Will the Delhi gang-rape case actually change women's lives in India?
Translating "watershed" moments into action is almost impossible in a misogynist society with an under-equipped police force.
By now, you will know the basic facts of the Delhi gang rape case. On 16 December, a woman and her male companion were lured onto a private bus. On board, she was brutally gang-raped and beaten by six men as the bus drove around the city. After a sustained ordeal, the two victims were thrown onto the street. She died of her injuries a fortnight later.
You will also be aware of the response. Delhi and other major Indian cities were overcome with protests, while politicians, after initially misjudging the public mood, have promised change. The case and its implications have been exhaustively debated in the international media. Some British journalists have denounced India’s misogynistic culture (the case should “shatter our Bollywood fantasies”, said Libby Purves in the Times) while others condemned this neo-colonial attitude, noting that rape is hardly a problem unique to the subcontinent - “let us Brits not get all high and mighty,” said Owen Jones in the Independent. Particularly dishearteningly, sections of the Pakistani and Indian press have been engaged in a “your misogyny is worse than our misogyny” tit-for-tat.
As commentators run out of new things to say, what of the response that really matters – that taking place in Indian halls of power, and across society? Legal reforms under discussion include harsher penalties for sexual assault and fast-tracked court cases to improve woeful conviction rates. Yet, as many have pointed out, the problem runs deeper than legal changes.
This is not the first time that a brutal rape has prompted outrage in India, although the outpouring of grief and anger has arguably reached a new level this time. In July last year, a 17 year old girl in the north-eastern city of Guwahati was sexually assaulted by around 20 men. A passing TV crew filmed the incident, rather than intervening to stop it. National outrage ensued after the clip was shown on television. Yet despite the protests, international news coverage, and introspection about rape culture, nothing changed. This was not the first high profile rape case; it will not be the last.
Translating a high profile “watershed moment” into lasting change is a serious challenge in any country in the world. The major difficulty of overcoming regressive attitudes is evident in statements made in recent days – from the guru who said that the woman was partly to blame, to the defence lawyer for the case, who said this week: “I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady”.
This goes beyond offensive statements. Laws to protect women already exist – but are not enforced at ground-level due to a chronically under-funded, under-trained, and misogynistic police force. This is true across the sub-continent. Across the border in Pakistan, a law was introduced in 2011 to combat acid violence – yet a year later, campaigners say it has made little difference, with just 10 per cent of cases making it to court due to poor enforcement. The story is the same for a raft of pro-women legislation on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.
This lack of enforcement is at its worst in impoverished rural areas. The increasingly educated, urban India, which has been deeply disturbed by this event, is a marked contrast to the rural expanse of villages where it has barely made an impact. In villages, tribal justice and feudal practices continue unabated, with gang rapes routinely meted out as punishment. Living in Pakistan, I was shocked by the frequency with which these horrifying stories are reported. And those are just the ones that make the newspapers. The story is not dissimilar in India (despite the cross-border sniping about which country is worse for women). A BBC article last week listed some recent cases:
“A 10-month-old raped by a neighbour in Delhi; an 18-month-old raped and abandoned on the streets in Calcutta; a 14-year-old raped and murdered in a police station in Uttar Pradesh; a husband facilitating his own wife's gang rape in Howrah; a 65-year-old grandmother raped in Kharagpur.”
A serious and sustained discussion of rape and the myriad factors which allow it to happen can only be welcomed. But as the media storm dies down, the true test comes: will this really mean anything for India’s women?