesting on the internet, road blocks, tear gas, water cannons, metro blocks, Article 144, etc. which prevent our expressions of discontent from spilling onto the streets, and hence to become visiblethe need of the hour is to make a level headed analysis of the concrete situation and to put forward a set of concrete demands that are rational and desirable. Such an approach also demands that we look beyond the immediate event which is but a mere symptom of several grave problems, and focus our eyes on the disease itself—a disease that will outlive the current event and short-term remedial measures tabled in the name of ‘providing justice’. It is with this objective of fighting the actual malaise and to uproot it as a whole that we are putting forward this set of concrete demands, though without forgetting the old wisdom “without changing everything, we do not change anything”.

Without a doubt, our most formidable weapon against sexual violence is a sustained mass movement. Of course, a list of demands, as the one below, will only see the light of day until women across the country organize themselves under women organizations, and launch a multi-pronged and consistent movement on the issue of women’s exploitation and oppression. We, thus, appeal to all women and men to become part of progressive and democratic organisations so that even after these protests ebb we don’t just go back to leading our existing lives, but continue to aspire and struggle for a more just and equitable society for all. It is in this light, that our demands below are not just demands from the state but also stand for our claims on society.


  1. Provide safe and adequate public means of transport. In Delhi itself there is a shortage of more than 5000 buses. This creates overcrowding and scope for sexual harassment of women commuters.
  2. All public means of transport (buses and autos) should be monitored. Every vehicle must be connected with a Global Positioning System (GPS) device so that its movement is monitored by the Traffic Police.
  3. All employees working in DTC, Cluster buses, BEST, city and state transport buses, auto rickshaws, Grameen Sewa must wear the public service vehicle (PSV) badge.
  4. In future recruitment of BUS conductors, priority should be given to women.
  5. No unregistered tourist/travel agencies must be allowed to ply their private vehicles. Further, there should be proper monitoring of personnel working in these private tourist agencies.
  6. Banning of unsafe private transport.
  7. Increase frequency of Delhi Metro trains so that overcrowding and scope for sexual harassment can be checked. Metro trains should ply throughout the night.
  8. Severe punishment for violation of traffic rules, especially tinted glasses, unclear/small-lettered number plates, use of loud music, and loud honking aimed at harassing women commuters.
  9. Vehicles plying at night should be properly scanned.
  10. Increase the number of ladies’ special buses, including their night services.
  11. No auto or taxis should be allowed to refuse passengers. License fees and other charges levied on these modes of transportation must be kept at minimum so as to keep the fare low. Majority of autos and taxis are owned by a handful of cartels-mafias. Such cartels must be busted, and instead, recognition must be given to auto workers’ own unions.
  12. Special women protection cells should be formed in Railways. All compartments in trains should have emergency alarm and other provisions for security of women commuters.
  13. Provision of separate school buses for government school students so that there is no overcrowding on certain routes.
  14. Proper and adequate street lighting.
  15. Women employees working in night and early morning shifts should be provided company transport facility.
  16. Increase the number of affordable working-women’s hostels to ensure safe accommodation for single working women.
  17. All out-station girl students studying in colleges must be provided cheap and safe accommodation by their respective institutions so as to hinder harassment by private landlords.
  18. There should be a clear distinction in the degree of punishment between rape and rape-brutality-murder; the latter should be punished more severely than the former. The quantum of punishment between the two types of rapes should be clearly separated. Death penalty is not a rational option because it would create the danger of every rapist considering murdering the victim so as to efface evidence and escape death penalty. There should be a legislation which recognizes the graded nature of sexual assault/violence based upon the concepts of hurt, harm, injury, humiliation, and degradation. The logic of awarding death penalty to a rapist is based on the male chauvinist belief that rape is a fate worse than death. In this context, the most important deterrent is the certainty of punishment, rather than the severity of its form.
  19. Separate fast track courts for cases of violence on women should be constituted. 25,000 more courts are required in addition to the existing 16,000. All pending cases of rape (All India-100,000, Delhi 1000) should be solved by specially constituted courts within 100 days.
  20. Medical examination of rape victims should be conducted by lady doctors wherever possible and no intrusive or archaic methods for medical examination should be conducted against the will of the rape victim.
  21. All districts in the country must be equipped with facilities for forensic test.
  22. All rape victims must be provided the needful psychological counseling.
  23. All requisite steps should be taken for the rehabilitation of the victims including adequate employment opportunities.
  24. The onus of proving oneself not-guilty should lie on the accused.
  25. Cross-examination of rape victims must not be allowed to become a cause for harassment.
  26. All those persons whose charge sheets have been filed for rape cases by the Election Commission must be barred from contesting elections for public bodies.
  27. Fill up all vacancies in various subordinate and higher courts. A law should be passed ensuring trial by an elected jury in all courts
  28. Proper protection must be provided for victims and witnesses in the cases of sexual offences.
  29. Rape-trials must be held in-camera and should be presided over by women judges.
  30. Women helpline and other emergency services should be provided round the clock and should be well advertised.
  31. Creation of a special vigilance team to monitor PCR vans.
  32. CCTV cameras should be set in all police stations, and swift action must be taken against errant police personnel. This is in the light of cases like Soni Sori who was tortured and raped in police custody. Shockingly, she is still languishing in a prison in Chhattisgarh.
  33. Increase the proportion of women in the police force. Currently there are less than 6.5 per cent women in the Delhi Police.
  34. Introduce compulsory courses on gender sensitivity in the training module of the Police Force instead of a few token workshops for a handful of Police Officers. Around 80,000 human rights violation complaints are lodged every year against the Police force of which a large number pertain to sexual offence against women.
  35. No male Police personnel should be designated to deal with victims of sexual offences, i.e. for enquiry and for escorting the victims to the court for trial. Instead, lady Police personnel in plain clothes should be deployed for the purpose.
  36. There should be proper distribution of Police between common masses and VIPs. A whopping 50,059 are guarding VIPs, which is 20,000 more than the sanctioned number. These Police personnel should be employed to serve the common masses and not for the security of VIPs and for curbing democratic movements of the masses.
  37. The role and functioning of National Commission for Women (NCW) should be audited annually and made public. There has been a tendency among the ruling Parties to distribute posts in this office as favors to its henchmen! This practice should be discontinued and free and fare elections should happen for all the posts so that individuals with credibility and standing in the women’s movement may be able to make their way to this important office.
  38. Gender sensitization to be included in school and higher education curriculum.
  39. Religious texts and practices/rituals which degrade women and create misogynist culture should be debated, boycotted and banned.
  40. Ban on the sale of liquor after 8pm.
  41. Unauthorized selling of liquor must be stopped and the culprits responsible for the same should be severely punished. Concerned authorities should be reprimanded for their negligence.
  42. Severe punishment for consumption of liquor at public places.
  43. Movement of inebriated groups of men late at night must be monitored and they should be fined/detained if they are perceived to be a threat to the safety of women. Drunken brawls, hooliganism, rowdyism by individuals and particularly groups of men are a major hazard for women travelling late at night. Adequate laws must be passed and efficiently implemented so as to ensure that women may be able to commute safely and free from fears.
  44. Serving of liquor in bars and pubs till late must be banned.
  45. Prompt registration of FIRs must be ensured. If the same is not accepted a written explanation must be provided by the concerned Police Station. Refusal to lodge FIRs filed by Dalits, minorities and tribals should be punished. As per the National Crime Records Bureau Report of 2011, out of the total 14618802 complaints of crime received by Delhi Police only 59249, i.e., less than 0.5 per cent, were registered as FIRs. This shows the general apathy of the Delhi Police towards all crimes in Delhi. As per Delhi Police Annual Report of 2010, only 11.88 per cent of all complaints received by the Crimes Against Women (CAW) Cells in Delhi were converted into FIRs. This criminal apathy is responsible for the confidence enjoyed by criminals in the state. Needless to say here that if the situation is so dismal in Delhi then it must be much worse in the rest of the country.
  46. All necessary steps should be taken to ensure that speedy and efficient investigation is done in rape cases.Currently, a larger proportion of those charged with rape and other crimes against women go scot free. The conviction rate in crimes against women has fallen in the country from a meager 27.8% in 2010 to 26.9% in 2011. As per studies conducted in Delhi, rape convicts imprisoned at the Tihar Jail of Delhi have committed an average of four rapes before conviction! This betrays the failure of the entire criminal-justice system.
  47. Conduct periodic audit on women’s safety in the city. Local women’s organizations and women’s hostel unions must be involved in this process.
  48. Police should be made accountable to women in all urban and rural localities and for this purpose regular Police-woman interactions must be conducted.
  49. Women under no circumstances should be detained at Police Stations during night time. Every Police Station must have women personnel.
  50. A special ‘crime against women’ cell should be constituted within the army to prevent sexual harassment of lady army personnel, to check misogynist culture and to prevent sexual offences against civilian women by army personnel.
  51. Scrap Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Public Safety Act which are being used by the army and Police, respectively, to commit atrocities upon women. Even some of the particularly atrocious cases like Kunan-Pushpor incident (February, 23 1991) in which least 53 women were raped in a single night by the soldiers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles; abduction, gang rape and murder of Neelofar Jaan and Aasiya Jaan of Shopian (Kashmir) on May 2009 by CRPF personnel; and torture, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by 17th Assam Rifles in Manipur 2004 are yet to be creditably dealt with as a result of the protection provided to the armed forces through the aforementioned Acts.
  52. The C. Upendra Commission Enquiry (2004) Report regarding the Manorama rape case should be made public.
  53. An independent enquiry commission should be constituted to look into the matter of crimes on women committed by army/paramilitary force/police personnel.
  54. All kinds of custodial (prison, police stations, convent, temples, mental asylums, NGOs and hospitals) rapes must be considered as aggravated sexual offences warranting more severe penalty.
  55. Constitute a ‘Children’s Safety Task Force’ and ensure its periodic inspection-visits of schools, orphanages, etc.
  56. All play schools should be properly regulated and monitored.
  57. Selling of dangerous substances like acid, which are used to commit violence on women, should be banned immediately.
  58. Agencies which provide domestic workers (maid servants) should be banned and the agencies should be taken over by the employment exchange department run by the local government.
  59. Depiction of women as sex-objects in advertisements, newspapers, magazines and all other forms of media should be banned and punished.
  60. Complete ban on pornography and on the screening of movies in theaters and songs which portray women in a misogynist manner.
  61. Ban on fashion shows, beauty contests which objectify women’s bodies as sex objects.
  62. Festivals related hooliganism should be severely punished and preventive measures like banning of balloon-selling before Holi should be strictly implemented.
  63. Ensure proper safety of women at all workplaces. Constitute ‘Crime Against Women’ cells in Police Stations of industrial areas, and constitute anti-sexual harassment committees within factories which have trade union representation within them.
  64. Forcing women employees to wear skimpy clothes at airports, pubs, auto expo, restaurant chains, etc. must be banned. Any change of uniform should be done only through consultation and approval of the workers’ union, or representative body of the employees in cases where no union exists.
  65. Make marital rape a punishable offence.
  66. Paid-rapes (prostitution) should be abolished along with proper rehabilitation of victims of prostitution. Complaints of sexual violence perpetrated on prostitutes should be immediately filed.
  67. Trafficking of women and children must be prohibited in all forms and severely punished.
  68. Since in many cases women and children are sexually exploited within the four walls of their home by people known to them, the government should develop an alternative system of accommodation, financial assistance and job opportunities for those women who feel inclined to leave their homes and live independently. Special attention should be paid to the difficulties and needs of disabled women.
  69. All women should be provided job opportunities by the government so that they become independent from their male family members and in situations of conflict may be able to lead their lives independently.
  70. Khap Panchayats, casteist-communal organizations and other kinds of vigilante groups responsible for spreading and normalizing misogyny must be banned.
  71. Severe punishment for the perpetrators of honour-killings, including those who abet this brutal crime.

Released By: MAYA JOHN on behalf of Centre for Struggling Women (CSW)-Sangharshil Mahila Kendra



Mazdoor Ekta Kendra (MEK), Blind Workers Union (BWU), Anand Parbat Industrial Area Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti, Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS)-Delhi, Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS)-Haryana, Nirman Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti (NMSS), Ghar Bachao Morcha-Baljeet Nagar, Mahila Panchayat-Punjabi Basti, ITI Students Solidarity 

Rape Culture and Capitalism: What is living and what is dead

Saswat Pattanayak

I understand many of us, Indians, are ashamed these days. And it is true that protests and placards do not educate the rapists. And that the students came out on the streets only because it is New Delhi. But we should not miss an important aspect of it all – most protesters clearly defying governmental bans are demonstrating an important tactic in the struggle for women’s rights anywhere in the world. This is a strategy that should not be discouraged, rather used everywhere – be it in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Manipur.

Or for that matter, in London, New York and Stockholm. Because last checked, India is as unsafe a country for women as are the United States, United Kingdom and Sweden. Statistically speaking, there are more rapes taking place per hour in the US than in India. Whereas in India the number of rape cases amount to over 20,000 a year, the number well exceeds 90,000 in the United States with third of the population. The unreported cases of rape and ridiculously low conviction rates are also common and comparable across the modern capitalist nations.

It is necessary to fight for women’s rights, but why should the drive stop at the borders? Those of us who refuse to adequately acknowledge the protest movement in Delhi by citing the relative silence in Gujarat and North-East also commit similar fallacies when we fail to protest against abuse of women elsewhere in the world. Why should a “safe Delhi” narrative be replaced only with an equally jingoistic, “safe India”? Protesting against social injustice anywhere should be encouraged, not spurned. No matter the intensity, no matter the limited purpose, no matter the viability. True, that the goals go astray when people demand for death penalty instead of conviction, and true, that some reactionary elements at times also end up hijacking the movements, but it is also true that inaction, silence and skepticism are not going to help the principled oppositions to the status quo, that takes place in any shape, way or form.

Violences on women are rising everywhere, in every corner of the globe. But that is only because more cases are being reported today than it used to be the case earlier. The journey from feudalism to capitalism in the case of India is a journey of advancement, of progression. More women today than ever before are aware of what comprises sexual harassment. More women understand their reproductive rights today than they could in the “good old days”, return to which some Indians are craving for by citing the modern “vulgarization of Indian culture” as the prime factor behind growing rape statistics.

Rape culture is a necessary culmination of capitalism, only because it is acknowledged as thus. In the days of slavery and feudalism, women were not even counted as human beings with needs and demands. Certainly there was no hue and cry about “rape” and in the days of the past, the ruling classes comprised kings and landlords – for whom total ownership of women was not something to be ashamed of, but something to take pride in. “Conquest” of women used to be the prevalent culture and rape was never treated as an exception or aberration. Young girls used to be “gifted” to the royals before they could be married off during their childhood days. In many a cultural settings of the past, the “virgins” were first offered to the rulers. It is no wonder that the sanctity around virginity is a result of feudal structure and its remnants today aid the common men in craving for virgin women.

The Good Old Days Fallacies

Any romanticization of the brutal days of the past must end immediately. Neither India nor any other country in the world can claim to have provided for a safe society for women during their feudal stages of developments (barring probably the tribal and other matriarchal phases, which anyway suffered from other malaises). The reality today may not be any better when other factors are taken into consideration, and I shall dwell on that shortly, but uncritical assessment of the days of yore are grossly regressive and we cannot afford to model a future society after such heinous past.

When serfdom gives in to the rise of modernity and capitalism, there are bound to be struggles, but recognition and knowledge of such struggles empower women and other oppressed sections in unprecedented manners. A growing challenge to narrow nationalism helps borrow and reproduce cultural imports, including some progressive ones – and this becomes a step in the right direction for the traditionally oppressed. Thanks to the growing cosmopolitanism, more Dalits and more women are finding for themselves avenues for education and empowerment today. These are by no means small achievements. Indeed, these are the only justifiable achievements a country like India can boast of in its long “glorious” history.

With advent of capitalism and industrialization, more women find themselves at the workplace, and such a shift is bound to challenge the male hegemony. Through empowered outlooks, more women begin to challenge patriarchy, and that too disturbs the traditional males. Through greater involvement in decision-making processes, more women begin to exercise their rights to bear a child – or to opt for abortion, to marry – or not to marry, and finally they begin to articulate as sexual beings, and not just as sexual objects. Of late, India has witnessed a LGBTQ “pride” movement that could not have surfaced without the present consciousness. Through “Slutwalk”, another movement of solidarity among feminists is shaping up globally and Indian women have joined the cause, despite some obvious flaws in conceptualization and appropriation of the word “slut”. Defying the moral police that run ruckus all over the country during “Valentine’s Day”, women in India are now openly flaunting their love interests in the public. Suffice it to say that such liberated outlooks have started to cause a crisis that is about to shatter the status quo and challenge the norms of capitalism.

Capitalism replaces feudal society, but the wealth still remains concentrated along the lines of traditional privileges. Although education and empowerment are ushered in through capitalism, they are properly utilized only by the families of the former landowners. Slaves get emancipated, but they have no way to compete as equals. Capitalism establishes the “old boys networks”, thrives on favoritism and develops a meritocracy whose rules are defined by the traditionally privileged which go a long way in sustaining the class society. Capitalism firmly enforces the class divide and this in turn plays right into the hands of the traditionally oppressive gender, the male.

Be they Indian men or North American men or European men or Australian men or Arab men or Hindu men or Muslim men or Christian men or Buddhist men – the men typically and automatically advance faster than the women under capitalism. Male advancement invariably accompanies brutal competitiveness that characterizes such individualistic societies. At the same time, they are constantly challenged by more women and children – a development for which men, owing to their historical and superconscious makeups, remain clearly unprepared for. Gender violence is akin to class war and racial struggles in the sense that the historically privileged social location retaliates against those it had oppressed whenever it faces a challenge to its dominance.

It will be a wishful thinking to suggest that we go back to the “golden era” of Indian culture. Wishful only because that is clearly not going to happen. Even the societies where feudalism still remains intact will have to advance to capitalism sooner than later. And with contradictions of capitalism – which are of a very different nature than the struggles within feudalism – are going to pave way to even more advanced forms of struggles – the class war. But we have not reached a stage where majority of people are class-conscious and we must go through this essential period of struggle to duly recognize variety of social locations such as caste, race, gender, ability among others, and allegiances such as nationality and religion – the factors that hinder critical social justice education from empowering everyone.

The cultural contradictions

It is necessary to understand that the protests against rape in Delhi have two basic components – one that cries out for death penalty or stricter punishment, and another that demands equality of status for women. While the former is an endorsement of feudalism and a reinforced belief in the status quo, the latter is an unqualified call for socialism. Delhi Police long infamous for being sexist has hired a renowned Bollywood actor-director Farhan Akhtar to entice men into becoming more “man enough” to join them in protecting Indian women. This is not just a crude display of macho tendencies that make the world an unsafe place to begin with, what is even worse is such artistic collaboration lends credence to a law and order system that is inherently oppressive – Indian police and military system systematically brutalizes countless poor through rape, murder and torture as tools to suppress any dissenting voices. No wonder then, despite the advertisements claiming that Delhi Police is interested in protecting women, once the people gather to register their protest on the streets, the state power unleashes its menace through violent suppressions.

But it would be wrong to exclusively focus on Delhi Police. Same calls for feudalistic past are being made by leading women leaders of India as well. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal has commented on the increasing number of rape cases thus, “The way media is cooking up rape stories, it would be difficult to believe a genuine rape case.” Sushma Swaraj, the leader of opposition in India has dehumanized rape survivors as “living corpses”. Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi has advised women “not to be adventurous”. In each of such assertion lies the firm refusal on part of ruling class women, along with their men, to break away from India’s feudal past.

Just as the struggle continues in modern India to destroy the last remnants of feudalism, so also the struggle must continue to recognize the early symptoms of Indian capitalism. As the traditionally privileged males – the landowning, slaveowning and women-owning –  fail to understand the historical advancements made by women today in almost all spheres of society, their resistance against this upheaval is going to emerge all the more. Traditional men are puzzled over the emerging idea that women no longer need to be bound by traditional family roles, and that such a shift also extends to women’s prerogatives to choose sexual partners whether or not they are married. A major resentment against the sexual freedom for women represents itself through variety of censorships, sexist laws and moral dictates on clothing patterns. Even as rapes continue to be condemned by the society which is ready to shun feudalism, various factors and societal excuses leading to rapes are being deliberated upon by the same society that is struggling with capitalistic values.

A substantial section of the men who oppose rape also are quick to offer the dress codes and time limits for women as well as raising objections against “clubbing”, “smoking”, “extra-marital affairs”, and a general sense of “cultural degeneration” that apparently make women “easy prey”. At the same time, they refuse to acknowledge that men have continued to indulge in every such “vices” without hindrances for centuries. Patriarchy is just not open to letting women join the scene at equal footing, because that would end the system as we know it. And since capitalism provides for the “opportunities” for women to either reject – or, conversely, accept – the terms of objectification, disgruntled men then hold “cultural corruption” accountable as the convenient culprit.

Not only have upper caste Hindus started quoting Manusmriti to reduce women into symbols of “worships”, even the Bahujan Samaj Party which represents Dalit mainstream interests has found itself embarrassed over calls for feudalism as a method to “protect” women. Rajpal Saini, a BSP member of Parliament recently was quoted saying, “There is no need to give phones to women and children. It distracts them and is useless. My mother, wife and sister never had mobile phones. They survived without one.” BSP supremo Mayawati likewise has joined the right-wing ideologues in calling for “stricter laws” as a deterrent to rape. “It is not enough to just arrest them (the rapists), but action should be so strict that no one should dare to act in such a manner.”

What is to be done?

The reality is, conviction rates in cases of rape are abysmally low. Not just in India, but around the world as well. In the United States, there are an estimated 400,000 “rape kits” (just in case, that’s the situation for 400,000 women) currently backlogged. And by the time the kits are tested the statute of limitations expires and the rapists no longer get charged. Only 24 percent of rapists are arrested in America. The statistic is not any more encouraging in the United Kingdom either. The British government acknowledges that as many as 95% of rapes are never reported to the police, and the country has roughly 6.5% conviction rate.

Precisely because of the nature of patriarchy and the way it engulfs feudal/religious societies as well as capitalistic/liberal societies, the need of the hour is to recognize the war against women as a systemic feature of the world, and to collaborate with every progressive force looking to replace such a status quo. Harking back to the past is not the solution. Looking forward to dismantle the forces of feudalism/capitalism is the approach we must adopt. Let there be no surprise or disappointment in the increasing number of rape cases being registered. More the number of women report assaults, more certain are we to become that the political economic system within which we seek solution is an inherently evil – and fragile – one. Arundhati Roy recently spoke about the fact that the rich people used to oppress women exercising a certain amount of discretion in the past, while thanks to the cultural shifts and movie culture today, their disdain towards women is becoming more apparent. While that is true, we also need to acknowledge this as an evolution for the better. The more racist and sexist people expose their real colors, the greater will the need be felt to overthrow the existing system. Just as in the similar vein, the greatest challenge to racism are not the avowedly racists, but those that deny their race privileges.

What is happening in India is truly remarkable. The collective disdain towards the system may not last forever, since right-wing moralists are going to take it over with sheer power of wealth and media distractions, just as the Occupy movement in America got co-opted by the liberal Democrats for their political aspirations. And as such, the dissenters do not always represent the best interests of the most oppressed in such outbursts, where Dalits, blacks, and the poor often do not find themselves represented. But these outbursts, howsoever temporary, do provide for a recipe for non-cooperation and for civil disobedience. As Howard Zinn reminds us, gradual reforms take place not because of good laws suddenly finding their way in, but because of dissenting people compelling the bad laws out of the system through mass movements. The truth is dissenting voices against the ruling classes world over are increasing phenomenally with more people ably aided by critical education and alternative media. Majority of the world is still too poor, and underprivileged to exchange a wage-earning day in favor of a placard-holding session. And that is precisely why oftentimes in history, progressive sections of the society across classes form larger alliances and go against the grains. And towards that extent there is a need for all of us to collaborate with resistance movements that aim to challenge the ruling order no matter if the causes immediately impact us or not, or if the causes are too narrowly framed by taking on specific agendas. Warmongering against Iran must be opposed just as we should protest massacre of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, and demand for rescue of Palestine from the reactionary Zionists. Role of the revolutionary is to recognize that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.

In Indian context, some of us are protesting against communalism in Gujarat, some of us are raising voices against militarism in Manipur, some engaged in defending lands in Orissa, some protesting against the rape in Delhi. Each of these movements has the potential to be hijacked, infiltrated, and demolished. And yet, each also has the potential to collaborate with fellow resisters all across the globe, and to encompass the ethos of revolutions that will annihilate feudalism, smash down patriarchy, and shatter every iota of capitalism that is inherently exploitative. Eventually, what capitalism produces are its own “grave-diggers”. And its fall and the victory of the revolutionaries are equally inevitable. And there is never a better time than now, to emerge united with the working women and men, the world over – regardless of the prevailing challenges and, because of them.

Rapists roam free while victims and activists are jailed

ML Update, CPI-ML (Liberation)

Peasants, agricultural workers and women of Mansa district, Punjab observed New Year’s day this year with a protest gathering at the police headquarters in Mansa. Braving a severe cold wave, thousands of people gathered to protest a shocking situation where the rapists of a dalit minor girl roam free, while the woman activist who prevented the cover up of the rape case is in jail on false charges of ‘attempt to murder.’

In mid-December, a 17½ year old girl from a poor Dalit family was lured by a havildar in Mansa to his house on the promise of employment, and subjected to gang rape by him along with three others including a local advocate, a trader, and a financier. When neighbours heard her cries and called the police, however, the police deliberately suppressed the rape case and instead booked both the victim and her rapists on charges of ‘loitering.’ Cases of rape and SC/ST atrocity were registered only two days later, after intervention by CPI(ML) and AIPWA activists. However, three weeks after the incident, the accused (apart from the havildar) were yet to be arrested, and, being influential locally, were bringing to bear all sorts of pressures and threats on the victim. Two other of the rape accused were arrested only on 4 January, following the protest rally at Mansa and the intervention of the central team of AIKM and AIPWA leaders, while the financier accused of rape is still at large. Worse still, the very same activists including AIPWA National Council member Jasbir Kaur Nat and National President of the All India Kisan Mahasabha Ruldu Singh, who helped book the rape case are now behind bars along with several other peasant leaders, on a patently false charge of ‘attempt to murder.’ The pretext for this was the fact that they raised slogans in Court against the main accused in the murder of a popular peasant leader, leading to a minor skirmish when police assaulted them.

In the same area of Punjab some years ago, the dalit activist and singer Bant Singh had his limbs chopped off for supporting his daughter to pursue a rape case. The recent instance of rape of a dalit girl and victimisation of activists who pursued justice highlights the continuing strength of feudal survivals in Punjab. It also underlines the increasingly repressive response of the Akali Government in Punjab where every mass movement – of agricultural workers for homestead land, of peasants against debt – is me with mass arrests of leaders, activists and masses. What is happening in Punjab is also not very different from what is being seen in the rest of India – where scamsters, rioters and rapists roam free while activists like Binayak Sen are jailed.

Punjab is no exception. Just recently, in BSP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, a 17-year-old OBC girl who accused the BSP MLA Purushottam Narain Dwivedi of rape is in jail on charges of ‘theft.’ The incident exposes the reality behind Chief Minister Mayawati’s claims of social justice.

Meanwhile in Bihar, the BJP MLA from Purnea was stabbed to death by a woman who had filed charges alleging rape by the MLA and his associates some months ago. Police had taken no action on her complaint, and she had been pressured into withdrawing charges later. It is apparent that the woman was driven to take the desperate step because the chances of securing justice against a ruling party legislator were bleak. It is shocking that the BJP MLA’s supporters lynched the woman, critically injuring her, and that BJP leaders including the Deputy CM of the state have aggressively slandered the woman’s character while defending their MLA as a man of impeccable morals!

The recent instances in Punjab, UP and Bihar are a reminder of the sorry state of affairs in India when it comes to justice in cases of violence against women in general and women from oppressed communities in particular. According to NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) figures, the conviction rate in rape and molestation cases in India is a mere 27 per cent – about one in four cases. Likewise, the conviction rate for cases of atrocities against SCs and STs is abysmally low – less than 30 per cent against the average of 42 per cent for all cognisable offences under IPC.

The national capital itself is witness to horrifying cases of rape, gang rape and other forms of violence on women. According to official figures, a rape takes place every day in Delhi, and 400 rape cases were registered in Delhi in 2010. The prevalent police attitude to such crimes can be gauged by the comment of celebrated police officer K P S Gill after the Dhaula Kuan rape case some years ago: Gill blamed women’s ‘provocative’ clothes for the rise in rape crimes in Delhi! The low conviction rates, trials that drag on for years, and insensitive police investigators who blame women themselves for such crimes, all empower rapists and molesters with a sense of impunity, the more so if the woman are from marginalised and oppressed communities, such as dalit and tribal women, or women from the North Eastern states.

The CBI’s closure report in the case of murder of a teenage girl Arushi Talwar is yet another reminder of the apathy that marks investigations in cases of violence against women. The CBI had been called in after the Noida police botched up the investigation, but the CBI pursuit of the case also relied more on ‘confessions’ obtained from domestic servants through third-degree methods like narco tests than any professional investigative practices, and now the CBI has attempted to close the case file itself. If justice is so elusive for urban girls from reasonable well-off families like Arushi and Ruchika, whose cases got great media attention, one can only imagine what happens to cases of women from socially and economically weaker backgrounds. And if this is the state of affairs in rape cases where politically powerful people are not implicated, what of the cases where police and army forces are implicated in rape and violence against women? The young Manipuri woman Thangjam Manorama, raped and murdered by Indian army personnel in 2004 is yet to get justice. The rape and murder of two Kashmiri women — Asiya and Nilofar — in Shopian, Kashmir, last year had been subjected to a spectacular cover-up by the CBI, with the latter claiming that the two women ‘drowned’ in a stream six inches deep. In Chhattisgarh where Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life on no evidence, adivasi women who filed charges of gang rape against top Salwa Judum personnel live in terror, because their rapists are free while the women themselves along with their kith and kin are threatened that they will be branded as ‘Maoists’ and arrested or killed in fake encounters.

Justice in violent crimes against women is non-negotiable. We must demand speedy passing of the Sexual Assault Bill, as well as fast-track courts to ensure speedy justice in such cases. Above all, we must build more and wider struggles to challenge the impunity and apathy that has become the hallmark of cases of rape and violence against women.

Hussain From the Front Stall

Pallavi Paul

The last late night show. A forgotten, mossy single screen theatre. The burgers are too oily here and the butter stained pop corn never warm. A balding carpet which smells of people, wood, spit, chips, sugar, plastic, hands, cum. The man sitting behind me snores a musical snore, with high and low notes in place. I try to turn around and glare, but only a sleepy shiny T-shirt glares back in the darkness. In the corners some heads move involuntarily to a rhythm which bodies of lovers instinctively recognize, from other films seen in other rooms filled with blue, gauzy light.

Everyone else though is watching with rapt attention, the terribly overplayed drama of a good-hearted practising Muslim in search of a man who cannot only solve all his problems but also those of the rest of the world – the one, the only president of the United States of America! Killer story, I would say, for the ‘sensitive types’, ‘liberal’ upwardly mobile wonder lives of the PVRs, but for the last show, single screen, front-row scum? Really?

As my stomach growls, something that my best friend once said suddenly hits me, “I can’t believe how everyone just sits in a dark room and watches something in complete silence!” I begin thinking that all these people could have been anywhere, doing anything – eating dinner (it’s past eleven and I am craving food), sleeping (barely at daybreak overcrowded, rickety buses take workers to far away factories),or just simply talking! But instead they are here. Getting sucked deeper and deeper into this dream, where prices start at Rs 30 onwards.

These dreams, I realize in a flash of clarity, make the poorest sit closest to them, appearing to even larger than the promised 70mm, dreams that try to overpower and anaesthetize imaginations lest they start inventing dreams of their own, dreams in which presidents don’t matter and disability doesn’t have to be extraordinary. The rich on the other hand get to sit at a considerable distance. Distance that gives them ‘perspective’, ’judgment’, ‘taste’ and ‘understanding’. All this so they can tell ‘serious’ from ‘mass’, ‘cinema’ from ‘entertainment’.

The fun obviously is that this no fun, top down, set in stone blue print is violated left, right and centre. Those meant to be overpowered and intimidated stand up and hoot, whistle and howl, critique and love, embrace and reject, laugh and cry, do everything that disrupts the judgment of those watching from above.

These lines between front stalls and balconies which can tell the good from the bad, the desirable from the acceptable, are lines that can be used to understand most discourse about art in public spaces. Who can talk and who can’t, who can understand and who just can’t, who can attack and who must defend? In this respect the most interesting and contemporary is the debate around M.F. Hussain. Widely discussed, defended and attacked his artistic work has become one of the axes on which the tolerance of the Indian state can be graded. As Monica Juneja writes in “Reclaiming the Public Sphere: Hussain’s portrayals of Saraswati and Draupadi”:

“…the arguments and positions advanced in this debate have tended to posit a series of oppositions- between the freedom of an artist and the ‘sensibilities’ of a community, between virtue and obscenity, between an elite of the intellectuals and the ‘common man’, between a harmonious composite definition of ‘Indianess’ and a homogenizing exclusivist definition that represses all strains of cultural plurality…”

The opening of Juneja’s paper is an excellent summing up of the threads around which the ‘Hussain controversy’ has been debated since the first Right Wing tirade against him by Vichaar Mimansa which carried a piece by Om Nagpal titled ‘Ye Kasai ya Chitrakar?’(Is he an artist or a Butcher?). The title not only mobilized deeply communal stereotypes about Hussain’s religion but also played up the irreconcilable binary between the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘savage’. It derided nudity in Hussain’s paintings calling his depictions of Saraswati vulgar, demeaning and deeply offensive to ‘Hindu sensibilities’. What has followed since is violence, vandalism, name-calling, attacks on places that exhibit his work, even announcement of exorbitant premiums for anyone who came back with his severed head. After having lived in exile for more than a decade, he has finally accepted Qatari citizenship.

About his own work Hussain says,

“…I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva’s thigh, with his hand on her breast — the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to?“

At another point he says,

“…We are all part of a large family and when a child breaks something at home, you don’t throw him out, you try and explain things to him. Yeh aapas ka mamla hai (This is a family matter). Those opposed to my art just do not understand it. Or have never seen it.”

Those who support Hussain and his art talk of him as only a part of a larger tradition of art which uses nudity and Hindu mythology as artistic tropes. Right wing attacks on him are condemned as representing an exclusivist vision of who can or cannot be mainstreamed as a citizen, more so, be in playful engagement with the collapsible categories of religion and nationalism. His exile from India and the state’s inability to protect him in any way has been mourned as the loss of an artist whose aesthetics and politics were not meant to offend anyone; they were in fact the celebration of the creative ‘tradition’, ’secularism’ and the ‘spirit of tolerance’ of India as it were.

These are the broad markers that inform the debate. Before I begin to look at them more closely, I must admit that within it my position is that of the typical front-staller, a young student with no understanding of modern art, no idea about tones, colours, textures or the ‘essential’ markers of ‘great art’; if a comment on aesthetic merit were the reason for this intervention then this should have been my last sentence. Further, what does not help is that the artist at hand is much bigger than many 70mms put together. Internationally celebrated, widely admired and by now forever canonized.

In such sharply polarized contexts where one’s loyalties are quickly called to test, I cannot help but think how both sides of the debate apply over and over again a barely sixty year old idea of the Indian nation-state, its triumphs and failures to a consciousness which precedes it by nearly three decades. Born in 1915, Hussain must have been 32 years old at the time of the creation of the ‘Indian’ state, the cruelest reversal, for many, of the dreams of the nationalist movement. Moreover the idea of the departure from secularism as an ‘aberration’ in an otherwise ‘tolerant’ history is in itself naïve in a context where a carnival of blood spurting and mass exodus was described by Nehru as an “awakening” to “light” and “freedom”.

There must therefore be another question, another story I must look for in Hussain. This one seems over explicated, yet inadequate.

I find at the centre of the attacks on Hussain that which dictates the limits of how much a woman can be seen in public places, in representations or in reality. Where the body is the training ground of the spirit, a spirit which in turn learns to never ask any questions of its body. Sacrilege befalls when the body in question is sacred, that which ought to have all markers of the human form but none whatsoever of human desire. So when the goddess becomes just like any other bare-breasted poster girl deciding to play coy, hundreds and thousands of men rise to the challenge of playing the protective patriarch and set her right. Scholars have argued how Hussain’s depictions have come under attack as they make upper caste Hindu patriarchy uneasy. This must indeed be true of a religious and social ethos that would rather burn and kill women at their husbands’ death pyres than run the risk of having them desert ‘virtue’. But a question that glides between the oils on a coarse, white starched canvas is that whether Hindu upper caste patriarchy the only sort of patriarchy there is? Further, is the desire to cover up women and keep them in the confines of a house, the only way in which it functions?

John Berger in his delightful book Ways of Seeing writes about female nudes

“…Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own…”.

These words come back to me again and again as I see Hussain’s most attacked and by extension also the most defended work.

His depiction of Bharat Mata as a naked woman, her knees bent and hands stretched to one side to create the semblance of the map of India. From her hair rise the Himalayas, in the curves of her full-ish torso rests the Ashok Chakra from the Indian flag. Like most other patriarchal nationalists, Hussain too implicates the body of the woman within the body of the nation. The ‘nation’ must be identified and glorified through representations of its geography – its mountains and rivers, plains and plateaus. As the woman must be ‘seen’ and appropriated through her ‘body’, the real only too willing to fill in for the imaginary.

His Ramayana painting of a naked Sita sitting on the lap of a naked Ravana, while Hanuman, also naked, trying to rescue her. To think within Berger’s motif of need fulfillment, it reinstates and reinvigorates the dominant and repressive need to divide good and bad, virtue and degradation, man and woman. In the painting, Sita is seen by the spectator crouching in withdrawal from the menacing Ravana painted in black while Hanuman aggressively bares his teeth just as he is about to attack. What is spectacularized is the masculine duel being undertaken for a woman, who in this painting as in the source of its inspiration has nothing to fear but her own body, site of the honour which once clouded in suspicion can never be reclaimed.

Finally, before trying to round off this front stallers’ enquiry, it is important to mention the idea of Hussain’s aesthetics as being significantly tied up in the idea of a ‘muse’. The muse who inspires his gaze, eggs him on to create and whose only ambition ought to forever want to be worthy of being looked at, even at the cost of becoming invisible in his larger artistic universe.

Often on mornings I wake up with half-dreamt, half-forgotten, half-remembered dreams. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend to sleep trying to dream what I want all the way through to the end. It makes me understand like nothing else the joy of freedom, creativity and hope. The freedom that every artist must have, to create, to be able to espouse any kind of politics irrespective of who or what it’s threatening to, the freedom to speak out, also the freedom to be silent; but as important as this is the freedom to be able to question all kinds of art, irrespective of whether it’s internationally celebrated or completely unknown.

That the space for progressive and democratic questioning is shrinking because loud and dangerous attacks must be kept at bay and dealt with first, is a failure of our times. It is in keeping these spaces alive, not letting our front stalls disappear into ‘all balcony’ PVRs, that our struggles must be directed at.

A version of the article was published in Hard News

Alexandra Kollontai on “International Women’s Day”

Mezhdunarodnyi den’ rabotnitz, Moscow 1920 — Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organisation of proletarian women.

But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out.[2] It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.

But if this is a general holiday for all the proletariat, why do we call it “Women’s Day”? Why then do we hold special celebrations and meetings aimed above all at the women workers and the peasant women? Doesn’t this jeopardise the unity and solidarity of the working class? To answer these questions, we have to look back and see how Women’s Day came about and for what purpose it was organised.

How and why was Women’s Day organised?

Not very long ago, in fact about ten years ago, the question of women’s equality, and the question of whether women could take part in government alongside men was being hotly debated. The working class in all capitalist countries struggled for the rights of working women: the bourgeoisie did not want to accept these rights. It was not in the interest of the bourgeoisie to strengthen the vote of the working class in parliament; and in every country they hindered the passing of laws that gave the right to working women.

Socialists in North America insisted upon their demands for the vote with particular persistence. On the 28th of February, 1909, the women socialists of the USA organised huge demonstrations and meetings all over the country demanding political rights for working women. This was the first “Woman’s Day”. The initiative on organising a woman’s day thus belongs to the working women of America.

In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin [3] brought forward the question of organising an International Working Women’s Day. The conference decided that every year, in every country, they should celebrate on the same day a “Women’s Day” under the slogan “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”.

During these years, the question of making parliament more democratic, i.e., of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women, was a vital issue. Even before the first world war, the workers had the right to vote in all bourgeois countries except Russia. [4] Only women, along with the insane, remained without these rights. Yet, at the same time, the harsh reality of capitalism demanded the participation of women in the country’s economy. Every year there was an increase in the number of women who had to work in the factories and workshops, or as servants and charwomen. Women worked alongside men and the wealth of the country was created by their hands. But women remained without the vote.

But in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie’s economy of plunder. “Housewives uprisings” became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany.

The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: they understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.
It was decided to have a Woman’s Day in every country as a form of struggle in getting working women to vote. This day was to be a day of international solidarity in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organised strength of working women under the banner of socialism.

The first International Women’s Day

The decision taken at the Second International Congress of Socialist Women was not left on paper. It was decided to hold the first International Women’s Day on the 19th of March, 1911.

This date was not chosen at random. Our German comrades picked the day because of its historic importance for the German proletariat. On the 19th of March in the year of 1848 revolution, the Prussian king recognised for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promises he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.

After January 11, efforts were made in Germany and Austria to prepare for Women’s Day. They made known the plans for a demonstration both by word of mouth and in the press. During the week before Women’s Day two journals appeared: The Vote for Women in Germany and Women’s Day in Austria. The various articles devoted to Women’s Day – “Women and Parliament”, “The Working Women and Municipal Affairs”, “What Has the Housewife got to do with Politics?”, etc. – analysed thoroughly the question of the equality of women in the government and in society. All the articles emphasised the same point: that it was absolutely necessary to make parliament more democratic by extending the franchise to women.

The first International Women’s Day took place in 1911. Its success exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.

This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in parliament.

In 1913 International Women’s Day was transferred to the 8th of March. This day has remained the working women’s day of militancy.

Is Women’s Day necessary?

Women’s Day in [North] America and Europe had amazing results. It’s true that not a single bourgeois parliament thought of making concessions to the workers or of responding to the women’s demands. For at that time, the bourgeoisie was not threatened by a socialist revolution.

But Women’s Day did achieve something. It turned out above all to be an excellent method of agitation among the less political of our proletarian sisters. They could not help but turn their attention to the meetings, demonstrations, posters, pamphlets and newspapers that were devoted to Women’s Day. Even the politically backward working woman thought to herself: “This is our day, the festival for working women”, and she hurried to the meetings and demonstrations. After each Working Women’s Day, more women joined the socialist parties and the trade unions grew. Organisations improved and political consciousness developed.
Women’s Day served yet another function; it strengthened the international solidarity of the workers. The parties in different countries usually exchange speakers for this occasion: German comrades go to England, English comrades go to Holland, etc. The international cohesion of the working class has become strong and firm and this means that the fighting strength of the proletariat as a whole has grown.

These are the results of working women’s day of militancy. The day of working women’s militancy helps increase the consciousness and organisation of proletarian women. And this means that its contribution is essential to the success of those fighting for a better future for the working class.

Working Women’s Day in Russia

The Russian working woman first took part in “Working Women’s Day” in 1913. This was a time of reaction when tsarism held the workers and peasants in its vice-like a grip. There could be no thought of celebrating “Working Women’s Day” by open demonstrations. But the organised working women were able to mark their international day. Both the legal newspapers of the working class – the Bolshevik Pravda and the Menshevik Looch – carried articles about the International Women’s Day: [5] they carried special articles, portraits of some of those taking part in the working women’s movement and greetings from comrades such as August Bebel and Clara Zetkin.[6]

In those bleak years meetings were forbidden. But in Petrograd, at the Kalashaikovsky Exchange, those women workers who belonged to the [Bolshevik] Party organised a public forum on “The Woman Question”. Entrance was five kopecks. This was an illegal meeting but the hall was absolutely packed. Members of the party spoke. But this animated “closed” meeting had hardly finished when the police, alarmed at such proceedings, intervened and arrested many of the speakers.

It was of great significance for the workers of the world that the women of Russia, who lived under tsarist repression, should join in and somehow manage to acknowledge with actions International Women’s Day. This was a welcome sign that Russia was waking up and the tsarist prisons and gallows were powerless to kill the workers’ spirit of struggle and protest.

In 1914, Working Women’s Day in Russia was better organised. Both the workers’ newspapers concerned themselves with the celebration. Our comrades put a lot of effort into the preparation of Working Women’s Day. Because of police intervention, they didn’t manage to organise a demonstration. Those involved in the planning found themselves in the tsarist prisons, and many were later sent to the cold north. For the slogan “for the working women’s vote” had naturally become in Russia an open call for the overthrow of tsarist autocracy.

Working Women’s Day during the imperialist war

The first world war broke out. The working class in every country was covered with the blood of war. [7] In 1915 and 1916 Working Women’s Day abroad was a feeble affair – left-wing socialist women who shared the views of the Russian Bolshevik Party tried to turn March 8th into a demonstration of working women against the war. But those socialist party traitors in Germany and other countries would not allow the socialist women to organise gatherings; and the socialist women were refused passports to go to neutral countries where the working women wanted to hold international meetings and show that in spite of the desire of the bourgeoisie, the spirit of international solidarity lived on.

In 1915, it was only in Norway that they managed to organise an international demonstration on Women’s Day; representatives from Russia and neutral countries attended. There could be no thought of organising a Women’s Day in Russia, for here the power of tsarism and the military machine was unbridled.

Then came the great, great year of 1917. Hunger, cold and trials of war broke the patience of the women workers and the peasant women of Russia. In 1917, on the 8th of March (23rd of February), on Working Women’s Day, they came out boldly in the streets of Petrograd. The women – some were workers, some were wives of soldiers – demanded “Bread for our children” and “The return of our husbands from the trenches”. At this decisive time the protests of the working women posed such a threat that even the tsarist security forces did not dare take the usual measures against the rebels but looked on in confusion at the stormy sea of the people’s anger.

The 1917 Working Women’s Day has become memorable in history. On this day the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire. The February Revolution marks its beginning from this day.

Our call to battle

“Working Women’s Day” was first organised ten years ago in the campaign for the political equality of women and the struggle for socialism. This aim has been achieved by the working-class women in Russia. In the soviet republic the working women and peasants don’t need to fight for the franchise and for civil rights. They have already won these rights. The Russian workers and the peasant women are equal citizens – in their hands is a powerful weapon to make the struggle for a better life easier – the right to vote, to take part in the soviets and in all collective organisations. [8]

But rights alone are not enough. We have to learn to make use of them. The right to vote is a weapon which we have to learn to master for our own benefit, and for the good of the workers’ republic. In the two years of soviet power, life itself has not been absolutely changed. We are only in the process of struggling for communism and we are surrounded by the world we have inherited from the dark and repressive past. The shackles of the family, of housework, of prostitution still weigh heavily on the working woman. Working women and peasant women can only rid themselves of this situation and achieve equality in life itself, and not just in law, if they put all their energies into making Russia a truly communist society.

And to quicken this coming, we have first to put right Russia’s shattered economy. We must consider the solving of our two most immediate tasks – the creation of a well organised and politically conscious labour force and the re-establishment of transport. If our army of labour works well we shall soon have steam engines once more; the railways will begin to function. This means that the working men and women will get the bread and firewood they desperately need.

Getting transport back to normal will speed up the victory of communism. And with the victory of communism will come the complete and fundamental equality of women. This is why the message of “Working Women’s Day” must this year be: “Working women, peasant women, mothers, wives and sisters, all efforts to helping the workers and comrades in overcoming the chaos of the railways and re-establishing transport. Everyone in the struggle for bread and firewood and raw materials.”

Last year the slogan of the Working Women’s Day was: “All to the victory of the Red Front”. [9] Now we call on working women to rally their strength on a new bloodless front – the labour front! The Red Army defeated the external enemy because it was organised, disciplined and ready for self sacrifice. With organisation, hard work, self-discipline and self-sacrifice, the workers’ republic will overcome the internal foe – the dislocation (of) transport and the economy, hunger, cold and disease. “Everyone to the victory on the bloodless labour front! Everyone to this victory!”

The new tasks of Working Women’s Day

The October Revolution gave women equality with men as far as civil rights are concerned. The women of the Russian proletariat, who were not so long ago the most unfortunate and oppressed, are now in the Soviet Republic able to show with pride to comrades in other countries the path to political equality through the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and soviet power.

The situation is very different in the capitalist countries where women are still overworked and underprivileged. In these countries the voice of the working woman is weak and lifeless. It is true that in various countries – in Norway, Australia, Finland and in some of the states of North America – women had won civil rights even before the war. [10]

In Germany, after the kaiser had been thrown out and a bourgeois republic established, headed by the “compromisers”, [11] thirty-six women entered parliament – but not a single communist!

In 1919, in England, a woman was for the first time elected a member of parliament. But who was she? A “lady”. That means a landowner, an aristocrat. [12]

In France, too, the question has been coming up lately of extending the franchise to women.

But what use are these rights to working women in the framework of bourgeois parliaments? While the power is in the hands of the capitalists and property owners, no political rights will save the working woman from the traditional position of slavery in the home and society. The French bourgeoisie are ready to throw another sop to the working class, in the face of growing Bolshevik ideas amongst the proletariat: they are prepared to give women the vote.[13]

Mr Bourgeois sir – it is too late!

After the experience of the Russian October Revolution, it is clear to every working woman in France, in England and in other countries that only the dictatorship of the working class, only the power of the soviets can guarantee complete and absolute equality, the ultimate victory of communism will tear down the century-old chains of repression and lack of rights. If the task of “International Working Women’s Day” was earlier in the face of the supremacy of the bourgeois parliaments to fight for the right of women to vote, the working class now has a new task: to organise working women around the fighting slogans of the Third International. Instead of taking part in the working of the bourgeois parliament, listen to the call from Russia – “Working women of all countries! Organise a united proletarian front in the struggle against those who are plundering the world! Down with the parliamentarism of the bourgeoisie! We welcome soviet power! Away with inequalities suffer by the working men and women! We will fight with the workers for the triumph of world communism!”

This call was first heard amidst the trials of a new order, in the battles of civil war it will be heard by and it will strike a chord in the hearts of working women of other countries. The working woman will listen and believe this call to be right. Until recently they thought that if they managed to send a few representatives to parliament their lives would be easier and the oppression of capitalism more bearable. Now they know otherwise.

Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of soviet power will save them from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes the life of the working woman in the capitalist countries so hard. The “Working Woman’s Day” turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!



2. Tsarist Russia still used the old “Julian” calendar of the Middle Ages, which was 13 days behind the “Gregorian” calendar used in most of the rest of the world. Thus March 8 was “February 23” in the old calendar. This is why the revolution of March 1917 is called “the February Revolution” and that of November 1917 “the October Revolution.”

3. Clara Zetkin was a leader of the German socialist movement and the main leader of the international working women’s movement. Kollontai was a delegate to the international conference representing the St. Petersburg textile workers.

4. This is not accurate. The vast majority of unskilled workers in England, France and Germany could not vote. A smaller percentage of working-class men in the United States could not vote – in particular immigrant men. In the south of the US black men were often prevented from voting. The middle class suffrage movements in all the European countries did not fight to give votes to either working-class women or men.

5. At its 1903 Congress, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party divided into two wings, the Bolsheviks (which means “majority” in Russian) and the Mensheviks (which means “minority”). In the period between 1903 and 1912 (when the division became permanent) the two wings worked together, unified for a while, split again. Many socialists, including entire local organisations, worked with both wings or tried to stay neutral in the disputes. Kollontai, an active socialist and fighter for women’s rights since 1899, was at first independent of the factions, then became a Menshevik for several years. She joined the Bolsheviks in 1915 and became the only woman member of their central committee. She also served as commissar of welfare of the Soviet Republic and head of the women’s section of the Bolshevik Party.

6. August Bebel (1840-1913) was a leader of the German Social-Democratic Party. He was a well-known supporter of the women’s movement and author of a classic book on Marxism and women Die Frauenfrage, translated into English as Woman Under Socialism, which has been translated into many languages.

7. When war broke out in 1914, there was a massive split in the international socialist movement. The majority of the social democrats in Germany, Austria, France and England supported the war. Other socialists, such Kollontai, Lenin, the Bolshevik Party and Leon Trotsky in Russia, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, and Eugene Debs in the United States, to name some of the leaders, denounced the pro-war socialists for being traitors to the working class and to the fight for a workers’ revolution.

8. The word “soviet” means “council”. Soviets, or workers’ councils, are democratic bodies in which delegates are elected in factory and neighbourhood meetings and are controlled by their sister and brother workers. The representatives of the soviets must report back to their constituency and are subject to immediate recall.

9. After the working-class seizure of power in October/November 1917, the Russian workers’ state was faced with two major problems. One was an invasion, including the United States; the second was resistance by the pro-monarchist and pro-capitalist elements in Russia. Primarily under the direction of Leon Trotsky, the soviets created a workers’ and peasants’ army, the Red Army, which defeated the forces of counterrevolution.

10. Women had won the right to vote in several of the states of the United States prior to World War I. A federal amendment guaranteeing all women over 21 the right to vote was passed on August 26, 1920. It was not until the 1960s that the last legal barriers to working-class people voting in the United States were abolished.

11. The “compromisers” Kollontai is referring to are the Social Democratic Party leaders who formed a new capitalist government in Germany after the fall of the kaiser in 1918. They actively supported counterrevolution after coming to office.

12. While the aristocratic Lady Astor was indeed the first woman to serve in the British parliament, the first woman elected to parliament was the Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz. Together with other members of the Sinn Fein party, she refused to take her seat in the imperial parliament.

13. French women did not finally get the vote until after World War II.