The scale and duration of protest against rape in India suggest that activists are determined to prevent sexual violence from being swept under the rug. And the government's – albeit belated – response demonstrates the ability of progressive activists to hold it accountable. Two of the protesters' placards -"Don't teach me what to wear, teach men not to rape," and "Don't Get Raped" – indict the blame-the-victim syndrome that claims to protect women by denying their freedom.
Rapists silenced the screams of 23-year-old Nirbhaya (a pseudonym which literally means "fearless") in India on December 16, 2012. The police employed bamboo sticks, water hoses and tear gas to silence the thousands of protesters who mourned her death and demanded that the government address rampant sexual assault. But the mounting protests in New Delhi and other Indian cities may finally keep Indian political officials and the media from silencing women who speak out against rape.
The women's movement in India has been protesting violence against women, specifically police rape of women in custody since the 1970s. But the government has minimised the problem. Until now. The gang rape of Nirbhaya violated widely held ethical norms and moved people to action. The protests may reflect the cumulative impact of the women's movement in uncovering and publicising violence against women. They also reflect frustration with the state that erupted into an anti-corruption movement last year.
Officials did their best to ignore the massive protests against rape initially. First, they interfered with the prosecution. High-ranking police officers allegedly prevented Nirbhaya and her mother from videotaping their testimonies. Then they trivialised and blamed the protesters. The city police commissioner demeaned the gravity of rape by stating that even men were unsafe in Delhi because they were pick-pocketed.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waited almost a week after protests began before issuing a public statement. His first words called for calm – implying that the real problem was the protest. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit refused to meet with protesters and had the police remove them. Many recalled that four years earlier when a young journalist was shot dead while returning home from work, Dikshit had warned women not to be too adventurous. Their responses fuelled even more outrage.
Truth be told, India has much work to do in redressing violence against women, and the task ahead goes far beyond bringing Nirbhaya's attackers to justice. Research indicates that there is a high incidence of rape within marriage, but Indian criminal law does not recognise this as a crime. Violence against lesbians is commonplace.
The Indian army's atrocities against women who have engaged in popular insurgencies are legendary. Because the police and courts are biased against women, especially lesbians and poor, rural, lower caste, non-Hindu and disabled women, legal redress for sexual violence is unlikely. The broader culture, too often, trivialises men's leering, groping and harassment of women in public places by describing them as "eve teasing".
Political figures' proposed "solutions" further exemplify the state's failure to take seriously violence against women. Manmohan Singh announced the creation of two inquiry commissions to investigate Nirbhaya's rape and propose amendments to criminal law to enhance punishments for sexual assault, including the possibility of capital punishment for rape; both commissions exclude women's groups and all civil society activists.
As feminists have pointed out, such quick-fix solutions are unlikely to deter sexual violence, particularly when it occurs within families. Wholly punitive measures ignore the enormous deterrents women face in reporting rape, including humiliation and abuse by the police, ostracism by their families, and harassment by their rapists. They further empower an often repressive police force. More generally, state violence in response to rape simply creates a more violent society.
The vibrancy of Indian democracy lies in activist responses. If India – or for that matter any democracy – is committed to redressing violence against women, governments must recognise feminist voices. Instead of being marginalised to a footnote or being co-opted by state actors, women's groups must shape the contours of the discussion.
If only to regain international standing and win the upcoming national elections, the Indian government must recognise the magnitude of the problem of sexual violence. India needs to recognise that rape is the outcome of the humiliation and degradation that women experience in daily life.
Amrita Basu, author of Two Faces of Protest: Contrasting Modes of Women's Activism in India, is Professor of Political Science and Women's and Gender studies at Amherst College.
Krupa Shandilya is Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Amherst College, and translator of The Madness of Waiting.