Last December, when news broke that “Nirbhaya” had died in a Singapore hospital, I felt disbelief, followed by anger, and then I sat down and cried. For someone I had never met, whose tragic and disturbing story had unfolded in the news over the previous twelve days. I’m not sure why I felt disbelief; she had been in such terrible shape, it was difficult to see how she could survive. But then there were those sentences of hers that came from her hospital bed, where she jotted down enough for everyone to see that she was a survivor. I, like everyone else in the world, wanted her to rise again and be the author of whatever was going to happen next in her life.
Since then, for better or worse, “the Delhi gang rape” has become a touchstone for talking about and evaluating everything regarding “women in India”. Though we focus on the rape, for all its brutality, the worst thing that happened to her, of course, was that she was murdered. And the idea that the worst thing that could happen to a woman could be something other than rape became an issue in and of itself.
That conversation and many others have unfolded in the Indian media over the last one year, often important discussions about the process of reporting rape and what that says about society’s attitudes towards it, women’s right to exist in public spaces at times of their choosing, women’s place in the home and the still invisible crime of marital rape, how the criminal masculinity of the sort exhibited on that night gets made or produced by society, the caste and class dynamics of crimes against women, the urban nature of this crime, the role of the police and how the justice system operates — although, with the recent ruling by the Supreme Court to continue to criminalise gay sex, faith in the courts to advance or even keep up with society when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality has been greatly diminished.
Meanwhile, the rapes, not to mention acid attacks, dowry deaths, and female foeticides, continue, and depending on one’s station in life and the circumstances of the events, the public comes to know and care, or not.
It was heartening, to say the least, to see the public anger toward gender inequality unleashed in the form of protests; the only salve in such a grim set of events. However, that this horrible crime became yet another tick in India’s hall of shame seemed a simplistic way to understand what happened.
As Amartya Sen showed in a recent article in the New York Review of Books (‘India’s Women: The Mixed Truth’), India has many fewer rapes than the US, the UK, and Sweden, even accounting for gross under-reporting of the crime. But Sen is far from being an apologist for the society in which this crime occurred. Instead, he, and many others, locate “India’s” gender issues in deeper societal attitudes towards women that make them fewer in number (due to selective abortion of female foetuses), less prominent in public, and less valued on the whole. We see this everyday in ways big and small, from wisecracks to supposedly wise words about how women should live, dress, marry, work, rear, and so on.
Importantly, Sen also questions the very idea of “women in India” by showing how the north and west of the country are far rougher places for women (they have a much lower rate of female births due to female foeticide) than the south and the east. When it comes to Delhi, he sees it less as just another megacity and more as typical of the region it’s in.
I sense this relationship between the regional and the megacity when I’m riding the Metro, as its lines reach out to the hinterlands. In the early years of the Metro, I remember feeling a new kind of kinship with male and female riders in that classic ability of public transport to equalize. Unlike the buses, on the Metro we face each other. That simple act of looking and way of seeing is part of a certain kind of recognition.
When the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation instituted the ladies’ coach in 2009, some said it was a step back for women in the city. Women shouldn’t need special protections in public since that just fed into the idea that they were not as capable of existing in busy public spaces. The Metro of all places should be a forward-moving public space, and men riding it should come to see and treat women as equal, and equally valuable, members of society — a process of social change that perhaps can only happen with the very presence of women in all kinds of new and old spaces.
I admit I usually ride in the ladies’ coach now, mostly because it’s so much less crowded than the mixed coaches. But I feel comfortable in the mixed coaches, too; I only wish there were more women there.
I can’t help thinking what would have happened if Nirbhaya and her friend had just taken the Metro home that night. It would have taken them two hours to get home, but they would have reached home. Not that it would have solved the problem. If the “joyriders” on that private bus hadn’t picked up her and her friend, they most certainly would have picked up someone else.
The author is assistant professor of anthropology at George Mason University