India appears to be following the US by making and marketing guns for women, but it won't make women any safer
by Kaavya Asoka, The Guardian (UK), Sunday 26 January 2014
"Nirbheek" is small, light and can just about "fit into a lady's purse"; it's also India's first gun for women. Named after the 23-year-old victim of the highly publicized Delhi gang-rape case in December 2012, the 500 gram light-weight .32 caliber revolver produced by the state-owned India Ordinance Factory is being marketed as the latest solution to the wide-spread problem of sexual violence and rape in the subcontinent.
One wonders if India has been learning from the US firearms industry, which has long excelled in creating a niche market for female gun-owners by producing small, light – and often pink – guns for women. With names like Chic Lady, Pink Lady, Lavender Lady and Pink Lady Off-Duty (courtesy of the Connecticut-based Charter Arms), US manufacturers like Taurus, Smith and Wesson and Remington have perfected the art of "shrinking-it-and-pinking-it" with a range of pink revolvers, handguns and rifles, just for women.
The Pew Research Center reported in May 2013 that 41% of Americans live in a home with a gun. While men are three times more likely than women to own a gun, 14% of women had one of their own. The growing number of female gun-owners in the US perhaps explains why the firearms industry has been eager to produce specific products "for women", like pink guns and a range of seemingly superfluous feminine accessories like bra holsters.Shooting ranges and ranches have also been rebranding themselves as fun destinations for a girl's night out. A ranch in Texas even went so far as offering an inventive package for gun-loving females: "Botox and bullets" is a weekend getaway that provides a "hands-on introduction to hand-guns" while offering Botox treatments and other cosmetic and recreational services for women to enjoy while sipping cocktails with their girl-friends.
In comparison, India's Nirbheek looks relatively understated, but its concession to women besides its size and weight is that it's presented in a maroon jewellry case because. According to a BBC interview with the General Manager of the Indian Ordinance Factory, "Indian women like their ornaments."
As feminists have wryly noted, you have to bother to at least turn an ordinary object pink and preface it with a feminine moniker like "Lady" before you can sell it to women in the US, but the Indian firearms industry has been far more shrewd in its marketing strategy. While guns like Nirbheek are undoubtedly designed to appeal to women's "feminine" sensibilities, they're also selling women an argument about self-defense: that guns are somehow "empowering" and perhaps more damagingly, that women alone are responsible for keeping their aggressors away.
Do guns make women safer? The National Rifle Association in the US, capitalizing on gun-violence tragedies like Newtown, has repeatedly made the fallacious argument that the only way to stop bad guys with guns is by arming the good guys … and, apparently, also the good women. In March last year, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, argued that "the one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun." And LaPierre wasn't alone in making the argument that armed women can defend themselves better against marauding males. Gayle Trotter of the right-wing Independent Women's Forum told the Senate Judiciary Committee that gun control could negatively affect women because an assault weapon "in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon".
But research on gun violence by organizations like the Harvard Injury Control Research Center has proved otherwise. Its studies have shown that more guns always equals more firearm-related homicides and that guns are rarely used in self-defense. Instead, guns in the home especially tend to be used to "intimidate intimates rather than thwart crime;" they also go off in accidents, and can lead to other types of violence. It should be unsurprising then, that guns have also been found to pose particular dangers for women: more guns have also been linked to an increase in violent female deaths. Other studies have also shown that women with guns in the home are more likely to be murdered than if there were no guns, and that where domestic violence is already ongoing, the risk of female homicide is 20 times higher.
India certainly isn't the US, but it's comparable in some respects: the subcontinent has the second highest number of privately-owned guns, which means that the arguments for gun-control in the US are ones India should pay attention to. There is enough evidence to suggest that the argument for guns as self-defense, and particularly the defense of women, is not only an invalid but also a dangerous one. In the US, better gun-control and regulation would lead to less violence all around; and in India, a country where a rape happens every 22 minutes, do we really need yet another weapon that can be turned against women?
The past few years have been hailed as a victory for Indian women fighting back – mass mobilization of men and women across the country have made the issue of violence, harassment and rape in India not only an urgent matter of public discussion, but also a priority policy issue – India's new rape law (flawed though it may be) is a direct consequence of the widespread anger following the Nirbhaya case. Fighting back against rape has meant talking about it loudly and publicly, questioning the attitudes and the culture that sanctions and silences it, and most importantly, working to reform the institutions that have so far failed to prevent or punish it.
But arming women makes the significantly collective and democratic sense of fighting back and fighting for equality the responsibility of the individual, and that too only individuals who can afford to buy guns like Nirbheek.
Arming women cynically conflates the myth of guns as the great equalizer in self-defense, and tries to capitalize on the frustration, fear and anger that the issue of rape inspires in women across India. The idea of a gun for women also aims to profit from our desire to grasp at the deceptive image of the armed woman as symbolizing female empowerment. As women's rights advocates in India and elsewhere well know, guns aren't the solution to the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny that fuel violence against women. As Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of the Women Gun Survivors Network, recently put it, the marketing of guns to women as a solution to rape and sexual violence is nothing more than an "admission of failure" of a system that is bound to uphold equality. And buying into the myth only means that the market wins.