Masculinity and sexual violence in India

16th September 2015

The brutal rape and murder in December 2012 of a 23-year-old student in a Delhi bus has been the catalyst for rapidly evolving activism against sexual violence in India.

The case garnered considerable national and international attention. Indian law forbids the naming of rape victims, so the student became widely known as Nirbhaya – Hindi for ‘the fearless one’, because she fought back against her six attackers as best she could – and she rapidly became a symbol of women’s inequality within the country.

So far, public action and protest has ranged from the rational, such as demands for the speedy resolution of rape cases and the abolition of intrusive medical tests to infer whether women who allege rape ‘are habituated to sex', to the controversial, including demands for a mandatory death sentence for rapists.

I went to Mumbai during June and July this summer, funded by the University of Birmingham's School of Government and Society and International Development Department, to explore some of the social and political fallout. I wanted to understand men’s perceptions of and attitudes to the event.

"The perpetrators were ‘working class’ rural migrants, and this has problematically confirmed long-standing middle-class perceptions ... meanwhile instances of middle-class sexual violence go largely unchallenged."


I was particularly interested in the responses of middle class professional men who, some might argue, are least likely to be affected by the case’s legislative or social consequences because of their social and economic status. The perpetrators were ‘working class’ rural migrants, and this has problematically confirmed long-standing middle-class perceptions that rampant sexual violence occurs only among the Indian working class. Meanwhile instances of middle-class sexual violence go largely unchallenged.

After a fair amount of friendly persuasion I managed to conduct a good number of in-depth interviews and returned with two broad observations.

The first is primarily anthropological. It raises questions about perceptions of sexual violence and masculinity in the context of a rapidly globalising India. I think it would be useful to ask to what extent these perceptions are governed by ideas of time, and by conventional understandings of the male lifecycle.

Many of my interviewees shared their belief that the rate of globalisation in India was too rapid, in terms of both the proliferation of sexual imagery and its effect on sexual desire. This was seen as having a detrimental effect on sexual maturity, particularly among men. It can also be said that sexuality in India has become increasingly uncoupled from the confines of marriage and is seen progressively in public discourse as a form of pleasure. There is certainly a sense in which this change has unsettled conventional ideas of appropriate male sexual behaviour across generations. Confusion and ambivalence about appropriate sexual behaviour in Indian society particularly intersects with the globalised profusion of pornography available through the internet.

This confusion is illustrated by the recent and very rapid U-turn of the Indian Government which partially lifted its ban on internet pornography at the beginning of August. The ban had sparked widespread debate on censorship and freedom.  Informally, however, and largely among Indian feminists, there continues to be discussion about how pornography might increase and legitimate sexual violence against women. 

My second observation was more ‘developmental’. Men’s views on the legal responses to the case explore both the highly punitive and retributional discourses it has produced; interviewees also talk of a ‘failing’ judiciary.  Rape within marriage is not an offence in Indian law, and the lack of such protection for women is perceived as a glaring legal absence in the eyes of most Indian feminists.

Asking men for views on the need to criminalise marital rape, I found interesting parallels with perceptions about how dowry legislation is perceived to have been misused since its introduction in 1961, and perceptions of the possible consequences of criminalising rape. Previous research (Gangoli and Rew, 2014) has explored how dowry law has been used by women to escape unhappy and incompatible marriages rather than because their husband’s family genuinely continue to use threats of abandonment or worse to demand more dowry.  Many of my interviewees felt that similar forms of ‘misuse’ of the law could occur if marital rape was criminalised. This was a particular concern for them in the context of a judicial system that is so often open to corruption. 

Gender-based violence and the legislative evolution set in motion by this case will be the focus of a special issue of the Journal of Indian Law and Society, likely to be published at the end of this year and put together by Rukmini Sen and colleagues at Ambedkar University in Delhi. It may even have some policy impact; we will wait and see.

"The Law Commission's report ... misses the opportunity to criminalise marital rape or to outlaw reference to the sexual history of a woman who alleges rape."

With Dr. Geetanjali Gangoli, I am co-authoring a paper for this special issue about the Indian Law Commission’s report on the Nirbhaya case. We found that while there are many potentially positive aspects to the report, such as proposals for procedures to speed up court responses, the report also reproduces many past mistakes. For instance, it misses the opportunity to criminalise marital rape or to outlaw reference to the sexual history of a woman who alleges rape in judicial judgements.

It is possible that the material I have come back from Mumbai with this summer will feed into those findings and even evolve into stand-alone papers. However, taken all in all, it is clear to me that middle class men In India have been deeply affected by the Nirbhaya case. At the same time, they have diverse attitudes towards how both sexual relations should be promoted and how sexual violence should be policed in the future.

Action against gender-based violence is increasingly an explicit part of the global donor agenda. I would argue that understanding the attitudes of middle-class attitudes Indians towards gender-based violence has become increasingly important, because those attitudes will be a key driver of change. Even so, whether the political will to criminalise marital rape will materialise in India remains to be seen; I think that ultimately it will depend greatly on the strength and effectiveness of the Indian feminist lobby. 

Image: Protests Outside AIIMS Delhi-017 (Photo: Ramesh Lalwani, Flickr)

This article first appeared on the blog of the International Development Department at


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The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.



Martin Rew

Martin Rew

Dr Martin Rew is Lecturer in International Relations in the International Development Department of the University of Birmingham.

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