Fighting Violence Against Women in India With Heavy Metal

In a country where fears about sexual assaults run high, one of Mumbai's longest-running thrash-metal bands has released a concept album about the plight of women.
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To outsiders, the loud, aggressive world of heavy metal might seems like an unlikely place to find progressive politics. But any metalhead worth their leather can attest that the genre has often commented on society’s ills. Black Sabbath railed against the Vietnam War, Nuclear Assault offered apocalyptic visions of Reagan’s ‘80s, Sepultura howled scathing condemnations of the treatment of indigenous tribes in their native Brazil, Napalm Death addressed government failures and corruption, and more recently, Cloud Rat roared about sexism and urban blight atop a grindcore soundtrack. Thrash metal, in particular, has a long-running habit of tackling sociopolitical subjects with its rough barked vocals, wailing solos, and frenetic shredding.

In both a geographical and cultural sense, Mumbai seems about as far as one can get from the California Bay Area where the thrash-metal movement reached its apex. But the Indian band Sceptre offers proof of just how widely this style has spread. Inspired by their American forebears in Exodus and DRI and the music of classic German thrash bands like Kreator and Sodom, Sceptre recently celebrated its 15 anniversary, and is distinguished as one of India’s longest-running metal bands. Their latest recording taps into their genre’s liberal-leaning ideological tradition in a way that’s refreshing and urgent in modern India.

Age of Calamity is a concept album that deals with the plight of women in Indian society, and all proceeds from its sales will go directly to benefit a girls’ orphanage in Mumbai. Its haunting cover artwork was created by Indian artist Saloni Sinha, and depicts a weeping woman cradling her head in her hands, surrounded on all sides by crumbling walls and grasping shadows. It’s a powerful image, and in keeping with the theme, the band chose to work with a female artist.

“We have always been involved in writing about social issues, but this is the first time we decided to deal with gender issues, as the gravity of the situation is too grim to be dismissed so easily,” Sceptre drummer Aniket Waghmode says. “Our country has been plagued by this new evil of rape, which has only grown in leaps and bounds over the years.”

Waghmode’s referring to India’s growing reputation for sexual violence. In late 2012, a New Delhi gang rape claimed the life of a young woman, and the aftermath of that horrific event and others like it has served as a wake up call for many inside the country and out. In an article on this website last year, Isobel Coleman summarized the situation:

Rape happens everywhere, but India is a particularly tough place to be female. Over 40 percent of the child marriages in the world take place in India. Sex selective abortions occur there at staggering rates. In 2011, the gender ratio was at its most imbalanced since India's 1947 independence: among children six years old or under, there were only 914 girls per every 1,000 boys. Increases in wealth and literacy have only exacerbated the problem of female feticide.

Sexual harassment of women—known in India by its euphemism, "eve-teasing"—is widespread and includes behaviors ranging from lewd remarks to physical assault. In a recent Hindustan Times survey of 356 New Delhi women who take public transport, 78 percent of them reported having been sexually harassed in the past year.

Citizens horrified by these developments have rallied, taking to the streets of New Delhi and across South Asia in thousand-strong protests to condemn those who commit rape and the government officials some believe look the other way. While most came with signs, Sceptre chose a different medium to voice their frustration: the distorted guitars and furious roars of thrash metal.

All four members of Sceptre are family men, and Waghmode credits the birth of his daughter for his deepened understanding of the dangers women face. “After my daughter's birth, I could actually foresee how difficult it will be for a girl to move around freely, given the situation we are in as a nation,” he says. “Everyone in the band has been extremely fortunate to get immense support from our respective spouses and parents. We even have other women thanking us for taking this stand.”

Metal’s own gender problem helps to make Sceptre’s album concept seem so unorthodox. Misogyny remains an issue within a genre that calls bands like Prostitute Disfigurement and Cemetery Rapist its own and continues to allow “Hottest Chicks in Metal” features to continue to exist in its biggest publications. While many musicians and fans advocate for equality, there is still much work to be done. Waghmode blames the “fixed mindsets” and metal’s tendency to objectify women as major obstacles against that goal—an observation that rings true both in India and in the U.S.

On the other hand, the heavy-metal community can often make for an accepting, secure space. Siddhi Shah is a Pune-based artist, musician, and music teacher, and has been a metal fan since her early teens. She says that while there isn’t an abundance of women at metal shows in India, the ones that do attend are usually treated respectfully.

“All the gigs I have attended so far have been safe,” she says. “In general, there are always advances from men, but I guess that happens everywhere. In a metal gig, you will find that most of the crowd [is too interested in] the music and the beer and the mosh pits to notice anything else.”

Metal’s “woman problem” is in itself symptomatic of the dangers faced by all women. No matter how much fun a girl can have headbanging up front at a metal gig, she’ll have to make her way home eventually, and there is no guarantee she’ll get there safely.

“The government is far from doing enough to protect women,” Waghmode says, adding that he thinks rapists should get the death penalty. While he points out that the situation for women in urban areas is quickly improving, he believes the roots of Indian society’s gender tensions comes from what Indian music journalist Ankit Sinha refers to as “a lack of basic moral and sex education.”

“A society cannot progress until and unless the individuals constituting it are educated about sexuality,” Sinha says. “The problem of misogyny and gender inequality has prevailed in India since time immemorial, and it is a shame that a nation which is touted as an upcoming economic superpower still doesn’t know how to treat its women with dignity and respect.”

Sinha maintains that awareness efforts and public backlash against things like the gang-rape scandal are starting to make a difference. “Nowadays the masses are becoming more aware of terms like ‘equality’ and ‘liberation’ and people are making a conscious effort for the same,” she says. “Things are changing, rapidly.”

Releasing a loud, raging thrash-metal record about the problems women face is part of that wider move towards raising public consciousness. The title track is fast and furious, and vocalist Samron Jude’s strained bark illustrate the feelings of hopelessness both men and women may feel about their country’s ills: “We cry for revenge, we pray for hope … cries of despair and engulfed in defeat, is there a road or will we all just go down?” Incensed songs like “Parasites (of the State)” and “Judgment Day (End – A New Beginning)” continue the narrative. It’s an intense listen, but Waghmode sums up Spectre’s goal simply: “We just wanted to do our bit for this great nation, in which we still have some hope.”

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Kim Kelly is a New York-based writer and music journalist. She has written about heavy metal and the culture surrounding it for The Guardian, Pitchfork, and NPR. She blogs at Necrolust.

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