The Uber crime in context

BY VIKRAM JOHRI| IN Media Practice | 19/12/2014
Media coverage of the Uber taxi rape has over-simplified the link between social attitudes and sexual violence.
The reality, in India and abroad, is more complex, says VIKRAM JOHRI
On December 18, the New York Times reported the following in its online edition:
"Alejandro Done, the 46-year-old driver, is accused of picking up a young woman in Boston on Dec. 6 while presenting himself as the driver who had been summoned through a ride-sharing service. He then drove to a secluded location, prosecutors say, where he beat and sexually assaulted the woman, whose name the officials have not disclosed. Mr. Done is charged with rape, assault to rape, kidnapping, and two counts of assault and battery."
The cab service, if you have not guessed already, is Uber. Oh dear! What are we to make of this so-called "Indian rape problem" now? When in early December a woman in Delhi was assaulted by the driver of the Uber cab she was travelling in, everyone and his uncle came down hard on India, the government, Delhi police, our regressive social structure, etc. etc. But Uber remained protected. In the media, it was almost treated with kid gloves. 
Piles of newsprint and online space were devoted to how the culture of rape is entrenched in Indian society and how banning Uber, as the government had proceeded to do in Delhi, was not the solution. Falling as the Delhi incident did close to the second anniversary of the Nirbhaya rape, some commentators sought to draw parallels between the two and excoriated everyone in general and no one in particular for the "problem".
Twitter and Facebook trended, and the whole thing was given a morbidly funny angle. "Ban cabs"; "Ban roads"; even "Ban men". It was all too hilarious to miss. But it still did not tell us anything about how to look at the problem holistically. The only thing we learnt from the media, both traditional and social, was that the government had lived up to its reputation for being one giant biz-unfriendly party pooper. 
Rape is a serious offence and the media should be careful about extrapolating from one incident to draw judgments on social structures. The New York Times piece which reported the Boston assault, continued: "The incident comes as Uber reexamines its safety and driver screening policies. Over the last year, other Uber drivers in the Delhi region of India, San Francisco, Florida and Chicago have faced various charges of assault on passengers."
Turns out Uber's problem with customer safety is not such an Indian problem after all. Context matters. What happened with Nirbhaya was of a totally different nature. That brutal crime shone an international spotlight on India, but it should still not be labelled an "Indian" problem. Anti-social elements lurk in every society and there are no easy solutions to the issues surrounding crime prevention in today's fast-changing economic landscape.
In the Nirbhaya case, what we were dealing with was a deep-set misogyny that had swooped down on a poor girl in the dead of the night. That crime was diabolical and particularly gruesome. While it would be imprudent to comment on Indian mores/beliefs even from that incident, it might tell us something about the conflict between personal/economic freedom and pervasive social attitudes. 
But by seeking to draw immediate causal links between social attitudes and sexual assault, the media seems to have jumped the gun. The truth is that sexual assault is a brutal reality for women in any part of the world. And the umbrella term covers many types of assault, including domestic violence and child sexual abuse. It would have been enlightening if the media had done a greater study of rape in India, and not indulged in the kind of knee-jerk commentary that was witnessed.
The other noticeable element of the media coverage of the Delhi Uber incident was the almost unanimous silence about the need to be careful on the victim's part. This is not victim-shaming, an egregious term that has gained much currency and arguably spawned much self-censorship when it comes to discussing sexual assault. If you are a client, man or woman, taking a cab service at night, in Delhi, Denver or Dar-es-Salaam, it might be a good idea not to nod off.

This is not to suggest that the police and society at large can go entirely scot-free. That the offending driver in Delhi had obtained a fake character certificate from the Delhi police was not Uber's problem. But even here, context plays a role. Uber India is helmed by Indians who cannot be unaware of the way things work here. For a company that runs out of a Gurgaon hotel, might it not have been a good idea to figure out if character certificates are worth the paper they are printed on before handing out iPhones and other paraphernalia to whoever procures them?

I repeat: this is not to say that bribery is OK. But how does the presence of systemic issues absolve Uber of its laxity in ensuring the safety of its passengers? More to the point, why has the media coverage about this complex problem been so one-sided?
(Vikram Johri is a Bangalore-based writer. He tweets at @VohariJikram.)
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