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Rage fuels power to the people

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Triggered by horrendous events, formerly disempowered people around the world have found a loud collective voice.

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IT'S almost impossible to look past the gang rape of a young physiotherapy student in Delhi that has triggered such vociferous protest. But if you can do it, what you'll see is positively ghastly. In fact, you might want to look away now.

A two-year-old girl, her hands and legs tied, is admitted to a hospital Indian city of Halol with severe genital injuries. Soon she becomes infected, her bloodstream invaded with pus-forming micro-organisms, and she is diagnosed with septicaemia. It's a horrific condition, the kind that causes you to lose limbs. She's not so lucky. In a matter of days the girl is dead. On Christmas Day, her body is delivered to her father.

"No one seems to be bothered about my two-year-old girl," he says.

"No one from the government or even district administration has bothered to pay us a visit even once."

Among the countless Indian protesters in India are parents like him. They are not protesting a gang rape. They are protesting their own cases, which go unremarked upon, the perpetrators unpunished. This is a collective scream of anguish and frustration at an elite that has refused to understand the crimes against them.

"They are our rulers, not representatives," chant the protesters.

They are talking about people like the police commissioner, who said men were also unsafe in Delhi because "their pockets were picked".

Or they are talking about his officers, some of whom harass people for associating with "loose women", and treat women complaining of sexual assault with disdain. And they are talking about an overarching social attitude that stigmatises the victim, rather than the attacker.

That's not uniquely an Indian problem. Swaziland has just passed a law banning mini-skirts because they "encourage rape". Until 2006, Pakistan had a law that treated unproven allegations of rape as admissions of adultery. And it's a persistent (if more subtle) problem in societies such as ours, where courts have interrogated rape victims on the skimpiness of their clothes, and the Jill Meagher tragedy inspired its own round of victim-blaming. Even with our tiny population, one Australian woman is killed every week in an act of violence. America has a sexual assault every two minutes.

The most central misogynist flaw here is to present rape as primarily sexual - as a kind of aggravated sex - rather than as primarily violent. That obscures the fact that rape is an expression of domination and dehumanisation. Such mischaracterisations of rape are easily critiqued, but there's a bigger theme that drives them: the preservation of power and privilege.

Sexualised understandings of rape come overwhelmingly from men with cultural or political authority. That is, they come from the very people they exonerate. That's what being disempowered is about. It's being denied the means even to describe the problems you face. Whether it's women in India, or asylum seekers in Australia, their problems are defined for them, complete with solutions that aren't in their interests. That's why the rich define class war as the envy of the working class, rather than the dominance of the ruling class. Problems are defined to suit the existing power structure and allow it to avoid accountability.

Viewed this way, these Indian rape protests represent so much more than the fight for women's rights. This is the voice of the disempowered, challenging the elite for the right to define their own existence. That, in itself, is not new. But something here is, and it seems to be happening more and more: the ability of an emerging, socially connected middle class to quickly undermine authority figures that were once unassailable. It's possible to describe 2012 as the year the mighty were brought to back to earth.

Locally we have seen the Catholic Church dragged into the centre of a royal commission on child sex abuse that it has been avoiding for years, and that until just a couple months ago both major parties opposed. We have seen Alan Jones lose advertisers and cultural power to the point that politicians thought it in their interests to be seen as his enemy. Internationally, we have seen Rupert Murdoch literally placed in the dock, and America's National Rifle Association look ridiculous by responding to a shooting with a statement that failed to understand the ways in which the gun control debate is leaving them behind.

Now, several Indian states are pledging to revisit rape laws and retrain their police. There is talk of special sexual crimes courts and calls for mandatory women's involvement in them. And like the cases cited above, this is responding to an irresistible popular groundswell that appeared almost instantly.

Such groundswells, often accelerated by social media, aren't always inspiring. Recall the Innocence of Muslims riots that spread even to Sydney. The Indian protests have also turned violent, with one policeman killed, and the frequent calls for the death penalty are sobering, if predictable. Regardless, for better or worse, the potential for rapid social change looks very real.

Will that potential be fulfilled? Will there be real gun control reform in the US? What consequences, if any, will emerge from the royal commission on child sex abuse? Will business return to normal for shock jocks? Will the ruling class of India revisit the way it understands rape, rather than merely talk about tougher punishments? Is this a genuine change in the nature of power, or a series of ephemeral flashpoints soon to be forgotten in an age of supersonic news? That, perhaps, is the story of 2013.

Waleed Aly is an Age contributor. He hosts Drive on Radio National and is a Monash University lecturer.

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