Driving through Dharamsala, a small rural town in Northern Indian known for its Tibetan community and centred around the activities of the Dalai Lama, we passed a protest. Relatively small in numbers, particularly in comparison to those that have been seen in Delhi over the past month, it did not appear frenzied or violent, but quiet and thought provoking whilst possessing a sense of urgency. Consisting of men and women of a wide range of ages, each holding a white candle, this protest had gathered both in memory of Delhi’s gang-rape victim, Jyoti Singh Pandey, and, like protests across India, to raise awareness and demand change concerning how women are treated in Indian society.
India is a country with a huge population and incredibly diverse customs and religious cultures, so addressing this problem will be complex. As Akhandadhi Das, a Vaishnav Hindu teacher and theologian, points out, until around the 8th or 9th century the role of women in Indian society experienced much greater equality, much more so than western Europe at this time. However he argues that now Hindu texts have sometimes been “selectively misapplied to justify the subservience of women”, even though Hinduism actually “states that none of us are male or female we are all absolutely equal as transcendent living beings, all be it currently incarnated in human bodies”. This is just one example of how societies and cultures, all over the world, can attempt to justify the subservience of women.
The brutality of this incident brought to the forefront how sexual violence is dealt with in India, and a call for cases to be heard much more quickly, whilst cases that received little attention before this incident of December 16 now continue to be reported in the news. One of the six men accused is being tried in a juvenile court, although there is some controversy surrounding how old he may really be; if convicted he will only face a maximum of three years in prison. There are calls for major changes – the Guardian used recent figures to show that a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India.
However, rape and sexual violence are endemic across the globe, and these protests have raised the issue of the treatment of women all over the world; in the UK according to the government’s action plan on Violence Against Women and Girls, 80,000 women are raped every year and 400,000 are sexually assaulted. Perhaps all countries and cultures need to re-evaluate certain stigmas entrenched in societies.
The brutal incident, which led to the death of a 23-year-old woman, who was gang-raped on December 16 sparked mass protests in India and resulted in demands for change. People are critical as to whether government proposals and adjustments to laws will produce a long-term difference in India concerning how women are treated. However, if the current mood persists long enough then change does look promising, so much so that demands were being made for change in a small, rural town situated near to the Himalayas, and miles away from Delhi.
Photo credit: Clare Nellist