India and Rape – Culturally Paradoxical?

by Kaneesha Banker, a student of BA International Relations at King’s College London.

December 16th 2012, a young girl named Jyoti Singh was brutally gang-raped and killed in the capital of India, New Delhi. It was not the first time that a woman was raped this brutally but it was the first time when the enraged public took matters in its own hands and started what Leslee Udwin saw as the Indian “Arab Spring for gender equality.” The country was in a chaotic condition – thousands asking for an answer, asking for justice. 2 years 2 months and 20 days on, this International Women’s Day 2015, the country still does not have an answer and justice still demands to be given not just to Jyoti (Nirbhaya – ‘the Fearless’ as we call her) but to all those who have been mercilessly raped – killed mentally and/or physically.

So what happened on that fateful night? 23-year-old Jyoti had gone to watch ‘The Life of Pi’ with one of her friends who happened to be a man. Why the gender clarification – I will explain later. The 5 men who were partying on a moving private bus saw the two victims struggling to find a transport service back home. Eyeing the woman, they offered to give them a ride back home. Unaware of their intentions, Jyoti and her friend got on the bus. The man, her friend, was beaten harshly with an iron rod when he tried to fight against them while Jyoti struggled to free herself from the rapists. She was taken to the rear of the bus and was brutally raped by the 4 men. Her medical examination indicated that an iron rod could have been used for penetration. Her intestines were pulled out during the raping. The use of the rod(s) had caused massive damage to her uterus, genital parts and intestines. Both she and her friend were then thrown out of the bus, naked, onto the streets where they were noticed by a passer-by who contacted Delhi Police. Nirbhaya had fought against the men – bit them and kicked them but in vain. She was fighting for her life but due to major multiple complications she breathed her last breath in Mount Elizabeth Hospital (where she had been transferred for best possible care) at 4.45 am Singapore Standard Time on the 29th of December. Between the rape incident and her death, the rapists had been found and jailed and India saw an outbreak of nationwide protests some of which ended up in harming the protesters because of arrests and the use of latthi-charge (beating with sticks), water cannon and tear gas shells by the police. I was a part of one of those protests and we all fought on. She gave us a reason to fight on. In death she had lit a flame, which would become too difficult for the country, the government, the people to burn out.

However, instead of witnessing a decline in the number of rapes, the country saw a steady increase after the incident. The wounds of the incident were still fresh when various other brutal incidents had been reported. National Crime Record Bureau of India- 93 women raped everyday. That is 33,945 women are raped every year. Why do I call it culturally paradoxical? It is because it is the country that has the highest Hindu population. That Hindu population which, with the 33 million Gods it worships, also worships many Goddesses for a good life. The people pray to Goddesses for the most essential aspects of life:

  • Ambe Maa – for ‘shakti’, for strength
  • Durga Maa, Kaali Maa – for the destruction of evil
  • Saraswati Maa – for knowledge
  • Lakshmi Maa – for wealth

They celebrate the power of being a woman through them. They pray to them for their well-being. We celebrate their festivals with great pomp. We spend thousands on dressing them, adorning them in beautiful saris, ornaments, colours. We are taught in our culture to place our mothers before everything else. And then in the same country everyday 93 women get raped. It is estimated that a woman gets raped every 20 minutes. It includes – girls (aged below 10), teenagers, women (including the ones who are married or are a mother). These are the official figures. There are many rapes that go unreported because the family has to carry the burden of being shunned in the society for their daughter being raped. One can often hear the phrase “muh kaala kar ke aayi hai” which means, “She has come back having blackened her face” and thereby the honour of her family. Post the Nirbhaya Rape Case many people, including some of the greatest ‘spiritual’ leaders (the supposed messengers of God), politicians, certain groups started blaming the girl, the female for the rape. It was common to hear:

“They dress in a way that they ask for it.”

“She invites trouble.”

“Men will ogle.”

“Girls enjoy it.”

“Outwardly they show displeasure but inwardly they don’t.” (Prabhupada)

“Taali ek haath se nahi bajti” = “It takes both hands to clap.” (Asaram Bapu – spiritual leader currently jailed for raping)

“A girl should know her limits.”

“She should not be roaming around with a ‘boy’ friend.”

“She should not leave the house post 8 pm.”

Instead of increasing her protection and siding with her to empower her, the woman of the society was being shunned for exercising her freedom of dressing, of speaking, of living the way she wanted to by such people/groups. Other groups, people on the other hand did continue the “Arab Spring” by starting initiatives/projects, schemes, help aids to support the women.

To capture the “Arab Spring”, filmmaker Leslee Udwin decided to decided to leave her family and come to India to make the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ on the Nirbhaya Rape Case of 2012. The case that “shook the collective conscience of India.” In the documentary, which was to be aired in several countries including India, the viewers get an entry to the rapists’ mind.

Mukesh Singh, one of the convicts who was supposedly not involved in the rape but was just continuing his task of driving the bus, says in the documentary, from behind bars – “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’, and only hit the boy…A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.” When told about the injuries and suffering she went through, he shows no remorse.

His lawyer, AP Singh, adds that if his sister or daughter does something like this then “in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.” Her being out with a male friend at that time (around 8 pm) is seen as being uncultured and shameful. Another defence lawyer, ML Sharma describes a woman as “a flower” and that “Indian culture is the best. It has no place for women.” Alas, it is the same culture that worships the Goddesses, the same culture that sees a mother as the ultimate being, the same culture that seeks to promote the safety and pride of every woman, the same culture that celebrates festivals to honour the women – daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, grandmothers that are the backbone of the society.

The Indian culture, India being a democracy, also promotes freedom of thought and of speech. Here too, it has become paradoxical. The documentary made by Udwin of India’s own daughter, the daughter who ignited the fire needed in the society, has been banned in India. The government claims that it “promotes further violence against women because of the rapists claims” and that it “spoils the image of our country internationally.” It has also been banned on the grounds of being ‘unethical media’ because it is argued that Udwin was not allowed to and should not have been given any permission to interact with the convicts. Whatever the reason, the banning has again highlighted the gender inequality, which India is still gripped in. The documentary and its banning has again given rise to the “spring” – many members of the society, from the Members of the Legislative Assemblies to the famous stars, the common working class, college students, 10 year olds and the economically poorly abled class demand freedom, demand justice because they know that the culture they were born and bred in is much more tolerant and is much more appreciative and respectful towards the female gender than the paradox it has gripped itself in. They seek answers – are there any therapists for rapists? Why do men rape? Why can a woman not live freely – be herself, be who she wants to be how she wants to be? Why does the woman have to bear the blame for the detestable and punishable desires of a man? Where do our morals and values disappear when it comes to addressing an issue of such high and national importance? When will the mind-set change? And will it change? Where is the freedom in this ‘democracy’?

In the country that we call ‘Maa’ – ‘Our Mother’; in the culture in which we worship Goddesses and pray to them to give us strength, knowledge, luck and progress; why is a woman the victim of brutal abuse?

With the wax dripping from the candle – the tears shedding for the plight of Jyoti, for the plight of many like her – which I held on 17th December 2012, I sought an answer to these questions. Jyoti, which means ‘light’, left leaving radiance, a flame that no one could escape from or extinguish.


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