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Women Are on Strike Against Rape Culture in India

On Wednesday, my roommate told me women were on strike, and when I asked her which industry, she said, “No, just women. I called in sick… They asked me what I had, and I said I was sick of rape culture.” Women in India changed their Facebook photos to...
August 30, 2013, 6:00pm

Photo Courtesy of Mriga Kothare and Prajakta Karekar

On Wednesday, my roommate told me women were on strike, and when I asked her which industry, she said, “No, just women. I called in sick… They asked me what I had, and I said I was sick of rape culture.” Women in India changed their Facebook photos to read "I am a woman on strike, are you?" Then, they did nothing. Bosses received sick calls. They didn’t go to work, ignored their household chores, and some even refused to go outside. In my head, I pictured women sitting on the couch with their arms crossed, smugly watching the men in the household picking up the slack, while daytime television ratings spiked.


Six months ago, thousands protested in New Delhi when a young student was gang-raped and eventually died as police failed to initially arrest the rapists. Female protests returned in April to Mumbai, New Delhi, and other major Indian cities to march and voiced their concerns about law enforcement's failure to take rape cases seriously. Just last week, five men brutally gang-raped a female photojournalist on assignment in Mumbai, after they tied up her male colleague. When the story got international attention, law enforcement arrested all five of the alleged rapists. Indian women aren’t satisfied and believe something drastic needs to happen to address rape culture in the country. Something like a strike, so the country couldn’t function.

As of 2010, women were 26 percent of rural workers and 13 percent of urban workers, but these statistics exclude the economics of household labor, or "the work that makes all other work possible." In 2010, 216 million women in India were doing some type of domestic labor. If these women didn’t go to work, the country would stop, according to Mriga Kothare and Prajakta Karekar, the organizers’ of Wednesday’s strike. If there's anything that has a history of forcing the people in power to listen and do something, it's a strike en masse.

I spoke with Mgira and Prajakta about their plan to combat rape culture.

VICE: How did this campaign come about?
Prajakta Karekar: Recently there have been many episodes of rape that have been taking place continuously, one after the other, and all this while we have just been the silent spectators to these episodes. Not even women, for that matter, have understood their strength completely.

Mriga Kothare: It was a thought provoked by the latest gang-rape case that happened in Mumbai on August 22. There has been turmoil post the Delhi case last December, anyway, but Mumbai was a complete different story. Mumbai has always been a safe haven for women. We could go home alone after a late-night movie in a cab at 1 AM, or go for a drive with a friend at 3 AM and grab some roadside tea or live alone in a rented apartment without the fear of being followed and raped. This incident changed that notion for most women here. I have girlfriends and sisters who I care about and who shouldn’t have to live in fear. The campaign was born out of outrage and passion for freedom that this city has always offered us.


Why A Strike?
Mriga: The whole point was to do something different. Protest rallies and marches and demonstrations have been done and done. They haven’t had any lasting impact over the years. The idea was to show the power of women as a collective, influential group of the society. No one has calculated the revenue the country generates only through women. If all women collectively decided to hang up their boots for a day, the economical ramifications wouldn’t go unnoticed in a country that only understands the language of money. For instance the "Save Electricity" campaign, where everyone in the world, switches off the lights for whatever given time. That's how big an impact this can potentially create if people empathize with the cause.
Prajakta: If women did not go for their daily work like household, office, parliament, business, etc., the family, schools, business, parliament, homes, offices, and men would not be able to function completely. At least 49 percent of the population in this country is actually women, and imagine if they all said, “We are on strike and refuse to function.” That strength would be well understood and good enough to bring in confidence among women to stand for themselves, fight back bravely, and bring in a new change.

Do you know how many women decided to strike?
Mriga: We have managed to reach around 4,500 people in support. We have heard from women across the country who have willingly supported the cause.
Prajakta: We don't believe on imposing thoughts, and it was also not a compulsion for all to be a part of this. We were absolutely aware of the constraints of women who would not be able to go on strike. For example, we had a woman saying that she completely supported the cause but couldn't go on strike because she was a mother of a very young baby. We had a lot of people liking the cause, spreading awareness, and then many actively going on strike.


What does "striking" entail?
Mriga: No cooking, cleaning, feeding the kids, sweeping, storing water, going to work, teaching, and so on. Women run and contribute to every single activity happening in the country. There are [women] who fill a corporate boardroom, the Parliament, local trains, and our own homes. Everybody needs to know that the world cannot operate without women. It's high time that we get the respect we deserve. We cannot be taken for granted, or be thought of as powerless or helpless. The strike will show how a day without women looks like. We're giving them a visual of the future: treat us wrong, and we'll disappear.

How Did It Spread?
Mriga: We do have a Facebook page now and promoted it on Twitter but mostly by word of mouth.

So what did you guys do on Wednesday?
MrigaPersonally, I did not go to work. I did not run errands. I did not leave the house and I basically did not interact with anyone outside my family. My mom did not go to work, but she had to cook and do other house work as my grandparents are dependent on her.
Prajakta: My own mother and friends were a part of this.

What has been the response?
Prajakta: We had a mixed response. There were a few who did not agree with this kind of a strike as they felt violence is the only way to change the system. 
Mriga: Surprisingly, the men I have come across, have not only been supportive of the cause, but have actively helped spread the word to their family and friends. But of course, a large part of the population unfortunately still includes male chauvinists who’d not get the whole point anyway. Some have said things like, “Women can’t strike, baby!” or “It’s better to just go away to another country than trying to clean up this mess. It’s a lost cause and nothings gonna change” or "It is better to just avoid going out late or wearing such clothes; it’s all because of how girls nowadays live.” So yes, it has been a hard, rocky road.


Do you have a list of demands?
Mriga: Laws are already made, but we want them to be implemented. We need quick procedures. We want an example to be set. Nobody fears the law today. The guilty get away too easily. A few years doesn’t cut it anymore. It's all taken for granted. The government needs to take a drastic step. Besides that, education needs to be imparted at the grassroots level. Most of our rural population is uneducated. We cannot forget how important education is. Sex education, self-defense, and basic social and moral sciences should be made a compulsory subject in every school starting from first grade. Even parents at times need to be taught right. Usually, their thoughts and views are reflected in the children. For instance, how a husband behaves with his wife plays a very important role in what the kids see and learn and eventually behave like.

How do you see this strike changing rape culture?
Mriga: When men see that they really can’t live in a world without women, when the country sees the power women have in the society, the contribution they make to the economy, there will be a rise in the respect that women get. Women will not be perceived as helpless, powerless, and be taken for granted. The world will know that we will stand against any injustice, that we will stand together, and we will fight back.

Will you be striking again?
Prajakta: Yes, definitely! I am not giving up on this. It’s time we realize the strengths within us.
Mgira: We need a strong-enough response to carry this forward to a bigger level. Women on Strike is looking to go to the root of the problem rather than cleaning it up superficially.


What will it take to change rape culture in our society?
Prajakta: Strict revised laws, self-defense, self-confidence, respect, and support of all should act as weapons to stay protected from rape.
Mriga: No one asks to be raped. It is my choice and comfort and freedom if I want to wear a short skirt or if I want to sit alone late at night. That by no means justifies me being raped. The basic mentality of “she asked for it” has to go. It could very well have been you. And as long as even one individual is willing to stand up and fight for it, it is not a lost cause. We took 200 years, but we did manage to get freedom from the British. It will take years and countless efforts, but I believe we will fight this too. And so can anyone else if they have a strong-enough will.


More stories from around the world on the rape epidemic:

The Rape in Delhi: Thousands Protest for Women's Safety in India

I Was Raped—and the Police Told Me I Made It Up

The Place Women Go to Get Raped