Trials and tribulations

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Rape is not uncommon in India. In fact, it is all too common – estimates say that, roughly every 23 minutes, there is a woman being raped.

Last December, a young female medical student was heading home from the cinema in Delhi with a male friend. They decided to return by way of a private bus – that night, on said bus, the other passengers were five adult men and a minor. Damini (as she was dubbed by the Indian media, meaning ‘lightning’ in Hindi) was brutally beaten, gang raped, violated with a metal tube and subsequently left for dead, naked in a ditch. Two weeks later, she died.

What prompts someone to rape? A rape survivor – I say survivor and not victim, as the latter carries the connotation of weakness – who asked that she be kept anonymous told me that, really, it was nothing personal. The man – her former boss – did it not because he fancied her, nor for any harboring of ill-will; he’d raped her out of the simple, vicious urge to dominate over another human being.

The concept of power and dominance resonates strongly in India, whose society still holds vestiges of the caste system. Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who specializes in the study of rape, posits that rape is a reflection of social forces. In India, due to historical social trends and customs, people don’t feel accountable for aggression against marginalized groups. Victims of violence who belong to said groups therefore have no voice, as they are not given one by the authorities.

The misconception is that India has a problem with its women – India does not have an issue with its women, it has a problem with its people. The state fails to protect not only its women from sexual violence, but its citizens from culturally rooted violence.

Still, the question remains – with the multitude of rapes in India, why has this particular case made it to the headlines? To start with, women in India do not enjoy an easy life. According to Thomson Reuters report, one of the worst places to be born a woman is India. Centuries-old marginalization and objectification of females continues to manifest itself in infanticide/sex-selective abortions, child marriage, domestic violence, acid throwing, the dowry, and honour killings.

Rape, especially, is all too prevalent. Many attacks are not even reported, as the women are immediately ostracized from public life and declared ‘unfit’ to marry, or ‘impure.’ In a society where women heavily depend on man’s presence for legitimacy, the popular solution is ‘to put a ring on it’ – marry the rapist. However, last December the case involved a medical university student. She was not willing to compromise for some misguided preconception of honor – as an educated woman, she was made aware of the notion of responsible, self-conscious citizens of a state. She recognized this as injustice, and the Indian people rallied around her to protest the Indian government’s neglect of its citizen’s basic rights. The people’s outcry catalyzed the trial of the five men responsible, and now four of the perpetrators are sentenced to death. In this instance, there has some acknowledgment of the rights of Damini – her right life, to safety, to respect. Why has this not happened before? This is not just about rape, or women. This is about lack of social justice and civic duty. The state of India is not failing its women. It is failing its citizens.

Is rape a manifestation of power? Is it, as Sanday puts it, a “reproductive strategy for sexual losers”? One thing’s for sure – India needs a sexual revolution, starting from the classroom and state support for female education. The Indian government should honor Damini’s memory not only by punishing her rapists, but by reforming her country and making it a place she would have wanted to live in.

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