India’s Fatal Rape Was Typical in a Country That Degrades Women
India’s thugs know they’re still safe. There have been 20 rapes in Delhi since Dec. 16, when the paramedic climbed into her last ever bus. One of the latest victims of rape is a 3-year-old infant in a playschool. We are waiting to see whether those in charge of this country will now stop telling us we had it coming because we wore skirts or stayed out too late or used make-up or had a boyfriend or didn’t marry at 16—and change themselves instead.
Is it any surprise that the men brutalizing a woman with a rusted rod thought they could get away with it? They may not have known there were 300 potential or actual rapists making the laws, nor the precise numbers that show the conviction rate for rape dropping from 46 percent to 26 percent over the last 40 years. But they would have known that it’s a pretty safe bet to rape a woman, scoot, and start the cycle afresh. Fifty percent of India’s population lives with this knowledge: its women.
In such a world, what woman can survive harm? There is not a single female friend of mine who hasn’t been molested. It’s called ‘eve-teasing’ here, conjuring up images of dalliance under apple trees. Even 20 years ago, our journeys to and from college were daily nausea. We were used to having men brush against our breasts, grope, catcall, leer, and press their erections against us when there was no escape in the crush of a crowded bus. Sharp hairpins and elbows came in handy, but otherwise there wasn’t much help. We couldn’t have gone to the police, we’d have been laughed right out of the station. Yet we considered ourselves lucky. There were other women, those that were allowed to be born at all—India comes out tops in the female foeticide ratings—who were being beaten or burned or sold or raped.
Sections of India have transformed since, and the dead paramedic was an example of this change. She was the oldest of three children in a poor family with its origins in rural north India. The girl’s father has a low-income job at Delhi’s airport. Her mother was described by the newspapers as ‘rustic,’ a ‘woman in denial’ who kept asking when she could take her dying, virtually disemboweled child back home from hospital. They took out loans to pay for the education of their daughter, who begged to study further. Prioritizing a girl’s education would have been unimaginable in rural India even a decade ago. It is a new phenomenon for girls from the hinterland to leave home to work or study, to have male friends. Marriage is no longer their only possible future.
This kind of modernity provokes punishment. Flailing against the independence of young women are authority figures ranging from college heads who ban girls from wearing jeans to ministers who lecture working women not to be too ‘adventurous.’ Often these strictures come from women. It is also routine for village councils in north India to ban women from using mobile phones because personal phones might encourage love affairs. These councils have been seeking amendments in the Hindu Marriage Act to support their atavistic views. Until the marriage laws are changed, honor killings are the councils’ favored standby.