India on trial: Why is sexual violence so prevalent in the country?

And how the reaction to one brutal case may finally lead to change


On the evening of Dec. 16, 2012, a young man named Ram Singh set out on a bus with five others from his slum on the edge of the posh South Delhi district. The bus was used for hire by a school by day; Ram Singh was usually the driver. But on this night, he and his brother, Mukesh, were out for a joyride, and they had persuaded Vinay Sharma, a handyman at a gym, and Pawan Gupta, a fruit seller, to come along, as well as Akshay Thakur, who had just arrived in Delhi to look for a job. By the end of the night the men’s stories had changed forever; they now stand accused of gang raping, assaulting and murdering a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a moving bus—a brutal story that made headlines around the world, launching a global debate about rape and violence against women.

The doctors at Safdarjung Hospital, where the woman was first taken, were horrified. “It’s more than rape,” one was quoted as saying in the papers next morning. The woman’s intestines had to be removed and she battled for life on a ventilator. As another day passed and Delhi’s citizenry realized she was unlikely to survive, anger spread. It wasn’t the first such case, nor was it the last—there were even cases subsequently reported in India’s capital, taking the total number of rapes in 2012 to more than 700. Yet this case angered and saddened Indians as no other had done.

Among those shattered by the news were the women of the Ravidas Camp slum. They still can’t believe what their boys allegedly did on that fateful day. “At least my son had the shame to admit it and say that he should be hanged,” said Vinay Sharma’s mother last week, sobbing. She spoke on condition she wouldn’t be named. In addition to working at a gym, her son waited tables at parties to supplement the income of his father, a construction worker. “He was a really nice, respectful boy,” said a neighbour, “and so were the others.” There was a sixth man, the most violent of them, according to the victim’s mother, who says she was told this by her daughter before she died. But he cannot be named; he was a minor who left home six years ago when he was 11.

The five adults may indeed be hanged if they are found guilty. The hearing began in Delhi last week in-camera to keep out the media. The men’s lawyers have said the media and public outrage have prejudiced the case against their clients.

The repercussions of the incident, though, go far beyond the trial’s outcome. Every day for two weeks, people protested en masse in the capital and across India against what has come to be known as “the Delhi gang rape.” Regular protest sites became memorials when the girl died in a Singapore hospital. The protests, many of them spontaneous and leaderless, repeatedly used the word azadi, or freedom. In one vigil held on New Year’s Eve outside the cinema where the woman and a male friend had gone before the attack, the protesters chanted, to the sound of cymbals: “We want freedom: freedom in the night, in the day, in the mall, in the bus, in the train, in pubs and offices and in the Parliament too; freedom to love and marry, and to not marry, from moral policing, to choose our partners, to dance, to not follow dress codes, to not be raped . . . ”

The events of the past month have shone a spotlight on the issues of rape and violence against women in India, and inspired similar protests in neighbouring countries. It’s a long-overdue discussion. “Every 22 minutes a rape takes place in India,” says activist Kamla Bhasin, who runs the South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers (SANGAT). According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the conviction rate in rape cases in 2011 was a dismal 26 per cent. “It is going to be a long battle,” Bhasin says.

It already is. The national debate has resulted in a number of controversial, victim-blaming statements from public figures. Abhijit Mukherjee, a ruling-party lawmaker who is also the son of India’s president, said in a speech that women faced such a fate because they “dented and painted” themselves, by which he meant they wore makeup. A minister in the state of Madhya Pradesh said women should not cross a certain line in asserting themselves and a spiritual leader, Asaram Bapu, said the Delhi woman would not have been raped had she addressed the perpetrators as brothers.

The back and forth highlights something of a cultural war that has sprung up. On the one side are socially conservative traditionalists who believe Western dress, going out at night and even eating Chinese food are to blame for women being assaulted. On the other is a changing guard of men and women of all ages who are agitating for progress.

For many in the West, this tension has come as a surprise. India, after all, is the largest democracy in the world, with the world’s largest number of English speakers, an economic powerhouse where women work in IT centres, hospitals, universities, and every other field. India has several leading women politicians, including the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party. The country also has laws in place to give them equality, at least on paper, and to protect them from domestic violence, rape, and so on.

And yet there is a deep undercurrent of sexism that’s reflected in a sign recently carried by a female protester: “Proud to be Indian, terrified to be an Indian woman.” At issue are not only the serious problems in the way that India’s rape laws are enforced and prosecuted, but also a broader paternalistic and often restrictive approach to women’s rights that is often framed as concern for their safety. Women, along with men, pack into Mumbai and Delhi’s busy bars, and increasingly they dress like any Westerner. But they travel by private car or taxi; they know not to take public transit at night, or to walk alone. Most hard-wire themselves to the challenges of modern life in India.

The tension is seen most in the booming metropolises of the new India, which are fed by migrants from smaller cities, towns and villages. Among other things, the big city gives women economic independence and a new-found right to work, go out, drink freely, and choose their partners. But such freedom also produces a backlash from men clinging to the old order. “As women enter workplaces and the public arena, their boldness and confidence seem to trigger a sense of insecurity in a society where men are used to being in charge,” says sociologist Ratna Kapur.

Nine years ago, Bangalore-based artist Jasmeen Patheja wondered why it was so difficult for women to assert their freedom. She switched on her tape recorder and went out, asking men why they sexually harassed women on the streets and in public transport, passing lewd comments, touching, groping and in extreme cases, raping. She was surprised to see how many men answered her question by blaming women. “They said they targeted women who walked in a certain way or wore clothes such as jeans,” she says. She soon realized many Indian men felt they had the licence to behave that way with women outside the family and their neighbourhood. “Such a sense of entitlement to define women’s role and freedom in society is given to men by Indian culture, by how parents bring them up, saying boys will be boys, or by what they see their role models in films do,” she says.

Patheja felt, back in 2004, an urgent need to break the silence around street sexual harassment—what Indian newspapers even today refer to as “Eve teasing.” Thus was born the Blank Noise Project, a series of public interventions across many cities. The project challenged the false justification of sexual harassment and rape that “provocative dressing” by women amounted to their “asking for it.” Patheja asked women to donate their clothes for an exhibition—clothes they were wearing when they were molested. Another intervention involved asking women to blog about their most scarring memory of sexual harassment; hundreds of such accounts came pouring out in a kind of mass catharsis. Many of the respondents got together and participated in events late in the night outside cinema halls and shopping complexes, making the point they had the right to the night as much as men did. “I think Blank Noise started many conversations,” says Patheja.

What would it take for women to assert such freedom in the city? Three women in Mumbai, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, researched the question for three years and came up with the book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. The book maps “exclusions and negotiations that women from different classes and communities encounter in the nation’s urban public spaces.” It argues that loitering or walking aimlessly—something that can invite the word “slut” and worse from men on the street—can be a radical action for Indian women, and the country needs to take equally radical action to make India a truly modern country.

“We argue that the discourse of safety is restrictive and finally dependent on women demonstrating respectability and purpose in public space,” says Phadke, one of the authors.

The debate over the Delhi rape still continues to be dominated by the competing ideas of protecting women and letting them be. But many also argue that what is needed, in fact, is a revamp of India’s archaic rape laws, as well as major reforms to policing. A hidden-camera sting operation last year showed officials of the Delhi Police blaming women for rape, and calling women who had come forward to report sexual assaults “prostitutes.” The corruption at the police station is, for rape survivors, compounded by the misogyny of the police force. Rape survivors often have to go through a humiliating two-finger test, administered by a doctor to determine if the woman has previously engaged in sexual activity; Human Rights Watch has asked India to abolish the test, which it says is often used to acquit rape suspects. Lawyers of accused rapists invariably accuse rape survivors of not being “respectable” women.

Women’s-rights activists will watch the case with interest: the history of the Indian women’s movement has been propelled by landmark rape cases that inspired similar outrage and protest in the 1970s and ’80s. The cases became turning points in the women’s movement, winning legislative challenges and getting the parliament and the courts to make and implement better laws. In Rajasthan in 1992, the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, for instance—punishment for intervening in a professional capacity to stop the marriage of a young girl—resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that mandated all organizations to form committees that urge women to report sexual harassment in the office.

Among the more successful ideas was a law that prohibits the media from naming a rape survivor, and obliges them to seek her family’s written permission to name her even after she has died. This has helped more women come out to register police cases and pursue justice.

“We told women that they don’t lose everything when they are raped; they should shun the idea that it is the end of their life. It is the rapist who should feel shame and social stigma,” says SANGAT’s Kamla Bhasin, a veteran activist who has been with the Indian women’s movement for 40 years. This time around, she feels hopeful.

“When we began speaking against rape, it used to be said that feminists hate men. I feel that something is changing,” she says, echoing the views of others.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. As a government committee reviews thousands of suggestions from the public on how the government can prevent rape, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), said such rapes were taking place in urban India and not Bharat, the latter being India’s traditional Hindi name. He blamed an old bogeyman, Westernization, for corrupting Indian society.

For Asha Kowtal of the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, that couldn’t be further than the truth. She argues that oppression and ancient class and caste tensions have done far more to perpetuate the current culture. The word dalit refers to the former untouchables—former, because the Indian constitution outlaws untouchability, even though the community still faces very poor treatment from the upper castes, especially in villages. Kowtal says four dalit women are raped every day, according to government statistics, which she says understate the problem. “Dalit women are raped to silence them and their families, and often to silence an entire neighbourhood of them. The idea is to maintain the dominance and hegemony of the upper castes,” she says. She points to the 2006 Khairlanji massacre, in which an entire village in the state of Maharashtra lynched to death a dalit family. “Before the dalit women were gang-raped, the upper-caste women beat them up.”

Rape has also become shockingly common in conflict zones within India. In Kashmir in 1991, all the women of the village of Kunan Poshpora were allegedly raped by soldiers of the Indian Army. In Manipur in 2004, the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, allegedly by the 17 Assam Rifles paramilitary soldiers who barged into her home and eventually riddled her body with bullets, resulted in a protest in which women marched naked in the street with a banner that read, “Indian army rape us.” In mass riots against Muslims, rape by Hindu nationalist groups has also been widely reported.

Filmmaker Rahul Roy, author of A Little Book on Men, about Indian masculinity, sees this culture of rape as “a war declared on women . . . an assault with the intention of marking bodies with a set of messages that can speak not just through the personal trauma of what the woman will go through but by what will be visible.”

There are indicators that something fundamental may be changing. Two stories illustrate the intensity of the moment. In Delhi on Dec. 25, a 19-year-old man, Chandrakant Singh, committed suicide because of the shame and social stigma after he was charged with harassing two women at a bus stop, an act he had allegedly been committing along with a friend since October. He hanged himself from a ceiling fan to avoid going to the police.

The case was under-reported, but was a symptom of a violent crisis in Indian masculinity. In other spheres that perpetuate such violent masculinity, the Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh raised public ire for his songs, the title of the most objectionable one translating to “I’m a rapist.” An online petition asking a five-star hotel to cancel his performance on New Year’s Eve met with success. Honey Singh subsequently claimed he had never written or sung the song; it was a conspiracy against him.

Incidents like these reflect a subtly changing climate in India. One interesting observation on that shift came from Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of the One Billion Rising campaign, which addresses violence against women. Ensler told a press conference in Delhi recently, “I can’t think of any country or any time when people have protested in such a manner against crime against women. Why are not people in the U.S. doing what people in Delhi are doing?” Ensler called the recent changes “a breakthrough in consciousness,” adding, “With the discussion on sexual violence, the window to women’s equality is open wider here than I’ve ever seen it.”