Rape victim's death forces taboo subject into the open
Preeti Singh worries each time her 20-year-old daughter has a late night at the hospital where she is a medical student.
If her daughter has to stay late, Singh tells her to wait for daylight to come home. “I was brought up with the fear that once it’s dark you should be at home,” says Singh, a 43-year-old kindergarten teacher in Bangalore, India’s technology hub. “I can’t shake that fear.”
Across India, women tell similar stories. Now, however, there is hope for change. For decades, women have had little choice but to walk away when groped in a crowded bus or train, or to simply cringe as someone tosses an obscene comment their way. Even if they haven’t experienced explicit sexual abuse, they live with the fear it could happen to them.
The gang-rape and beating of a 23-year-old university student on a bus in New Delhi on December 16 has taken sexual violence - a subject long hidden in the shadows of Indian society - and put it under the spotlight.
Hundreds of thousands of Indians have poured onto the streets across the country, holding candlelight vigils and rallies demanding that authorities take tougher action to create a safe environment for women.
“These protests have at least given women the confidence to talk about sexual violence,” says Singh. “For too long, women have been made to feel guilty for these things.” Like every woman in India, Singh has her own rules for her daughter’s safety. “We make sure she messages us when she reaches [the hospital] and when she leaves for home,” she says.
Aparna Dasa, a 35-year-old saleswoman at a Gauhati department store, said whenever she boards a crowded bus men try to hold her hand as she grasps the support bar, adding: “They try and touch at every opportunity.”
Some women said they had learned to ignore an unwelcome touch or a crude remark. Most said they convinced themselves to shrug off these routine assaults and humiliations to avoid angering their attackers, or for fear of bringing shame upon themselves and their families.
“What can you do? You have to work, you have to commute,” says Yasmin Talat, a 20-year-old graduate student and career counsellor.
“Sometimes I do get angry and say something,” she adds, “but I’m also scared. You never know what could anger these men.” Rashmi Gogia, a 35-year-old receptionist in a New Delhi law office, says: “When I’m on a crowded bus and someone says something bad to me, in my heart I want to give him a tight slap but I’ve learned to ignore it. What’s the use? All the blame always comes back to the woman. We stay silent from a sense of shame or are made to stay silent.”
The harassment and violence faced daily by millions of Indian women is a deeply entrenched part of a culture that values men over women. The mistreatment starts early - with sex-selective abortions and even
Indian movies and TV shows routinely trivialise women. In the often suggestive songs and dances of Bollywood films, it’s not unusual for the leading man and a gang of his buddies to chase a coyly reluctant actress, touching, pulling and throwing themselves on top of her.
On TV, the most popular soap operas show the ideal Indian woman as meek, submissive and accepting of her traditional role inside the home. Any discussion of sexual violence has been taboo. In the past, politicians have said that women should dress modestly and not stay out late to avoid rape and molestations.
Following the New Delhi rape, a usually lethargic government has responded with more empathy than before. Perhaps sensing the intensity of public anger, the government has vowed to enlist more women police officers and toughen sexual assault laws.
PUBLIC SHUT OUT
An Indian magistrate ruled on Monday that the media will not be allowed to attend pre-trial hearings or the trial of the five men accused of raping and killing the young student in the Indian capital, a police official said. Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal upheld the prosecutor's request that the media be barred from attending the proceedings, according to police spokesman Rajan Bhagat. Hundreds of journalists, lawyers from other cases and curious onlookers had crowded the courtroom where the five were to appear. Outside the courthouse complex, more than a dozen TV satellite trucks jammed the streets, and dozens of reporters - from India, the US, Japan and elsewhere - were waiting for news.
The five defendants later appeared before the magistrate, who scheduled another pre-trial hearing for Thursday that is expected to result in the case being sent to a special ‘fast-track" court. The trial is expected to begin in the coming days. Indian rape trials are normally closed to the media.
Authorities have charged the men with murder, rape and other crimes that could bring them the death penalty.
A sixth suspect, who is 17 years old, is expected to be tried in a juvenile court, where the maximum sentence would be three years in a reform facility.