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In Hindi and Punjabi, the word for shame is “sharam.” Shame is a powerful concept, used to control and modify behaviour the world over. It’s the root of guilt, both religious and social, and some commentators suggest that it’s a weapon wielded against women particularly. Now the broadcast journalist Anita Anand is turning the shame on Indian society, saying “the Sharam is yours, unless you address the roots of these attitudes. The Sharam is yours, unless you treat women better from the womb to the grave. The Sharam is yours, if you hide away your daughters until the day they are married in response to these awful crimes.”
She speaks with reference to the rape and murder of an unnamed 23-year-old student in Delhi last December. The student was travelling home from the cinema with a male friend when she was set upon, gang-raped, mutilated with an iron bar, and thrown from the bus. Five men and one juvenile male were arrested. Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Akshay Thakur and Pawan Gupta were found guilty of both rape and murder and will be sentenced on Friday 13th September.
Ram Singh, the ringleader who told police that the murder was necessary so their crimes would “not come to light”, was found hanged in his cell in March. The 17-year-old juvenile was sentenced to three years in prison; there was an international outcry over the perceived brevity of the term, but this case is exceptional; in India, it takes between six and eight years on average for a rape case to come to court, and the conviction rate is four per cent. It’s estimated that there are currently 90,000 rape cases pending trial in the Indian court system.
The student’s father condemned the existing culture with the words “It is a crime to be born a woman in India,” and Anita Anand illustrates just how accurate this is: “They are the same words uttered by a woman police officer who was dragged from her car just over two weeks ago, while making her way to her sister's funeral. She was gang raped by men wielding axes in Jharkhand state in eastern India. They are also the words used last week by social activists, after a six-year-old girl, who was locked in a room and repeatedly raped by a 40-year-old man, was forced by a council of elders in Rajasthan to marry the eight-year-old son of her attacker.”
It’s understandable, then, that so many victims grow impatient or mistrustful of the legal system. Shortly before the student’s case came to trial, the Times Of India reported the case of a rapist, Raju Vishvakarma, burned to death by his victim after visiting her home to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. His victim had invited Vishvakarma there after he was released on bail, but when he arrived she and her brothers doused him in kerosene and set him alight. The unnamed rape victim is being charged with his murder, although her actions met with widespread support and approval on Twitter. A series of gang rapes in a disused mill in an affluent area of Mumbai have also provoked public condemnation and anger.
Rape in India is, beyond a doubt, a sensitive and vital subject. It’s also a difficult subject for white, Western feminists to discuss without accusations of privilege and racism. All the good intentions in the world can’t replace dialogue and the voice of experience, and history has shown – and is showing us still – that inflicting one worldview onto another country will never be easy or wise. It’s possible, and it is to be hoped, that this case marks a sea change in women’s rights in India and beyond. Women everywhere deserve better treatment than this, and Western feminists must support Indian feminists in any way they can.
In February 2009, the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women launched the Pink Chaddi campaign – mailing pink underwear in protest to a religious leader who threatened to marry any young couples found together on Valentine’s Day. The Blank Noise project targets street harassment – known as Eve Teasing – in the same way that Every Day Harassment and Reclaim The Night do, and introduced the Safe City Pledge in response to the December 2012 rape case. And most strikingly, Save The Children India has launched Save Our Sisters, an anti-violence campaign featuring images of the goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga bearing cuts and bruises.
Indian feminists know what needs to happen, even though the cultural obstacles may seem almost insurmountable. Women’s rights are changing globally, making huge leaps forward, even in countries where cultural relativism seemed to excuse such inequalities. Saudi Arabian feminists such as Wajeha called for domestic violence laws, and this August saw the introduction of the nation’s first DV legislation. Change is possible, change is achievable, and change is inevitable. As feminists, it’s our job to lend our support to projects worldwide that endeavour to improve lives of women everywhere. l-Huwaider