You know a country has a problem when someone takes the time to name a culture-specific problem in a foreign language. The gathering of men in public places to verbally and sometimes, physically harass women is called “eve-teasing” in India; it’s as common a term as any to the average Indian but a random grouping of words to anyone else. It’s indicative of how Indian men feel entitled to judge and harass women and this very impunity then lends itself to cases of acid attacks, stalking and sexual assault.
Indian men’s treatment of women and the, arguably pervasive, culture of misogyny that plagues the country have been in the news since December last year, when a young woman was barbarically assaulted by a group of men in a bus and died as a result of it. It shook the citizens of Delhi enough that they took to protesting in the streets and question authorities about why an increasingly progressive country suffers from rape as the fastest growing crime within its boundaries. Just as things were calming down and a momentous revision in rape law was expected, it happened again. Last week, a Swiss tourist who was travelling through a central Indian state was raped by a group of men, and, in a separate incident, a British tourist injured herself climbing out a window to avoid the advances of her hotel’s manager.
As Time magazine article questions the impact such events will have on India’s tourism industry, the US State Department advises its female citizens to avoid Indian public transport after it is dark outside, ensure their hotel rooms have functional locks and to dress conservatively to avoid unwanted attention. These are maxims that a woman living in India lives by, giving up the comfort of shorts in the Indian summer for a pair of long pants, ensuring her plans for an evening out incorporate a trusted male companion, checking behind her shoulder if she is in an unfamiliar part of town while clutching her cell phone, just in case. This life of constant vigilance and wariness is a reality that everyone but the Indian government can see.
Over the last few months, much has been said about the pervasiveness of a patriarchal, misogynist culture and how it cannot be erased overnight but has to be changed over time. In the meantime, the Indian Parliament has dished up a bill that it hopes will placate irate activists in the country and abroad. The ordinance, which will soon be signed into effect by the President of India, calls for capital punishment for convicted rapists and advocates harsher punishment for the perpetrators of acid attacks, sexual harassment, and stalking. In addition, the new law criminalizes a policeman’s refusal to register a complaint of sexual assault. It does not, however, acknowledge that marital rape is a crime and defines rape as a gender-specific act that essentially negates the fact that men can be raped.
While the passing of this law is commendable for taking a step forward for women’s rights, it is a rather small and largely ineffective step. The new changes and the existing laws put their faith in an effective law enforcement system that ought to be trusted by citizens. It blissfully ignores the problem of ill-trained policemen who victim-shame, trivialize sexual assault and rarely investigate reports of rape. The social stigma that a rape victim in India faces is so daunting that most studies assume that the majority never reports the occurrence of sexual assault.
I recognize that India can’t instantly offer its women a safe world of equality, but it can, at least, make it easier to redress such crimes. If you are the victim of any illegal activity, your first action should be reporting it to the police and helping them catch the criminal. For this reason, and for the general good of civic order in the country, the Indian Parliament should have passed a law that focused on training policemen to deal with victims of sexual assault appropriately and respectfully, they should go through workshops to be sensitized to the nature of rape and taught not to victim-blame or blame a woman’s sexual history for her being raped. The new law seeks to take a broad, ideological step forward but a more effective way would have been to execute changes on the small scale like changes in police training programs and recruitment procedures, in addition to retraining existing law enforcement officials.
It may be a while, maybe even decades before an Indian woman can walk down a street at night and not feel afraid, but it should not take so long to train a smaller number of people to be more tolerant and more aware of the issues that surround sexual assault. A law is only as effective as its enforcement makes it and as of now, Indian rape law is supporting itself against a pillar of apathetic ineptitude.