Dear PWG members,
As a Committee Member I am very pleased to be posting the following article we’ve received on the Delhi rape incident in January 2013.
PWG welcome all sorts of contributions on our website. The Share and Connect page in the Member Lounge is a great place for short pieces of news or information, useful references, tips etc., but we would also love some lengthier articles. If you have an article, an op-ed piece or …, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org/web with your contact details, what you were thinking of contributing and why you would like to share it with the PWG membership. We will then proofread and post it. However, we reserve the right to decline anything we deem unsuitable or edit the piece accordingly. But don’t let that put you off – chances are, we’d really love to publish what you send us!
The following article comes to us from Sonya Kar (pseudonym) and reflects the opinion of the author and not PWG.
Where the Mind is Without Fear
‘How did the recent ‘incident’ in Delhi affect you during your visit to India? I am interested in hearing what you think.’ I had grown tired of the question, asked repeatedly by numerous Swiss colleagues after my return from an 8-week trip to India in January of this year. I had arrived in India just after the horrific story had made the headlines there. This news story rapidly became an international statement of how women are treated in India- there was something in the story of this 23-year-old aspiring middle-class girl that touched a chord. She had made it to medical school supported by a family who bore this cost by selling ancestral land. She was the embodiment of the bright future and change her family and many others hoped to achieve.
‘She told the doctors she wants to live. But she is so badly injured; she will need to be fed nasally through a tube for the rest of her life’. The details of the Delhi rape incident of December 16th 2012 were as horrific as the courage of the assaulted woman was evident. The media was rife with the sordid details of her case and daily reports on her recovery marked each painful day of her struggle to survive, until the student, whose identity was kept secret till the end, ultimately succumbed to her injuries on December 29th.
I haven’t written this article to talk about the incident or the rights and wrongs of it. Or even to comment about women’s rights in India. I wrote this article to understand the anguish I experienced on a mass scale and the emotions that this case left in its wake. Emotions which affected so many people, that it partly fueled flash-mobs the world over, such as the ‘billion rising’ event in Basel in February 2013. I want to ask what has changed within us.
Re-examining the details of the case left me very uncomfortable. I had many things in common with the deceased girl. I have lived and studied in Delhi, too. As a student, I had taken a bus daily from the very same bus-stop in Delhi now made infamous with this incident. The cinema she had visited was one I had frequented as a student. I was also a middle-class woman who wanted to study and be successful in order to experience more of the world than was my birthright. It was perhaps this identification – ‘she could have been me’ – that touched so many hearts in India and indeed worldwide.
In India, I witnessed an outpouring of mass grief in different cities, on a scale as yet unprecedented. Spontaneous silent demonstrations by students, the unrelenting media coverage and daily discussions over dinner ensured we did not forget. I had to grit my teeth during meals and other social occasions as the gory details of the case were discussed numerous times. As I traveled one night by car for an appointment, I was struck by the sight of hundreds of students, young men and women, holding candles in their hands as they walked the streets, some holding banners of protest – in complete silence. On the other hand, demonstrations near the parliament in Delhi were racked with audible anguish, overwhelming grief was expressed by young women demonstrating on the streets, screaming, with tears running down their cheeks.
What was the aftermath of this frenzy of emotion and outrage? ‘We heard about the trouble in India’, a kindly neighbour mentioned and I admit to feeling shame. This is a mass consequence of the incident. There are some crimes that are bigger than the individual and implicate entire societies, just by their mute witnessing of it. Ashamed of the city I had spent much of my childhood in, I saw my shame reflected in Facebook posts by numerous expat and resident Indians all over the world, who despaired of justice as the world wondered at the treatment of women in Indian society.
A disturbing fact was that the student and her boyfriend, both badly injured, could not get help for over an hour on the public highway after being thrown off the bus. Scores of cars passed by without stopping as elaborate hoaxes to trap a well-meaning driver were well-known in Delhi. The possibility of being mugged or assaulted ensured not a single individual stopped to help. Harassment by the police and being forced into legal cases as inadvertent witnesses was another well-known deterrent. Would I have stopped? It is a question I cannot answer. But to me, this mute witnessing of suffering was at least as shameful as the incident itself. It raised the question of how much a well-meaning individual can drive change, or whether a well-thought out judicial system predisposes society to change.
The accused men in the Delhi incident were subsequently convicted and given the death sentence-a highly unusual sentence given only in ‘rarest of are’ cases by law. The Indian Government took measures to make laws for rape harsher – and the Indian Judicial system has reacted more quickly to subsequent incidents – sentencing being completed two months from the first filing of the report. This was unheard of before and is a step in the right direction. There has been a recent increase in the reporting of incidents – driven by the lessening of guilt and shame in the women registering complaints.
Well-known women in India have made the details of their abuse public, reducing the perception of shame and paving the path for other oppressed woman in India to speak up against crimes committed against them.
Indeed, I was soon to find out how difficult it is to react appropriately when faced with a wrong situation. On my return to Basel, I was on a train when I witnessed a conductor manhandling a young woman who did not have a ticket. As he lost patience with her excuses and non-compliance in a public dressing-down, this 180-pound man, lifted this woman who was half his size and slammed her against the wall. I was so shocked, that while this incident occurred before my horrified eyes, I was unable to say much to prevent it, though a female passenger stepped in immediately afterwards to remonstrate with the conductor. Every male passenger present looked the other way or pretended not to notice. In my small contribution for my female (albeit ticket-less) co-traveler, I reported the incident on the Swiss online service. The thrust of my complaint was that no passenger deserves physical mistreatment, even if they do not have a ticket, and I received an apologetic response from a senior official to my complaint within a few weeks of the incident. I trust that the conductor must have been questioned and perhaps reprimanded officially for his misconduct.
It bought to memory a time in India when I was student, in a car with a friend, hitch-hiking in Delhi University – for the few kilometres between our college and the nearby market which was not connected by public transport. We did this often, but always in groups and in daylight, carefully selecting cars without tinted windows and only one occupant. My friend, who sat in front, was thanking the driver, a well-dressed, middle-class young man, when he reached over and pinched her breast as she was in the middle of her polite acknowledgements before leaving the car.
Looking stunned, she alighted from the car and used the only weapon she had – her umbrella – to repeatedly strike his car window. As her blows rained down on his car, the driver remained inside the car, showering abuse on her and threatening to return to ‘get even’ for her retaliation. Under the onslaught of her umbrella, the glass of his car window suddenly grew milky, tiny cracks appeared on the surface – only then did the driver take off with a shattered pane as people nearby stopped to stare. He had made an expensive mistake.
I can’t say we hadn’t been warned – as young women in Delhi in the late ‘90s, we were constantly reminded to be careful – a very well-meaning elderly gentleman had lectured my friend and myself only days ago while he gave us a lift, about the risks of hitchhiking, as we had exchanged looks and giggled.
Life in Delhi meant being constantly alert, however I am firmly of the belief that normalcy is the best response to aggression. Living life as one is wont to, despite threats, is the greatest retaliation to the rising problem of criminal acts against women.
It was summed up eloquently in a speech by the 16-year old Malala Yosoufzai, during her address to the UN this year, having survived being shot by the Taliban. ‘I call upon my sisters around the world to be brave. To embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.’
Read more about her story below.
To be unafraid, to boldly go forward despite prospects of being harmed is the very essence of youthfulness and of growing up. Being young means being able to experiment and to retaliate when treated unfairly. A society where young women are afraid to do things that men do, will eventually stifle their women’s growth and indeed their youth. It is necessary to experiment with life, with clothes, travel and food – to enjoy the diversity life has to offer. A balanced society is one where the majority stands up against injustice in whatever shape or form they can rather than suppressing individuality or expression.
This article reflects the opinion of the author, not PWG.