Whether she’s 5 years old or 50 years old, a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. Despite being the world’s largest democracy and having elected a female prime minister in the 1960’s, India’s culture is still deeply embedded in a patriarchal society. In 2012, a 23 year old girl was gang-raped in a moving bus in New Delhi – the capital of India – and the incident spurred a mass revolt across the country like never before. Incidentally, I was in the midst of the chaos as I was visiting Delhi during that time. I witnessed for myself the riots and brutality of the Indian police, as well as the outrageous remarks made by politicians and people in power about the role of women in Indian society.
The protests started in the immediate aftermath of the incident and after government officials had made ignorant statements regarding the gang-rape, saying the girl should not have been going out at 8pm with her male friend in the first place.
It was December afternoon in Delhi; my cousin and I were on our way to visit the President’s House to take pictures when we saw a large group of protesters with signs walking around outside the gates. They were protesting for women’s rights and called out several government officials and police who had neglected to act quickly. I decided to come back after looking around to take pictures of their signs. By the time I toured the President’s House and came outside, throngs of protesters were warding off police who were beating them with canes and spraying tear gas and water cannons everywhere. I was quickly ushered away by the guards and police from the chaos that soon turned violent. Later that night, news channels showed videos of protesters fighting the police and destroying vehicles and media equipment. And it seemed everywhere we went, there were police walking around to make sure we weren’t protesting.
In a country that prides itself on its democratic values, why are human rights trampled on?
When news of the police brutality in Delhi spread across the country, mass revolts and protests against the government started in many of the major Indian cities and across the world. The incident became an international story with all eyes on India and its government. Recently, the BBC released a documentary about the 2012 gang rape titled, “India’s Daughters”. The film, directed by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, interviews a wide cast of people involved in the issue from one of the rapists – Mukesh Singh – and his parents to the victim’s parents and friend. Udwin also interviewed a former Supreme Court justice, lawyers involved in the trials and experts on women’s rights issues in India.
The film sparked outrage within the Indian government and they had banned the film’s release, stating it was a biased and one-sided view of Indian society and would inappropriately encourage and entice people to commit further crimes against women. The BBC released the film early on YouTube due to a large demand for the film. Singh, one of the rapists, retold the story of that fateful December night. He said he felt no remorse or regret and stated that the girl was responsible for her own rape and death because she tried to resist them. He said had she not put up a fight, she may have still lived. The lawyers both defending and prosecuting the rapists agreed with his sentiment, stating that the girl was out of place in going out with a boy to begin with. One of the lawyers went as far to say that he would burn his own daughters alive if he found out they’d been raped. This is because rape is seen as shameful and disgraceful for the whole family, and a girl is usually raped to teach her or her family “a lesson”. While the film shed light on many of the ugly aspects of Indian culture and mentality, it drew a lot of criticism from people who felt it unfairly portrayed all Indian men. The point of the film was not to make people fear Indians or hate the country, but show one of the worst aspects of Indian culture and ideology in the hopes that change might be possible.
The oppression of women has become so institutionalized that it is part of Indian culture and everyday life. Even from birth, boys are considered a blessing while girls are often killed in infancy because they are seen as a burden. Growing up, girls are taught that they are lesser than boys and as young women they are taught not to go out alone or after dark. Everyday women are harassed by men, verbally or physically, and there is a constant presence of lingering eyes wherever you go. When I lived in India for a year I was fortunate enough to be able to get around safely but I was always aware of men who would watch me or follow me as I went around the city. For many women, this has become the norm. Daily headlines of numerous newspapers are filled with stories of women and young girls gone missing or raped or murdered, and people keep flipping through it because they have grown so accustomed to it. The gang-rape incident in 2012 served as a shocking wake-up call to men and women everywhere that complacency is not acceptable – and that there should be a greater protection for women in India.
Many in the older generation still feel that women should be kept in the house and have no place mingling with society. Rapes and abuses against women in India are largely unreported because the victims are often blamed for the rape, even by their own families, and are deemed outcasts in their communities. And even those that are reported only have a 14% conviction rate and are released on bail.
By banning the movie from the public, I feel that the Indian government sends a message that says “we don’t want to deal with this problem or confront this issue”. An incident such as this, which raised global concerns about the state of human rights abuses in India, should seek to educate and raise awareness of such atrocities and injustices to ensure that people don’t become desensitized or accustomed to issues pertaining to human rights and women’s rights. In many parts of the world, women are often still treated as second class citizens or worse and it is the hope of many that this story and its impact will help change the way these societies treat their women.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.