Three months on from the brutal gang rape and torture of a 23 year old woman which sparked national outrage and placed the spotlight firmly on New Delhis horrendous culture of violence against women, I spoke to three female journalists who have spent time living and working in the capital. I wanted to find out whether they believe Delhi will really change.
Im trying to understand what drives a culture in which sexual offences are so commonplace that many residents admit to having become immunised to hearing about rape. It took an act of such graphic brutality to finally bring serious attention to a world where women live in constant fear of sexual assault.
Sania works for one of Indias leading national newspapers and has lived in the capital for nearly a decade. An old saying among the women of this city is, If you have to survive here then getting your own car is an absolute necessity, she tells me. I was told that when I first arrived back in 2004 and its true. If you have a car in Delhi it is lot safer which is one of the reasons why wealthier women are better off. But you still have to be careful. Even though Ive been lucky enough to have a car for many years, after 10pm I still ensure all the doors are locked before I drive. That fear psychosis has been embedded into me.
These measures have long been part of daily life for women like Sania but after a month of protests throughout the city and a highly publicized trial, does she feel confident that there will at least be improvements in Delhis criminal justice system, bringing swift retribution to those who assault women?
Sania isnt holding out much hope. Like many she has grown frustrated by the corruption within the Indian legal system. As she points out, when the worst offenders are those in charge of introducing the legislation, there isnt much chance of change. There are a sizable number of politicians who have been accused of rape and weve seen several instances where sons of leading politicians and bureaucrats have been involved in committing such crimes. Any strict regulations are not going to happen as they will only put the top brass in trouble, she says. Not only that but politicians still feel implementing stricter rape penalties is definitely last in the agenda compared to health issues and the economy. But its not just the men who are at fault. I feel that our women MPs should shoulder an equal part of the blame, they have failed to take a proactive role on this as they are supposed to.
I want to believe that change will happen, says Shriya, a 27 year old freelance writer whos grown up in Delhi. I feel that this case in particular has touched the Indian youth. They feel it could have been them on that bus that night. The brutality of the attack has left them speechless. But unfortunately I think that were still a long way away from being in a situation where the police actually protect women.
Delhis police force has come under serious fire since December with the disturbing pattern emerging that the police are all too often more inclined to side with the rapist than the victim.
Shriya says that this has become a major problem as women are less inclined to report cases of sexual harassment or even rape because they fear theyll be treated as the one whos committed an offence. Every woman in Delhi has suffered from harassment to various degrees, she tells me. It could be someone pushing up against you in a crowded bus or subway or someone giving you problems at work. It could also be a group of men shouting at you when you walk down the road. Every woman I’ve met has had similar complaints. But there have been various reports in the media where police personnel have been quoting as saying the woman ‘was asking for it.’ And unfortunately, not just the police but most men still think along these lines. It’s sad to live in a society where women are taught to look out so that they don’t get raped instead of the men being taught not to rape.
I speak to Karishma, a 28 year old sports journalist who spent several years working in the UK before returning to Delhi. She believes that one of the underlying causes of the violence towards women is social tension with many men not being willing to embrace more progressive values.
India is still a largely conservative society with very black and white rules to everything, she explains. The whole concept of a woman as a homemaker and being inferior is still too embedded in everyone’s minds and most men aren’t comfortable to treat them as equals. Most female politicans in the public eye try and adhere to the formula of a traditional Indian woman, wearing sarees and toeing the official party line which doesnt really help. I guess rape or harassment is kind of seen as showing women their place in society.
Socialization is part of the problem here, Shirya agrees. Most men are brought up being taught that they are superior and macho. Women from childhood are taught to imbibe weaker qualities. Women are told to dress in a certain way, how to behave socially, what to do and what not to do. The moment you wear a skirt, you’re perceived as being not traditional and as the length gets shorter, slangs get cruder. But this isnt the only factor as its not just women who dress up in modern clothing who are victims of this menace.
Like Shriya, Karishma feels that there is a subversive culture within the police towards women and while this often means that the perpetrators of these crimes are not brought to justice, at worse, police officers themselves turn out to be the offenders. Both women fervently believe that the entire organisation is in need of a drastic overhaul and they would like to see more female officers. Currently women make up just 4% of the police force throughout India. A lot of times in India, police and authorities genuinely believe that the women who are raped or molested are the ones at fault simply because they wear ‘provocative dresses’, which in most cases is a lie, Karishma says.
A few years ago there was a case in Mumbai where a policeman himself was arrested for raping a young college girl. Mumbai local trains have two separate compartments for ladies and they had started having male police officers ‘guard’ the compartments after 11 pm, but most women felt more unsafe having the policeman than when they were alone. After all they are still part of the same society that believes that women are inferior and when it comes to domestic rapes they think the matter should be solved within the family itself.
But the often blasé and dismissive way in which Delhis police force treats sexual offences doesnt just stem from a backward attitude towards social change. Instead, corruption predictably plays a strong role.
Any FIR (First Independent Report a document which has to be registered in any Indian police station before the police start investigating a case) lodged means the police have to act and work so they normally discourage the lodging itself on the first place, Sania says. And even if it is done, then in the majority of cases the rapists come from rich families and the police are automatically influenced by anyone with power and money.
Most people think that Delhi has become known as the rape capital of India due to people from the neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh migrating to the capital, Karishma says. Typically, men from Haryana and Punjab are more aggressive, abrasive, rich and spoilt. They have powerful connections in Delhi and unfortunately money can silence a lot of things. This makes poorer people even more vulnerable because as well as the social stigma which unfortunately still relates to rape cases, they dont have the finances to pursue justice especially as cases go on forever.
So what can be done? Sania says that while she expects violence towards women to continue to go largely unpunished in the justice system, she hopes that the horrors of that night in December have highlighted how dangerous public transport in the capital is for women. She feels that changes in the infrastructure would at least make it easier for women to find ways to travel around in safety.
One of the primary reasons why Delhi is more unsafe than cities like Mumbai or Kolkata is that public transport is nowhere near as cheap and safe, she says. This is because in Delhi, taxis are not easily available and the ones around are extremely expensive. Hence most of the daily commuters have to make do with buses, local autos and the metro which are cramped and crowded and that makes you very vulnerable.
David Cox is a freelance writer based in London.
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.