Men, women and the cities

ISLAMABAD - It happened around dusk, the time when the cities of South Asia - Lahore and Delhi and Mumbai and Karachi - exhale collectively and let millions out into the streets to begin their slow crawl home.

The victim was a photojournalist who had been taking pictures of an abandoned factory in Mumbai. For protection, perhaps, she had a male colleague accompany her. It was not enough.

As news reports would decry soon afterwards, the 23-year-old was brutally raped by a gang of five men and her escort beaten. India, which has hardly recovered from the gang rape of a bus passenger in Delhi barely a year ago, was once again stunned by this latest act of gender violence.

Spurred into action by media coverage and denunciations by activists and political parties across the board, Mumbai police authorities had, by Sunday, arrested five suspects, each of whom, if found guilty, is expected to face the maximum 20-year sexual violence penalty passed into law by the Indian legislature a few months ago.

The victim is said to be recovering from her injuries. In a statement to the media, she said: "Rape is not the end of life. I want the strictest punishment for the accused, and to return to duty as soon as possible."

Her brave remarks were praised by activists and political figures across India.

The victim of the gruesome Delhi gang rape, they may have remembered, had died from her injuries and never been able to make such a statement.

Across the border in Pakistan, rape often is the end of life, with many victims choosing to commit suicide or suffer in silence rather than press charges. If social taboos do not destroy their chances of survival, other factors will ensure their persecution.

Even while Indian legislators increased the penalties for rapists this year, the Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan's constitutional advisory body on Islamic injunctions, deemed DNA evidence inadmissible as primary evidence in rape cases.

Already, the number of victims coming forth or pressing charges in Pakistani courts is quite low.

The burden that gender places on the subcontinent's females is thus formidable. In both India and Pakistan, droves of people are pouring into cities, leaving behind the communal structures of old.

Recent studies reveal that the Asian cities are seeing the greatest increase of urbanisation in the world.

Karachi is supposed to be the fastest growing city in the world and is projected to overtake Shanghai by the year 2025. Mumbai is similarly situated. On both streets, millions of women take to cars, buses and rickshaws every day, out to earn a living.

The rupees enable them to manage the steep costs of living, a parent's healthcare bills, a sister's wedding or a younger brother's tuition. The demands are many and the pressure is great.

Against all of this are pre-urban social structures that have not yet developed the cultural mechanisms to ensure women's safety or punishments for those that jeopardise it.

In India and Pakistan, the basic moral mechanisms of society continue to be largely communal, resting on the maintenance of reputation, honour and the precept that a woman must be kept at home to be kept safe.

According to the old ways of life, before the city, the best deterrent against the commission of rape is the threat of retaliation and the shaming not only of the person who commits the act but his entire extended family.

In the post-migratory urban environment, this mechanism fails. In crimes of sexual violence in urban contexts, men can target women without fear of accruing any social cost, the intimate nature of the crime precluding the likelihood of their ever being caught.

The anonymity of a newly-grown city, with police forces still dominated by patriarchal ideas of old, serves thus to victimise women.

In the namelessness of new urban landscapes, male reputations, it seems, can be made and remade many times, creating an amoral space where men can do as they please.

Women, however, are left still imprisoned, dangling between governments that are unable to hold men accountable in the newly individualised urban environment and old communal arrangements that expect them to abandon public life for safety.

In sum, the few old strictures that were available to curb male sexual violence are no longer viable, the mores of "protecting" women by restricting them to the home are no longer economically feasible.

At the same time, the mechanisms of state - the laws and their enforcers - are unable or unwilling to fill the moral vacuum or let go of the beliefs that see all women in the public as somehow sexually available.

Growing fast and teeming with women, the cities of South Asia are thus moral spaces that are contested between the old and the new and between men and women.

Acts of collective male violence against women, such as the rape in Mumbai, reveal the gross inequality in the moral costs of urbanisation, where the absence of robust mechanisms for prosecuting rapists effectively creates an environment where women can be victimised without repercussions, leaving them condemned to a life on the defensive.

In this sense, in both Pakistan and India, women's bodies become targets for male rage and aggression, their visibility even being equated with the opportunities being taken away from men in the city where chances are few and the burdens many.

> The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.