Two weeks ago, outside one of New Delhi’s most popular malls, a 23-year-old physiology student and her male friend decided to catch a bus home after seeing a movie. It wasn’t very late, only about 9 PM, and the bus that pulled up was marked “chartered,” nicer than the normal Delhi Transport Corporation buses and sporting tinted windows and curtains. It seemed empty, except for six men including the driver. The two were promised a ride all the way home.
But once the friends got inside, the six men started to harass the girl. They beat the male friend with an iron pipe when he tried to stop them and proceeded to rape the girl. They used the iron rod on the girl as well. And when they were done—after nearly an hour of gang rape according to police—they dumped the two barely conscious young people on the intersection of a busy road while the bus was still moving. The friends were discovered hours later and taken to a hospital. Authorities haven’t released the names of the victims. The physiology student was transferred to a hospital in Singapore where she died Friday. Police have six men in custody who are now being charged with murder in addition to rape.
This might have been another horrific but hardly noticed blip of violence in Delhi, dubbed the “rape capital” in popular media shorthand, but because of the seemingly safe neighborhood and the brutality of the crimes, this incident has become a rallying cry for the issue of women’s safety—something long-ignored in India. And perhaps because this happened to “people like us,” India’s long-apolitical middle class has taken notice.
Last weekend, tens of thousands of college students descended onto India Gate, a large park close to the president’s house and Parliament offices. Holding placards, chanting slogans, and demanding change demonstrators called out a host of issues like class division, cultural mysogny, and sexual repression while expressing shock, anger, and disdain for the ghastly acts committed and the Indian government's history of apathy regarding violence against women. Somewhere along the way, the crowd turned—or so the police claim—which prompted the cops to start firing at them with tear gas and water cannons and beat them with long wooden sticks called lathis. A “lathi charge” is a common expression in the Indian lexicon, synonymous with the cops shutting something down.
In all this, apart from a law requiring buses to display their licenses in the front window, and some fast track courts set up for rape cases, very little has been done to actually change anything. But the issue has charged Indians to confront basic assumptions about gender roles and expectations. A popular question overheard at parties and on the street is “Why aren’t you at India Gate?” The political class seems to have taken note, too. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh along with Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi greeted the body of the victim when it was flown back from Singapore yesterday.
I spoke to feminist activist and adviser to Sangat South Asia, Kamla Bhasin, about how the nation’s grief over this tragic event might precipitate change and how a rapidly modernizing India presents opportunities and problems for women’s safety.
VICE: Why are so many women raped in India?
Kamla Bhasin: I don’t think it’s just India. Patriarchy is a global phenomenon, as is objectification. Traditional and new liberal patriarchy is the biggest problem. To the cosmetic industry women are nothing but bodies. It’s what I call the Dabanggification of men. The 2010 Bollywood blockbuster Dabangg and other films glorify violence and portray harassment as acceptable behavior. They are making it normal. In these films, even in love, men pull and push women around.
There is this mindset that women are inferior beings, not equal. In Hindu families, the woman touches her husband’s feet. We change our names. We put sindoor (red powder indicating a married woman) in our hair. There are festivals every couple of months that put men on a pedestal. And we keep this lie going.
Delhi is particularly infamous for being unsafe for women. Why do you think that is?
Generally, North India is much more patriarchal. And attitudes that diminish women's rights become solidified in middle class culture, especially as new wealth is created. The price of land is going up, but the value of girls is going down. In posh, rich South Delhi, the sex ratio is around 880 girls to every 1000 boys. There are 35 million girls and women killed in India, through feticide, starvation, neglect, dowry deaths and so on. In fact, the best pro-women figures are in tribal majority states. Uneducated people are not killing their daughters.
Do Indian men not get enough sex?
Rape is not about sex; it’s about power, anger, and violence. No one on that bus enjoyed his erection. What is there in their lives? That’s why they are angry. Violent masculinity is glorified in films. Powerful men will have consensual sex. Powerless men will not have it. They watch movies and see actresses like Kareena Kapoor. She titillates and agitates them. They think Kareena liked it in the film, why won’t the girl on the road like the same? Women can only sell sex under patriarchy.
Will the protests change anything?
Hopefully the impunity that many rapists find will no longer exist. But it's just a start. We need a cultural tsunami. Indian laws are amongst the best in the world, but they’re not implemented. We have to change thinking. Take little boys. They’re not born rapists. But within 12 years, the neighborhood, family, Bollywood are all telling him, “You have a penis, you can do it, baby!” We are producing rapists like a factory. We need to stop that factory.
What is your opinion on the government’s promises to fix things?
Every new iteration of the Indian government has been trying. There are procedures. I believe in democracy. We have made progress, but there are still some corrupt practices. The rape factory is working overtime.