Last Sunday in New Delhi, at around 9.30 p.m., a 23-year-old woman was gang raped for almost an hour on a moving bus and then thrown semi-naked on the road to die. Hideous violence against women is nothing new in India, but this particular outrage has caused widespread anger. Perhaps it was the casual ferocity of it. Or the fact that it took place on some of the teeming capital’s busiest streets. Or perhaps a nation at great pains to modernize is finding it hard to stomach what feels like an increasingly predatory sexual culture.
The rape sparked protests in the capital and outrage in Parliament, with several politicians demanding capital punishment for the perpetrators. The police have arrested four of the accused, and the trial, Indian Home Minister Sushil Shinde said, will be fast-tracked. “The incident has raised the issue of declining public confidence in the law and order machinery in the city,” a National Human Rights Commission statement said, “… Especially, in its capacity to ensure safety of women as a number of such incidents have been reported in the national capital in the recent past.”
Indeed, the rape of the 23-year-old — now fighting for her life with grievous injuries not only to her genitals but her intestines — is just another horror in a grim litany of Indian sexual violence. There were 17 cases of rape reported in the state of Haryana, which borders much of Delhi, in October alone. Across the nation, a woman is raped every 20 minutes, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. These frightening figures have risen steadily in recent years: in 2010, 24,206 rapes were reported, an almost 10% increase over 2001. The number of unreported rapes is without a doubt greater.
Compounding the problem is the fact that many still view rape as personal shame, not a violent crime, and male aggression is routinely excused as a mundane fact of life. After Haryana’s 17 rape cases in October, some informal village councils, called khap panchayats, suggested that girls should be married off early to prevent sexual violence. The state’s former chief minister, Om Prakash Chautala, endorsed the bizarre and archaic diktat. “In the Mughal era, people used to marry their girls to save them from Mughal atrocities, and currently a similar situation is arising in the state,” he said. I think that’s the reason [the] khap has taken such a decision and I support it.” (He later retracted his statement.)
Experts say blaming survivors of sexual assault is common in India. Rather than prosecute perpetrators, many say the fault belongs to rape survivors, who are shamed for, say, daring to walk alone, taking public transportation or wearing certain clothes. “Blaming the victim has been in some way also part of the larger design of the system, where you want to push the women to say they are responsible for what happens to them,” says Ranjana Kumari, a member of the National Mission for Empowerment of Women. “It is like saying men are not responsible but it is the women who lured them into this.”
Retrograde ideas about a woman’s “place” in society, socioeconomic insecurity and a crude yearning for power add other dimensions. According to Indian newspaper reports, Sunday’s attackers began by harassing the woman for simply being out with a man at night and then proceeded to beat her male friend with an iron rod. Indian experts say the rate of reported rapes is higher in areas with the most pronounced gender and class divides. “Normal changes in [Indian] society are seen as a challenge, and that’s why women are blamed more if they are expressing themselves freely, are mobile or wearing what they want to,” Kumari says. “This environment, sadly, is not seen as enabling women and making them strong but rather seen as reasons for such attacks.”
After Sunday’s incident, Home Minister Sushil Shinde set up a new committee to evaluate the situation and push for changes. He suggested identifying routes frequented by women at night and increasing police patrols along those routes. But without a wholesale shift in the country’s attitudes toward sexual violence, this sort of haphazard measure is doomed to fail. And in the meantime, the cycle of sexual violence will continue.
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