It took a savage attack on a 23-year-old medical student and her male companion to bring Indian authorities face-to-face with their shame. For too long, predominantly male politicians, prosecutors, judges and police have turned a blind eye to the widespread abuse of females for fear of upsetting cultural norms or, perhaps, because they, too, have minimal respect for the right of women to walk safe.
Statistics tell the story. In 2012, 745 alleged rapists were arrested in India, but only one was convicted. And in this socially conservative country, where not-so-long-ago an on-screen kiss was taboo, most rapes go unreported, especially in rural areas where families fiercely protect their reputations.
However, the horrific details of this particular gang-rape, that robbed an intelligent young woman of her future, have touched a collective nerve to the extent there can be no going back. Large numbers of Indian women have decided enough is enough. They have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to demand death penalty for rapists, starting with the five accused whose guilt has been supported by DNA evidence.
While stringent laws and sentencing are necessary to deter would-be abusers, India requires a cultural tsunami before anything changes. The harrowing account of the attack by the unnamed girl’s friend was almost as shocking as the rape itself. Speaking on Zee News, he described how they fought against the men inside a bus with tinted windows, before they were thrown off without clothes and the bus driver attempted to run them over.
Injured and bleeding, they tried to flag down motorists and pleaded for help from passersby — in vain. Vehicles slowed down “looked at our naked bodies and left” he said. Such lack of compassion for two young people clearly in distress is unconscionable. Attitudes require shaking-up, a process that may be underway provided outraged women and enlightened males who support them maintain the momentum.
Right now, women are in the mood to fight back. A video I watched on YouTube may be an indicator of this new trend. It showed Bikram Singh Brahma, a politician accused of “seducing and subsequently raping” a married woman, being deprived of his shirt and slapped by dozens of women villagers while their men folk looked on. Brahma, who was caught in flagrante, asserts the tryst was consensual, but has since been arrested. Of course, street justice cannot be condoned, but it’s understandable that those women were tempted to take matters into their own hands on realising that they had been so badly failed by the system.
Ever since I can remember, India, that rightfully prides itself on making phenomenal economic strides, has wilfully hidden its dirty laundry. Indians have long been in denial concerning their nation’s appalling treatment of women and female degradation from birth to grave, that goes way beyond rape. Some 20 years ago, I wrote a letter to this newspaper, expressing my sorrow at the practice prevalent in some Indian villages of mothers killing female newborn babies with poisoned herbs. And for that I was taken to task by a few Indian colleagues who took my complaint as a personal affront or a slur on their homeland, which shocked and saddened me at the time. One, whom I considered to be a friend, cited poverty as an excuse for female infanticide and accused me of being insensitive.
While it is true that poverty is the motivation for such crimes when girls grow up, requiring dowries and are not usually able to make the same contribution to the family fortunes as males, the murder of babies cannot be justified in one of the planet’s oldest civilisations. As a headline in the Hindu newspaper, dated October 9, 2012, attests: “India loses three million girls in infanticide”.
Other unwanted baby girls are abandoned in trash cans or left outside churches, temples and shopping malls. The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu should be congratulated for launching a system of ‘Baby Hatches’, where mothers can anonymously leave their infants in cradles placed outside orphanages and NGOs. Thus far, almost 3,000 young lives have been saved this way.
In 2011, the Lancet reported a growing imbalance between the numbers of boys and girls in India due to the “selective abortion of girls”, totalling between 4.2-12.1 million from 1980-2012. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has characterised female foeticide and infanticide as a stain on the nation, but has failed to put his money where his mouth is.
Cracking down on infringers of the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act will be a step forward as dowries place an untenable burden on families battling poverty with more than one daughter. It is appalling that brides are seen as cash cows deserving of incineration for failing to comply with the demands of greedy in-laws. In 2010, there were 8,391 reported deaths due to dowry disputes. Yet, on an average, a mere 18 per cent of perpetrators are convicted.
Mother India is certainly taking a good long look at itself in the mirror. If the barbaric rape of a nameless, faceless young woman has opened India’s eyes, then her suffering, unimaginable as it was, could be a life-changer for the country’s mothers, sisters, wives and daughters and those yet unborn.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org