01/09/2013 12:34 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Protests Against Rape in India: Can the Myth of Male Protection Be Shaken?

One of the hallmarks of patriarchy is that it allows men to be either rapists or protectors, or even both.

Patriarchy justifies itself by this duplicity. Women are thought to be safe when they have a man by their side, and believed to be available for assault if they don't. Women are property, to be protected or to be destroyed: protected if they can prove they are innocents and thus deserving of protection, or destroyed if they flout social norms.

The recent gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi could and should shake the belief in the myth of male protection.

In that situation, being with a man was of no help to the young woman who was raped. The man accompanying her was helpless while four men in a bus assaulted her. The woman and her male friend boarded a bus after seeing a movie in South Delhi around 9:30 p.m. The four men, who pretended theirs was a public bus, locked the bus doors, gagged and hit the woman's companion with an iron rod and then commenced to assault her brutally. The rapists showed their power to destroy a woman. Apparently, assaulting women in vehicles such as buses has become a sport in Delhi, which is now the "rape capital" of India.

Men turn out not to be protectors either for women assaulted by male acquaintances or family. Nor is the state, itself a bastion of male power, interested in protection, given that women in India are often unable to register their cases of rape with police and that the police seem uninterested in investigating or prosecuting most of the rapists.

The sexual assault and torture of this young woman in Delhi have shocked the country and led to protests and marches in the capital. The young woman was flown to Singapore for medical care and died nearly two weeks later. Some have suggested that she was being flown out of the country so that the case would disappear from the view of the thousands of men and women protesting the lack of police protection for women. Police have tear-gassed the protestors and now claim that one policeman died at the hands of protestors. Protestors doubt this claim, arguing that this charge is police retaliation against the protestors. One journalist has also been killed by police bullets.

The question of security in India has emerged as a key issue with protestors simply fed up with the attacks on women that occur everyday. How do women become secure if patriarchal power exercised through violence is widespread? In this case, the young woman who was raped is constantly referred to in the news media as a "girl," even though she was 23 years old. She is not seen as an adult or as an equal.

Some scholars have argued that in contemporary India, a woman's ability to consent is non-existent, and that rape has become sex for many men. Upper caste men rape lower caste women with impunity. Security forces and police rape women in their custody or in retaliation. Rape remains a prominent display of patriarchal power.

The other side of this right to rape is the patriarchal right to extract revenge for rape. Even among the protestors, there are demands for capital punishment and castration as a fitting penalty for rape. This logic of revenge is in agreement with a patriarchy that deems itself able to protect or to defend women seen as their property.

Even powerful female politicians uphold the patriarchy. The leader of the opposition party in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, once called a raped woman a "zinda lash," a living corpse, showing her belief that a raped woman is all but dead, a zombie. She, too, thinks women are property, and a raped woman is ruined property. Such a raped woman's presence serves as a reminder that the men in her family were unable to protect her. She embodies the loss of the male power of her family, not her own individuality.

Entertainment media in India have long used such a notion of women as property of men. Often, TV shows and movies provide, as one media scholar termed it, "viewing pleasure," by showing women raped and then the violent revenge extracted for the rape. Both the rape and the revenge provide pleasure in the power of patriarchy to assault women and then to protect them through more violence. Because of such "viewing pleasure," the news media frequently covers rape. Feminist scholars of Indian media have argued that rape cases cause the most outrage when they include strangers raping upper caste women.

What must happen in India to change this culture of rape?

The protestors in Delhi and the feminist activists have made clear demands. First of all, the government needs to pass laws that criminalize rape against minors, and to stop protecting security personnel, whether in military, paramilitary or police, who rape women from any community. It needs to register rape cases quickly, and fast-track rape cases through the courts, with appropriate penalties. No one, rich or poor or well-connected, should be able to rape anyone with impunity.

The much harder task is to change the patriarchal power that rewards men and women who uphold the status quo. It is also difficult to fight the institutions -- media-entertainment, corporate and political and educational -- that purvey patriarchal ideologies that are increasingly out of sync with the needs of women in India. Currently, women in India are paid less, own less property and capital, and are treated as lesser persons. Sex ratios are ridiculously skewed; middle and upper class educated people still prefer sons to daughters. Women are easily deprived of their rights by a corrupt government and court system.

While feminists in India have pointed out that most rapes of rural, Dalit or tribal women do not create protests, the current demonstrations are nonetheless a good start. They are putting the government on the defensive. Yet more needs to be done to extend the pressure to other institutions, too. Corporations, educational institutions, and politics have to address not simply gendered violence and inequality, but the advantages and privileges that such violence gives to males.

It is also time to say that male protection comes with a price for women. And its not just women who need to acknowledge that fact, but men as well. The myth of male power needs to go.