Changing Attitudes Toward Sexual Assault in India

It was not the chilly morning that made me shiver as I sat in the Scott Amphitheater. It was what I was visualizing as I read the news: an ambitious 22 year old journalist being raped by five men in an isolated mill in Mumbai, being threatened with shards of beer bottles to answer her phone calls and say that she was okay, and being forced to stand naked as her assaulters clicked pictures of her. I felt disgusted and repulsed. And yet, learning that the victim had the emotional strength to report to the police as soon as she was set free was inspiring; that the police immediately began an investigation to trace the assaulters instead of driving the girl away with talks on the humiliation she may face, as is usually done, offered hope. During such instances, it is difficult to discern whether India is progressing, declining or at a standstill when it comes to the safety and freedom of its women.

The Mumbai Gang Rape has re-ignited the public outrage that the December 2012 Delhi Gang Rape initiated. The security of women, in particular, is relevant to sexual assault since they tend to be the victims in most cases in India. While many talk of greater public safety and vigilance, there remain influential politicians who steadfastly hold onto their perceived notions of Indian tradition. In the midst of all the public demand to “Punish the Rapists” and cries that ‘Enough is Enough,” there is an unsettling presence of patriarchal conservativism.

Mohan Bhagawat, the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right wing Hindu nationalist group, made a controversial statement that women are more safe following Indian traditions — traditions in which they are meant to be submissive, timid, child-bearing puppets of the men around them. “Westernization” tends to disrupt the hierarchy set by tradition. However, Mrinal Satish, an associate professor of law at Delhi’s National Law University, revealed in his doctoral dissertation at Yale Law School that incidence of rape were higher in the “traditional” rural areas than in the more “Westernized” urban cities. But while there remain those who think it is better for a woman to stay within the walls of her house, there are also others who oppose this culture of victim-blaming. The differing thoughts often bring the country to a seeming standstill; India continues to grapple with its identity as it seeks to develop in an increasingly open and tolerant world.

Even though Indian women now enjoy more social and economic freedom, the number of reported rape incidences have increased. According to a June 2013 report released by the Crime Records Bureau, 24,923 cases of rape were reported in India in 2012, a 3 percent increase from the 24,206 cases in 2011. Some believe that this is a form of male vengeance. As women rise in different fields, they are changing the power dynamics to the frustration of the men left sidelined. But this increase in rape incidence may also be disguised progress. It suggests that the Indian legal system is becoming more supportive to victims and that they are gathering the courage to seek justice for themselves. Furthermore, in March 2013, the Indian government amended its criminal law by adding stalking and voyeurism as punishable acts. Fast track courts have been set up to speed the trials of sexual offenders.

The changes in the system are encouraging to report sexual crimes. And yet, there are several loopholes that remain unaddressed. Laws may be being modified but are they actually being implemented? Is the government actively seeking to trains its officials to handle such matters? Are police officers trained to handle victims, who are often in a vulnerable emotional state? Do officials shun and stereotype victims? Is the legal system accessible everywhere in the country?  Further, the possibility of men as victims of rape, voyeurism, stalking or sexual harassment is completely ignored and protection by court is limited to women.

The reactions to and the subsequent measures taken against such crimes are often hurried and address only superficial causes. It is only through persistent and scrupulous effort that a safe, equal and just environment can be created. Yet, the wave of change that is forcing people to reconsider their ideas about sex, assault, safety and freedom can be felt. The Mumbai gang rape case has not pushed India’s struggle back to the starting point. It has instead, helped catalyze an ongoing process that will ultimately make the country much safer for both men and women.

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