Inside a leafy Mumbai square normally accustomed to shrill sloganeering, a crowd protested on Friday with unsettling silence. As cameramen crawled along the fringes and policemen muttered into their walkie-talkies, protestors sat still, holding signs that declared Mumbai — widely believed to be one of India’s safest cities — the country’s new rape capital.
They had gathered to demand justice for a young photojournalist who was reportedly gang-raped while her male colleague was tied and beaten in an abandoned textile mill compound in Mumbai. The woman, a 23-year-old intern with a Mumbai-based English-language magazine, was attacked around 7PM on Thursday evening when she was taking photographs for an assignment about housing for textile mill workers in the city’s Lower Parel neighborhood, an area known for its offices, malls and restaurants. Satyapal Singh, Mumbai’s police commissioner, said on Friday afternoon that one of the accused had been arrested and four others had been identified. The woman, who suffered multiple injuries, he said, was recovering.
The incident occurred less than a year after widespread protests followed the horrifying case of a 23-year-old student who was fatally gang raped on a moving bus in New Delhi, and only a few months after a new sexual offence law was passed to impose heavier punishments for violence against women.
Despite new laws and public outrage, the constant presence of crimes against women is indicative of a culture rooted in patriarchy and impunity, says journalist Kalpana Sharma. “It has become clear that regardless of laws, a combination of political patronage, wealth and power means you can get away with anything,” says Sharma, who writes about developmental issues for the Hindu and has co-edited a book about women in Indian journalism. “When you combine a culture of patriarchy and impunity, we are left in this situation where every woman is in danger.”
Some in India worried today that brutal gang rapes are becoming a norm. “This is something that was seen during communal [religious] violence,” says Albeena Shakil, a women’s rights activist who has researched the low conviction rate of crime against women. “Now it has acquired a sense of a male collective which is taking the form of a backlash against the changing status of women in this country.”
Others say the efforts to spark lasting change for the safety of women in India are constantly up against a deep-seated gender bias. “You see this in a lot of school textbooks, the way women are portrayed — the woman is always the homemaker and the man is always the earner and this sort of gender-bias seeps in from a very young age,” says Pronoti Datta, a journalist who worked in the same magazine as the rape survivor and who was at Friday’s protest in Mumbai. “Policing is important. We need a better conviction rate and better evidence gathering. But the reasons underlying rape go far deeper.”