Most of you know about the horrific rape that happened in New Delhi on the 16th of December 2012, when 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, a medical intern in New Delhi was brutally raped and murdered by six men, well five men and a minor. An L-shaped iron rod was used both to beat and penetrate her during the act, causing severe injuries to her abdomen, intestines and genitals. She was flown to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital for a multiple organ transplant, but it was too late. She died of a cardiac arrest during the 6-hour flight. What followed was a movement to bring the perpetrators to justice. Public demonstrations, protests, international awareness, media efforts and a mass response to outrageously sexist remarks led to what came closest to justice. Ultimately, four out of five of the men got death sentences, while the juvenile was let off after a year in remand. I remember feeling sick to the stomach, but also hopeful. Maybe now, things would change. Maybe these men, if you could call them that, would think twice before committing such morbid acts of sin. I wish I were right.
Six years later, matters have worsened. Another gangrape, but this time it’s 8-year old Asifa Bano. One juvenile and seven men, including four police officers. Asifa’s legs were broken and nails had turned blue. If this sounds disturbing, listen to this: around the same time, an 8-month old baby girl was raped by her cousin, with injuries to her vital organs. This is one of many, each as repulsive as the other.
It does seem like we are doing a lot. Women safety initiatives, increased awareness and funding, consistent and timely media reporting, protests and candlelit marches, we seem to be trying hard. So what are we missing? I think we are missing the point. We seem too busy treating a disease that we haven’t been able to diagnose. We do have the answers, it’s just that they’re so over the place that we can’t do anything with them.
I was born and raised in India and spent 7 years of my formative years schooling in New Delhi. While neither I nor anyone else around me went through anything so terrifying, we knew that it could actually happen. The reality was always at the back of our minds. Having to be vigilant on the way to class and on the way home, while out watching a movie or going to the mall or club with friends, or even staying home alone. Imagine not being able to fully relax. Of course, small incidents did happen now and then. Getting pinched at the water park, being stalked on the road, being so quickly and subtly flashed at you couldn’t even be sure it happened. These episodes are so common that one doesn’t even mention them. It’s almost normal. But it shouldn’t be.
Every time stories of sexual crime featured in the news, I felt disgusted. I also felt guilty for not saying anything, doing anything. People I know do not say or do anything either because they know it won’t change anything. They’re probably right. But then I did some thinking, and then some reading. And I realised that the main problem is that of a proper structure and an ensuing framework to address what’s urgent in a systematic manner. News is abundant, and most of it is nonsense. If you Google rape crisis in India report the first thing you get is this article by the Daily Beast: What’s Really behind India’s Rape Crisis. Out of context passages taken from The Mahabharata (“There is no creature more sinful, than woman. She is poison, she is snake”) and Modi-blaming and shaming make up the most of it. I wasted 5 mins reading it. By the time I get to the next, I don’t feel like wasting another 5. And that’s how the minority media content that actually makes sense gets gets washed away.
This article is my attempt at bringing it all together.
Let’s not mince words, we are in the middle of an epidemic. Now, it’s important to understand who the stakeholders are. I have been able to come up with six categories: (1) the perpetrators and their immediate circle, (2) the victims and their immediate circle, (3) the media, (4) the law, (5) the government and (6) the general public. Each of these are a part of and contribute to the larger problem at hand. Some want to help solve it but are restricted in certain ways. Next, we look at the broad categories of problems that might pertain to all or some of these players. In my opinion, these are: mindset, lack of consequence and lack of incentive.
It’s obvious that the beliefs of the perpetrators directly lead to the problem. As you would know and agree, sexual crimes have less to do with sex and more to do with the assertion of power. In terms of social ranking, women stand one notch lower than domesticated animals in the minds of these men and even the women that raise them. So they feel that it’s their right and even duty, to suppress any wayward behaviour or worse, independent thought. This could be venturing out by yourself in the middle of the night, not dressing conservatively enough, or even just cross-questioning the man. In some cases, it’s much worse. There is no thought into it, a young girl equates to a means of fulfilling their desires. Feel like eating mutton curry? Let’s go catch a goat. Feel like channeling your lust? Go catch a girl.
This is pretty bad in itself, but at least it’s expected. Things get more complicated when some of these beliefs are shared by those in power and influence: the government, police and even media professionals. That’s how you get comments like, “If you keep sweets on the street then dogs will come and eat them.” Or how, in some cases, policemen themselves are involved in the rape.
What’s less obvious is how the people around the victim and the general public- we – feed in to the problem. Think about what the victim has to go through for a minute; just the idea of being raped is so terrifying that many would choose death over it if they had to. If it actually happens, I can’t begin to imagine the emotional turmoil that the victim has to go through. The physical injuries seem insignificant in comparison. Then having to go through a two-finger test and a detailed interrogation questioning your moral integrity only adds to the humiliation. This is where the victim’s troubles should end and her healing process should begin. Once again I stand corrected.
This is where your family sympathises, but also ask you to hush up your identity lest people find out you were raped. Worse, what if they think you led it on? You can hear the whispers. The fact is that she’s no longer a virgin now. Would she still be able to bear children after all that damage? I sympathise being a woman, but I don’t think I can marry my son to her. Why was she wearing such a provocative dress, anyway? And who was that boy? It’s not uncommon for rape victims to undergo severe depression and at times, even commit suicide.
And then there’s us. Do you know anybody who has suffered rape? I don’t, and I can bet that most people reading this don’t either. It’s because rape in India is more common for women from a lower socioeconomic brackets. And since we can’t relate, we don’t really care. This is why Jyoti Singh’s case becomes an international sensation while the others are forgotten in due time. Jyoti was a medical student who had gone out with a male friend, maybe boyfriend to watch Life Of Pi. It could have been any of us. The danger suddenly seemed real. Even when we encounter smaller episodes such as stalking or eve-teasing, we dismiss them thinking, it’s not worth lodging an official complaint over. In fact, we start cross-examining ourselves. Are we not covering up enough? Are we visiting the wrong places? What time was it? The problem is, we let them get away for the little things. And then when the big things happen, it’s too late. They learn to get away.
Lack of consequence
While mindset is the most fundamental problem, it’s still abstract. We can’t actually go about changing mindset today. The problem that we can solve is consequence. We live in a world where the innocent are in constant fear and the guilty roam free, and where none of the stakeholders can trust each other. If you’re raped, you’re too afraid to lodge a complaint. Sometimes, the police consists of lecherous individuals who look at you in the same way that your violators did. And they ask unnecessary questions to humiliate you further. If your perpetrators are politically connected, you don’t stand very little chance in court. You and your family may even be threatened with death, or be at the risk of acid attacks. There have been cases where the victim spoke up and the attackers came back for round two, before setting her on fire. With such outcomes and little protection, anyone would be scared to death. I know I would.
The Nirbhaya case was an exception, not the rule. Too many perpetrators get away, and are allowed to get away. They see that and know that. And so they are even more encouraged. There is no consequence.
If legislation is slow, the media is unthinking. Week after week, year after year, the same kind of news articles are printed by the mass. Publications and newspapers make little or no effort to analyse patterns or come up with useful conclusions. Blame the incumbent holders of power. Blame Indian mythology and history textbooks. Blame some uneducated halfwit for statements that do not matter because he does not matter. Create a lot of noise to create a stir, but never take actual responsibility.
Lack of incentive
When people do try, there is no incentive. Then why should people try? For each Nirbhaya or Asifa Bano, the public come out in the streets and protest. It goes on for a few days, and then it dies out. I agree that it takes time for laws to change, but how long does it take to appreciate people for taking initiative? No one gets awarded or lauded, or even appreciated for their bravery. In fact, they’re ridiculed for bothering in the first place. Over time, what you have is largely apathetic public who couldn’t care less. Either because they’ve tried or they know nothing would come out of it.
The victim and her family aren’t incentivised to speak out. Even if they were to win the case, all they get is closure. They have lost money, time and friends. It’s like fighting a war, no one really wins.
If you’re still with me, I’m almost done. To sum it all, the status quo is unacceptable and has to change. India might not have the highest incidences of rape in the world, but what stands out is that who should be shaming are in turn shamed. Even today, the existence of an unmarried girl’s virginity decides her value and its loss becomes the entire country’s problem. Imagine going through an experience that completely humiliates your mind, body and soul for no fault of yours and being blamed for it anyway, when all you wanted was a warm hug and a listening ear.
I don’t know how to go about solving the problem, but I have tried to describe it. And I can foresee a future where no foreign women would want to visit India (women tourists have already dropped by 35%). Where Indian men would be seen with a lens of suspicion no matter where they go. Where Indian women would become so overcautious of strange men and adventures that they would be stereotyped as conservative and not fun.
I belong to the general public and what we have is the ability is to speak out. Even for the smallest incidents. Make a big deal of it. Make sure they know that there are consequences. Let’s not make entire generations suffer for the heinous crimes of a handful, even as they walk away.