Rape is not about short skirts or lustful gazes
Indian protesters held a rally in Ahmedabad following the cremation of a gang-rape victim. Photo: AFP
FROM a nation that had to plead for help from the International Monetary Fund 22 years ago, to one now ranked in the world's top 10, India has undergone a remarkable transformation. Since 1991, its economy has more than quadrupled in size, feeding the wealth and aspirations of its 1.24 billion people and bringing with it seismic changes in cultural attitudes.
While tens of millions of Indians still live in abject poverty, the country now boasts a substantial and highly influential middle class, which is generally highly educated and ambitious. It is these people who are leading one of the most extraordinary calls for change the nation has seen - a revolution in sexual attitudes.
The outpouring of anger and grief in recent weeks over the brutal gang rape and bashing of a 23-year-old woman on a Delhi bus has spread beyond India's capital city. It has gripped India's other major cities and rippled across its borders to Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, where protesters are demanding the government there end its indifference to attacks on women. There have been rallies in Nepal since late November - before the Delhi rape - calling for zero tolerance of violence against women.
These thousands of protesters, women and men alike, are laying down some truly inspiring challenges to their governments, police and justice authorities. They are demanding an end to the moribund and complacent legal systems, which for too long have ignored the dreadful rate of sexual violence on the sub-continent. Instead of allegations being pursued through investigations and subsequent charges, apathy among police and legislators, coupled with a creaking justice system, have worked to protect the perpetrators of sexual assaults.
Nor is the plight of women advanced by cynically defensive comments by police and politicians who cast blame on victims. Take for example the call by a Bharatiya Janata Party member to ban schoolgirls from wearing skirts because they attract the ''lustful gazes of men''. Or the senior police officer in the Punjab who suggested the increased number of reports of rape and sexual harassment in the past month might be due to ''ill-will, illicit relations and false promises to marry''. We could go on.
What is most disturbing in all this is the suggestion that women bring rape or sexual assaults on themselves; that what they wear or where they walk, who they talk to, even what time they are seen in public is altogether too provocative and, therefore, they should be punished. This archaic fallacy, that women are the cause of the evil done to them, serves to strip blame from the perpetrators. It exculpates them, even elevates their horrendous actions to a lesson of sorts. Why should any of us in Australia be interested in this? For many, many reasons. India's women are showing that empowerment comes from speaking out. It was not just the vicious nature of this particular assault in Delhi that galvanised the protesters. It was the thousands of incidents that occur daily, like a thousand cuts. It was the pinching and groping, the catcalls, leers and invasive bumps that women in many countries endure without filing an official complaint. Now, many Indian women are articulately and confidently standing up against this; for some men, that remains a strangely scary thing.
If Australians are interested in furthering the cause of human rights, which most certainly we are, then we must be vitally interested in other countries too where human rights are abused and where women are not treated equally. That means speaking out also against the terrifying use of rape as a weapon of war - in the Congo, in Syria - indeed, wherever perpetrators feel they can get away with it. Because for all the women who are finding their voice as a result of what has happened in Delhi, there are thousands more in less peaceful countries who are being brutalised, sexually assaulted and intimidated.
Thankfully, we have a committed police force and justice system in Australia to deal with such crime. But we must be forever watchful and encourage victims to report crimes and seek help. We certainly hope, however, that despite the most dreadful circumstances of the rape in Delhi, and the victim's subsequent death, that decent and lasting changes will emerge to ensure women in India - indeed, everywhere - are accorded the simple dignity and respect we all deserve.