When a white woman is gang-raped in the Indian capital and a group of black women forced to undergo body searches on the mere suspicion that they are involved in a drug-sex racket, it says something about the misogynistic core of a society where criminality and racism go hand-in-hand. It is a reminder — if any were needed — that unless attitudes change, the status of women never will.
In between this binary of white and black is the spectrum of myriad crimes of savage sexism and brutal assault that Indian women are subjected to, crimes that are often unreported and hidden in the cloistered folds of a closed society.
Racism, caste and class cannot survive without controlling women’s bodies. That central premise forwarded by feminist author Gloria Steinem, whose latest work As if Women Matter, the Essential Gloria Steinem Reader was released in New Delhi recently, is in evidence. As it always is.
The Danish woman in her early 50s was raped by a gang of apparent wastrels and the African women subjected to humiliation by a minister in the newly-elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. Two apparently disparate cases strung together by a single thread.
The Danish tourist’s rape in a forgotten corner of the Railway Officer’s Club, a proverbial stone’s throw from the perpetually busy New Delhi Railway Station and Connaught Place, by a group of eight-nine “vagabonds” underscored once again the vulnerability of women and the fragility of the law and order regimen.
In an eerie recall of the rape of the journalist in Mumbai’s Shakti Mills last year, it was a little island of forgotten quiet that she walked into. It was late afternoon on January 14 and the woman had stopped to ask the way to her hotel in Paharganj, the backpacker haunt near the station.
She was allegedly raped for almost three hours at knifepoint by the men, described as drug addicts and vagabonds by police officials. A group of young and not-so-young men whiling away their time and finding the foreigner easy game. One more instance for us to rise and demand in unison that public spaces must become safer and the law and order machinery more responsive to the needs of women.
It’s like a treadmill there’s no getting off from. In the heightened reality of today, the more sensational crimes do make news, particularly if it’s in a metropolitan city. But there’s no let-up — be it New Delhi or Kolkata, where the latest instance to hit the headlines was of a 24-year-old gang-raped in a moving vehicle after being picked up from Kidderpore in the heart of the city. This, soon after a 12-year-old was raped and killed in Madhyamgram in West Bengal.
And because this is a reference point we can no longer get away from, it is all so similar to another woman raped in a bus that moved through the crowded streets of New Delhi on the cold winter night of December 16, 2012. The 23-year-old died — as did the not-even-in-her-teens child — of her horrific injuries two weeks later.
The comparison becomes inevitable because it serves to underline that the law has changed in response to the extraordinary movement that the December 16 tragedy generated but the underlying reasons for it have not.
It has also been exactly a year since the Justice JS Verma Committee, set up after December 16, submitted its report on laws relating to sex crimes after hearing thousands of suggestions from a cross-section of civil society, including women’s groups and lawyers. The panel’s recommendations were critical to amending the law later in the year. The definition of rape was expanded and issues such as stalking and acid attacks were recognised as specific offences.
Some of his recommendations were accepted, others were not, but all agreed that definitive strides had been taken towards addressing crimes against women. But to what avail? The law is only the external framework. Real change can only come from within, when families instil the message of true emancipation and equality for all in their sons and brothers.
Had that message gone down, maybe the African women would not have been subjected to the treatment they were. Maybe Delhi’s new law minister Somnath Bharti and his AAP comrades would not have found such ready support in south Delhi’s Khirki village on the night of January 15 when four women were allegedly held captive and subjected to humiliating body searches because they were suspected to be sex workers and drug racketeers.
The police could do little. “The complaints state that the women were touched inappropriately by partymen who held them captive,” a police officer was quoted as saying. Another complainant was reported as saying that the women were taken to hospital and made to urinate in public.
Many in Khirki, close to the middle class localities of Malviya Nagar and Saket, appeared quite unperturbed. The vigilante brigade, in fact, just fed into the barely hidden racial streak.
“We thought the crowd will kill us. We were very scared,” one of the women, a 23-year-old who had come to Delhi for treatment, told a reporter.
Nigerian High Commissioner to India Ndubuisi Amaku was appalled. “How can someone say that black people are criminals?,” he asked in an interview. While the Ministry of External Affairs stepped in to do damage control and met envoys of African countries, the Delhi government and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal took to the streets to press their point — they wanted the police officers who had refused to act on Bharti’s instructions transferred. When that did not happen, the India Gate area came to a standstill as thousands squatted in protest. Some travel advisories were issued. After all, this was not the first time that foreign women had been targeted. And the crimes against Indian women continue without pause.
“…Women should use caution when travelling in India. Reported cases of sexual assault against women and young girls are increasing… Serious sexual attacks involving Polish, German and Danish women travellers have been reported so far in 2014. Women travellers should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group,” is how Britain’s advisory went.
One day it’s a Danish woman, another day African; it’s Kolkata one day and Ranchi another. The reports come at you relentlessly, the details fast forwarding in a rapidly moving montage to leave you with just outrage, tinged with weariness. There’s no fadeout.
The author is consulting editor, dna