Public humiliation and instances of mob violence against women are not new to Indian society. Groups of men harassing, attacking and raping women of 'other' communities in contexts of communal riots and political conflicts are, unfortunately, common. There are also numerous instances of women in remote and even the not-so remote areas of the country being publicly and brutally lynched on being identified as witches responsible for others' death, illnesses and misfortunes.
But it appears that now we need to include other acts of violence against women to this unseemly inventory. Incidents in which a group of men, not necessarily known to each other, physically attack women in public places without any overt provocation have occurred in recent times. The attack on two women coming out of a five star hotel in Mumbai on New Year's eve and the molestation of women students of Delhi University by a large number of men appearing for a police services examination on the campus in September 2007 are two recent examples of such incidents.
Public humiliation directed at particular women by members of a community, when not guided by blind superstition, is usually a way of punishing alleged social deviations and enforcing social norms. It is also a well-established fact that violence purposefully directed at women of other communities is a means of humiliating not just the women but also the men of those communities. Is the underlying basis of such acts of violence against women very different from the recent instances of mob violence directed at women in the teeming Indian metropolises of India? Admitted, being a part of a mob can induce behavior that those who are part of a mob may seldom undertake when alone. Nevertheless, an inclination, a tendency or a desire, howsoever dormant, must exist which is ignited by the collective presence of a mob.
It is quite commonplace to see such incidents as the handiwork of anti-social elements or to view them in terms of gender dynamics alone. Thus the usual response is to blame the inadequate police cover for women or the sickness of the male psyche. These incidents also invariably give rise to a debate as to whether female deportment in public places causes such behavior or whether particular men are inclined to indulge in such behavior in any case. But should this exhaust the terms of this debate?
While harassment of women in public places, euphemistically referred to as 'eve teasing', is an everyday occurrence in most Indian metros, mob violence against women can be seen as a particularly exaggerated version of such routine incidents. Undoubtedly, criminality and misogyny have a vital part to play in such incidents. But what are the broader social dynamics at work here? When large numbers of anonymous men unite to violate women, we are forced to look for explanatory factors that produce such a possibility in the first place.
What needs to be highlighted when such incidents appear on the rise is that their occurrence is directly connected with the widening social and economic differences in society. The clash between men and women in public places is not merely about gender differences. It is also about the disparities of class, caste, region and ethnicity.
It is a sociological truism that most people, especially those strongly embedded in specific social groups, do not harbor generalized attitudes towards others whom they do not identify as part of their society. There is often a stark difference in how one treats members of one's in-group as opposed to those who are seen as belonging to the out-group.
It is unfortunately true that for men of the dominated and marginal social groups, women of the privileged groups often become soft targets. There is also no doubt that men of privileged classes have not shied from taking advantage of the women underprivileged groups. The men of the weaker sections often seek to avenge their general domination by directing all hatred towards the women of dominant social groups.
When caste and regional differences exaggerate the class divide, it is easy to see why men of a similar social background can unite so easily against women identified as belonging to a dominant or different social group. Add to this the patriarchal belief regarding the moral turpitude of all women who have dared to step into public domain.
This admixture appears to at least partially explain the pattern underlying the recent episodes of mobs attacking women in Mumbai and Delhi. In both instances, the men attacked women who happened to be of a distinct class and regional background than that to which the attackers belonged. Numerous instances of violence against women tourists in India who visibly belong to a different social group also make sense from this point of view.
It is not without significance that most terms of male abuse in patriarchal societies invoke sexual violation of mothers and sisters of the abused men. Anyone who is privy to these rude forms of public speech or has watched a few Hindi movies would be aware of the offensive import of such abuses.
It follows from the same logic that when subjected to routine sexual harassment in public places, many women remind the male aggressors that they too have mothers and sisters at home. Clearly, such sexual harassment directed against one's female kin has little social legitimacy. Thus even though violence is definitely used against women of one's group, certain extreme instances of violence - especially violence which is overtly sexual - often manifests across stark social divisions.
It is thus that knee-jerk reactions urging a strengthening of police patrolling and surveillance in the public domain are not likely to go very far in curbing such incidences.