In New Delhi, the same old sexual assault

I am trying to write a blog that explains to my friends Stateside who is who among Bollywood actors and actresses; I am trying to brainstorm Christmas blog ideas; I am trying to overcome the sense of melancholy that has set in since the Newtown shooting. I am trying and failing. This morning, the front page of the Times has the following headline: “The People Are at the Gate” referring to protesters surrounding India Gate in New Delhi, the capital. Such headlines have been dominating the papers for the last week in the wake of the brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman on a public bus in Delhi. This morning, my CNN app has the following headline on the Home page: “Violence erupts in India anti-rape rallies.” The news has gone global. And, not in a good way. Protests are happening throughout the country as the anger surrounding this case has spread.

Rapes occur every day in India. The latest statistics indicate more than 24,000 reported rapes in 2011. Note the emphasis on reported. In India, because of the stigma attached to rape, the majority of rapes go unreported. The Times recently reported that the number of cases has increased significantly over the last five years. The problem with such statistics, however, is whether the numbers reflect increased incidents, increased reporting, or both.  If rape is a part of daily life, then why did this rape in Delhi elicit such a strong, and eventually violent, response? What makes this case different from all the others that happen every day?

Let’s take a look at another rape here in Mumbai that occurred about a month ago. On 5 November, just as our friend Deb arrived in Mumbai, and we were getting ready to leave on holiday, we awoke to the following headline: “Burglar rapes Spanish woman at knifepoint in Bandra flat.” Within 24 hours, the papers subsequently reported that the suspect had been caught. Two key words in that headline make this swift response possible: Spanish and Bandra. The rape of an expat female ensured that the police scrambled to find the perpetrator. Also, what becomes clear from the article is that the flat is located in a posh section of Bandra. It turns out that the burglar also robbed a Bollywood star’s home a few days earlier. Swift action ensued in an incident involving an upper-class Caucasian in an upper-class section of the city. There were no protests or calls for better policing because they were not needed. Whether the perpetrator will be convicted is yet to be seen. The conviction rate for rape cases is an abysmal 25%, despite a 94% rate of filing charges in reported cases.

The details of the Delhi rape case are brutal. The victim, whose name has not been released, has made a statement to police that outlines a 40-minute ordeal on a public bus. She and her male friend were lured on to the bus. The doors were locked. The friend tried to protest. He was beaten and knocked unconscious. The victim was then beaten, raped multiple times, and eventually lost consciousness. When the assailants were done, she and her friend were thrown from the bus. The brutality of the assault alone is reason enough for the public to seek justice, but this crime seems to have touched a nerve in a capital where one rape is reported every 18 hours. Delhi has the highest percentage of sexual assaults in the county, but the lowest conviction rate.

Attitudes toward sexual assault do not help. Among the signs displayed by protesters that call for an end to sexual violence, one read, “Don’t get raped.” Another similar sign contained these edits, “Don’t get raped.” These conflicting messages exemplify the conflicting attitudes toward rape. Is the rape the fault of the victim or the perpetrator? In India, there is a debate about this issue. Do girls who wear shorts ask to be raped? Do boys who expect to be given everything also expect sex? In some ways, the debate is no different from the US, where one idiot who was running for office said that a woman could not get pregnant as a result of a legitimate rape. Needless to say, he lost.

But, all this does not explain why this incident more than any other has sparked such outrage. I wish I had an answer for that. Part of the anger comes from the fact that the rape occurred, not in a home or other private setting, but, on a public bus, a place where women should be safe, but are not. Much eve-teasing (sexual harassment) happens on buses. My Christian maid wears a mangalsutra (marriage necklace). She does not wear the mangalsutra because it represents anything to her. As a Christian, her only marriage symbol is the same as mine: the gold band on her left hand. She wears the mangalsutra because she rides the bus, and the necklace marks her as a married woman, shielding her from harassment. Part of the anger comes from the seemingly slow action by the local police to find and prosecute the perpetrators. Unlike the 24-hour turnaround time of the Mumbai case, the Delhi police were slower to act on the information given. Part of the anger comes from women in India being sick and tired of their second-class status. Despite the fact that females dominate the top of the annual school exams, they are rarely at the top of the corporate ladder. So much so, that corporations are looking for ways to mentor these women so that one day they can take their place in the same corner offices now occupied by men.

In this short post, I have managed to touch on only a few points and not very deeply. It would take far more to really explain why Indians have responded to the rape they way they have. For those in the States who have seen the coverage on CNN and wondered if I am safe in India, the simple answer is yes. I am just as safe as in the States. Although I am not immune to the violence that occurs here, I can walk down the street without fear, something not all women in India can do.  As a videshi (foreigner) living here, I understand the anger and am glad to hear the voices raised to support the woman who was attacked. I just wish those voices were not violent. The Times has symbolically named the victim Nirbhaya, which means courage. I applaud her for fighting for her life and against her attackers.









One thought on “In New Delhi, the same old sexual assault

  1. Pingback: I is for Indias | Magnolia2Mumbai!

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