The beast in Delhi's belly
A protester holds a placard during a rally demanding the state government to ensure the safety of women in the capital city. Photo: Reuters
NOT far from where I live, in a hospital in the south of Delhi, a 23-year-old woman clings to life, after a trip home from the cinema became a living nightmare. Brutally raped and beaten on a bus by a gang of six men, her naked body was then thrown from the moving vehicle. Doctors have described her intestinal and perineal injuries as life threatening. In a critical condition, she remains on a ventilator, unable to breathe unaided. Her future is uncertain.
The incident has captured the attention of the nation. There has been a collective outpouring of shock, outrage, grief and anger. "Delhi's SHAME!" screams one headline. "Save women, save India!" shouts a protester and poster at India Gate. Bollywood stars and cricket icons have weighed in on Twitter. Distressed MPs have wept openly in Parliament. There have been marches and demonstrations across the country. There have been strident calls for the death penalty for the perpetrators and a groundswell of support for the introduction of capital punishment for convicted rapists. India is in crisis.
Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has called it a "shockingly extraordinary case". I, too, was shocked by the case. I was shocked by the sheer brutality and severity of her injuries and the location in which the crime took place, but I am sad to say I was not surprised. The awful tragedy is that there is nothing extraordinary about what happened on that bus. Women in India are in grave danger, suffering in a culture where sexism and misogyny lead to horrific violence against women.
I have been travelling in India since early August and based in Delhi for the past few months. Overwhelmingly, I have loved my time here, but I have not felt safe. From research released earlier this year that found India to be the worst OECD nation for women, to my conversations with women who live here, to my personal experiences, I am convinced that India is the worst country on earth in which to be a woman.
When I arrived in Delhi, the first thing I noticed was the staring and leering. As I grew more confident and began to navigate the city alone, I started hearing obscenities and lewd comments on a daily basis. Conversations with girlfriends and older women warned against the perils of crowds, be it the mixed gender carriages on the metro, catching the bus or religious festivals: in any crush of people I could expect groping and molestation. Being followed; the car driver who propositioned me for sex; the billboards that appeal to me to "Save the girl child!" from sex-selective abortion; the cautionary tales of women in my extended circle who have been brutally raped at various hours of the day or night.
To this list add acid attacks, dowry murders, domestic slavery, sex trafficking, rape, gang rape, a woman raped every 22 minutes, mostly with impunity. I, along with every woman in India, live with all this, or the threat of this, on a daily basis.
My experiences are filtered through the lens of my privileged position in Indian society. Protected by my comparative wealth and by my nationality, I am in a far better position than most.
If you are reading this in Australia, then you are too. Consider the physical impact of the violence and brutality to which women in India are subjected. Imagine the psychological and emotional effects of living in an atmosphere of danger and fear.
The events of the past week have earned Delhi the moniker of "rape capital", but it is gross oversimplification to focus on this city alone. The prevailing attitudes that allow these incidents to occur are India-wide. India, home of the Kama Sutra, where it is still forbidden to show the act of kissing on the Bollywood screen. Some point to these countervailing pressures, the complex interplay between modernisation and tradition, as the reason for the disastrous rates of violence against women, as if this liminality is somehow to blame. This simply is not true. So-called "traditional values" are used and abused in order to justify hateful attitudes and acts towards women. This is sexism and misogyny at work.
At a time when Australia is making its largest concerted effort to strengthen bilateral ties with India and pundits are pointing to all the points of convergence (democratic values, shared love of cricket, common language, mutual gains from trade) it is important that we make a clear-eyed assessment of the status quo.
If we as a nation are to embrace India fully - as I think we ought - we must disavow any form of cultural relativism when it comes to this issue. We must apply pressure, in whatever way possible, to call for change.
I cannot bear the hypocrisy of a Prime Minister who, when it is politically expedient, rails against sexism and misogyny domestically, but fails to make it a priority in our dealings internationally. Do our obligations to women, or our concern for the welfare of women, end at our national borders?
I would argue that they do not and should not. Tragically, it is too late for the young woman whose life has been irrevocably altered, who even now fights for her life in Safdarjung Hospital.
But it is never too late to strive to change the course of history. As a nation, we can call for change on behalf of the women of India, and we must.
Esmerelda Jelbart Wallbridge is an Australian graduate of Oxford University and the incoming Development Fellow at Operation ASHA, a Delhi-based NGO.