I was in India last month when the brutal gang rape of a university student on a bus ignited protests by thousands of young women and men in New Delhi and other cities in India. The “heinous crime” – the term used by India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – has become a rallying point for citizen outrage at the pervasiveness of sexual violence against women and girls in India and at unaccountable and corrupt policing.
Protesters’ signs cite statistics that rape occurs every 22 minutes in India and call for the gang-rape culprits to be hanged. Despite several clashes with police and despite government efforts to shut down public transportation, the angry and surprisingly persistent protests continue. Following the woman’s death from her injuries, citizens held vigils and marches in many parts of the country.
The events in New Delhi attest to writer Thomas Friedman’s observation that “humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations.” Rape is one of the most extreme acts of dehumanization and humiliation. Statements by protesters indicate that outrage about the gang rape and the environment that enabled it has unleashed a flood of pent-up frustration.
Citizens are angry about poor public safety for women and girls, police harassment, and a justice system that many perceive as devaluing individuals, especially those without money or power.
The world has recently witnessed how reactions to humiliation can spur movements for political and social change. The self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia following humiliation by a policewoman last year generated demonstrations that launched the Arab Spring. In Egypt, incidents of police brutality were part of the provocation for initial protests that grew into a national movement. More recently, protests erupted in Tunisia after it was reported that police raped a woman and then accused her of public indecency.
A troubling common thread in these events is the role of police as perpetrator rather than protector. In India, police are often seen to be triply guilty as apathetic enforcers who fail to protect, as corrupt bribe-takers who assist culprits rather than victims, and as perpetrators themselves of sexual harassment and violence. The police use of tear gas, water cannons, and baton charges against protesters recently has only exacerbated anti-police sentiment, though some of the protesters have also been responsible for initiating violence.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the persistence of police brutality and harassment raises the question of the extent to which the Arab Spring’s political change has led to social change.
Active recognition of others’ inherent value as fellow human beings – the opposite of dehumanization – underlies some of the most heroic responses to war (for example, Paul Rusesabagina’s saving Rwandans from genocide depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda”) and some of the most powerful efforts to mitigate poverty’s impacts (for example, Mother Theresa’s treatment of the destitute and dying with dignity).
Conversely, failure to recognize and value other individuals as fellow human beings underlies many of our cruelest behaviors, from sexual violence to human trafficking to prisoner abuse and torture to genocide. Systemic devaluing of individuals contributes to entrenched problems such as inhumane labor conditions and demeaning treatment of patients at health facilities.
When dehumanization reaches a tipping point or when particularly reprehensible cases become visible to the public, movements can emerge like those that swept through the Middle East or like the one we are witnessing in India. It is as though collective repulsion provokes and empowers people to stand up and demand change from authorities, to demand that as a society we evolve beyond such behaviors.
In India the government has committed to a number of steps – including the requisite establishment of commissions – to prevent sexual violence and more rapidly mete out justice to rapists. Many protesters are demanding further action, and significant reductions in rape will clearly require sustained effort on multiple fronts. Nevertheless, the movement born in New Delhi and the policy actions it has elicited demonstrate how citizen responses to cruel and dehumanizing acts can mobilize social change.
Dr. Tony Castleman is an associate research professor of international affairs and associate director of the Institute for International Economic Policy at George Washington University. He was previously director of a non-profit organization in Lucknow, India, working on health, education, and women’s empowerment.