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The Indian women who've had enough

Date

Amrit Dhillon

Rape and sexual assault have long been a terrible burden of daily life for women in India. But things are changing.

Women in the Indian city of Bangalore condemn the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey just over a year ago.

Women in the Indian city of Bangalore condemn the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey just over a year ago. Photo: AFP

Just over a year ago, 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey was gang-raped on a bus as it moved through the streets of the Indian capital, New Delhi. The men repeatedly raped the young woman before dumping her and her male friend naked and semi-conscious on the roadside.

Jyoti Pandey's friend recovered, but her internal injuries were so severe that she died in a Singapore hospital two weeks after the attack.

In the recent riots in Uttar Pradesh, several Muslim women were raped. It’s been amazing how their husbands went with them to the police station and insisted that the rape be registered. - Ranjana Kumari, head of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi. 

This horrific rape and murder touched a raw nerve in every Indian woman who has had to endure the sexual harassment that is a feature of daily life for women throughout the country.

A student prays in Ahmedabad during a vigil for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi, December 31, 2012.

A student prays in Ahmedabad during a vigil for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi, December 31, 2012. Photo: AMIT DAVE

Pandey's shocking death also plunged Indians into a period of national soul-searching about why their culture treats women so badly, why it produces men who dominate and control their wives and why women are blamed if they are raped.

Indians also looked for answers to questions such as why the male sense of entitlement is so powerful, and why degrading customs such as female foeticide and dowry persist, and how it is that Pandey's simple trip to the cinema with a friend followed by a bus trip home could end so horrifically.

But despite the nationwide introspection and the outpouring of indignation after Pandey's rape and murder, the rape of women and girls continued, with almost every day bringing new horrors and more bouts of pained introspection.

Indian protesters hold candles during a rally in New Delhi late 2012, after the death of a gang rape victim.

Indian protesters hold candles during a rally in New Delhi late 2012, after the death of a gang rape victim. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN

Despite everything, however, things may be changing for the better and, paradoxically, it is the latest and most high-profile case of alleged rape that best illustrates these positive changes in Indian society.

In November, Tarun Tejpal, owner of the Tehelka news magazine, a crusading publication that champions the rights of women and the poor, was accused by one of his young employees, a journalist, of sexual assault in a hotel lift. The woman further alleged he tried to force himself on her again the next day, also in a lift. Tejpal's lawyers deny the charge.

But the details of the case illustrate the seachange in women's behaviour following the Delhi gang rape.

On December 19, 2012 Indian students and activists shout slogans as they carry torches at India Gate during a protest following the gang-rape of a student in New Delhi.

On December 19, 2012 Indian students and activists shout slogans as they carry torches at India Gate during a protest following the gang-rape of a student in New Delhi. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN

The young woman first related her ordeal to male colleagues who were staying at the same hotel in Goa. They backed her version of events and resigned from the magazine.

When she complained by email to the magazine's managing editor, Shoma Choudhury, Choudhury confronted Tejpal, who later apologised to his accuser by email, saying he would ''atone'' for his behaviour by ''recusing'' himself from the magazine for six months.

But the woman refused to accept Tejpal's chosen atonement and said she would pursue to the end the inquiry launched by police.

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Her mother, family and friends have stood by her and the media's coverage of the case has been sympathetic to her. Tejpal was arrested in Goa and is now in police custody. He is likely to face prosecution under India's stringent new rape law, which classifies any sexual assault as rape.

This case illustrates how India's attitude to the sexual assault of women is changing.

The woman had no hesitation in accusing Tejpal instead of keeping quiet about the incident because of the stigma attached to it. And she did this despite the fact he was her boss and an influential man who counted cabinet ministers among his friends.

The fact she could confide in male colleagues, confident of their support, shows that some men are becoming more sensitive to the fact that sexual assault is a crime. The public mood has also changed. Tejpal was universally vilified and nothing - not his reputation, social status, connections or wealth - was allowed to mitigate his alleged offence.

The media's coverage, while it had a whiff of the lynch mob about it, kept up the pressure, compelling the police to arrest him even before the journalist filed a complaint.

Tejpal will be tried under a new law passed after the Delhi gang rape. It could result in his being jailed for 10 years or more if he is found guilty, as opposed to seven years under the earlier law.

Indian men have been put on notice that Indian women will no longer keep quiet about male misconduct. Indeed, a new generation of urban women will not tolerate sexual harassment and is speaking up with a new-found confidence. They want to lead their lives without constant worry about predatory males. They want to be able to use public spaces and feel safe. They want respect and equality.

''It's unlikely that the Tehelka journalist would have had the courage to complain to the police before the outcry over the Delhi gang-rape,'' says women's rights activist Kavita Srivastava. ''There is much greater awareness that sexual assault and rape cannot be condoned or justified.''

More women are now prepared to take action over sexual violence. Reported cases of rape in Delhi have jumped from 706 in 2012 to 1330 in 2013.

While depressing on one level, the figures also show the lid has been lifted and more women are now prepared to report rape.

Jyoti Pandey's father, Badrinath Singh, says the fact his daughter was determined to see her attackers punished has had a big impact on Indian women.

''In a note she wrote when she was conscious, she wrote, 'They must be punished.' The best change I can see from my daughter's death is that other women are showing the same determination to bring their attackers to justice,'' he said.

Before Pandey was raped, it would have been unthinkable for a young woman to accuse a retired Supreme Court judge, but that is exactly what one young woman has done. She was working as an intern with recently retired Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly in New Delhi in 2012 when she wrote in her blog that he had sexually harassed her. Police are investigating her allegation.

Moreover, when sexual harassment or rape occur, families that would once have blamed the victim, or retreated behind closed doors in shame, are now more supportive.

In the Tejpal case, the woman has been given support by her mother, relatives and colleagues.

In other cases, too, husbands are supporting their wives rather than blaming them for dishonouring the family name.

Says Ranjana Kumari, head of the Centre for Social Research, in New Delhi: ''In the recent riots in Uttar Pradesh, several Muslim women were raped. That, sadly, isn't new but it's been amazing how their husbands went with them to the police station and insisted that the rape be registered. One husband comforted his wife, telling her it wasn't her fault.''

Also, men being charged with rape, irrespective of their class, are now facing the scrutiny, and in some cases the wrath of the media. When the December 16 rapists were convicted, many observers pointed to their poverty - all were uneducated or semi-literate slum dwellers - and said society always pounced on such people while letting the rich escape justice.

But, in the past year, the men who have been pursued relentlessly by the media over alleged sexual assault include Tejpal, who is a member of the elite; a famous holy man, Asaram Bapu; and Justice Ganguly, the retired Supreme Court judge.

''The message has gone out that it doesn't matter how rich or influential or famous the man is. If he misbehaves he has to face the music,'' says Vamika Kapoor, a 21-year-old economics student who attended a vigil to mark December 16 carrying a placard saying, ''Don't teach us what to wear. Teach men not to rape.''

The Delhi government has introduced several measures to deal with sexual violence. It has established fast-track courts to hear rape cases; help desks at police stations staffed by women, more telephone help lines and a female patrol team. It has ensured female rather than male police officers handle rape cases and introduced a rule that no woman can be arrested between 6pm and 6am.

The law, too, has been amended to ensure a minimum 20-year jail sentence for rape and the death penalty for rapes in which the victim dies or is left in a vegetative state. It makes stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment a crime.

In the workplace, a new law to check sexual harassment came into effect in December. It requires all organisations with more than 10 employees to set up an internal complaints committee headed by a woman. This is meant to encourage women to complain if they are sexually harassed and ensure a fair process follows.

Under this law, unwelcome behaviour such as physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually suggestive remarks or showing pornography are all deemed to be sexual harassment.

Those found guilty of such behaviour must be sacked. If it turns out to be a frivolous complaint, similar penalties apply.

Yet, despite these changes, in many ways India is the same and many measures that were widely discussed after Jyoti Pandey's rape have not been made or only partly. Women still do not feel safe venturing out at night. There is not enough public transport to give them the confidence to go out when it is dark. Street lighting in many areas is still inadequate.

The preliminary findings of a study carried out by the International Centre for Research on Women in November found 40 per cent of Indian men seek to control their wives out of a belief that they are inferior.

Regressive ideas that deny women freedom prevail. The reason a tribal woman was gang-raped by 13 men in a West Bengal village on the orders of the village council on January 21 was essentially because she was unmarried but had had the temerity to have a lover.

''The male thinking is that if a woman is having sex with someone other than her husband, then any man can have sex with her. She is available for every man's pleasure. That's why policemen so often rape prostitutes," says leading Mumbai sex educator and newspaper columnist Dr Mahinder Watsa.

In the male Indian mind a woman is ''loose'' if she has a lover. Even higher up in the league table of sexually available women is the foreign woman.

The men who raped a 51-year-old Danish tourist in New Delhi on January 14 were also motivated by the belief that Western women who are accustomed to living in what the men regard as a debauched and hyper-sexualised culture are fair game.

As India modernises and young Indian men and women socialise and go on dates, society becomes a minefield for women because of the fragility of the male ego.

Newspapers are full of cases of rejected suitors throwing acid on their former girlfriends. The culture still values boys above girls. The former are pampered and placed on a pedestal from birth. With exceptions, women are taught to be obedient and long-suffering, and to follow tradition.

The fast-track courts established to hasten justice for rape victims have also been disappointing, turning out to be slower than the regular courts. Campaigners had wanted to speed up cases because when men know that trials can take 15 years to conclude, it creates a culture of impunity.

The fast-track courts in Delhi dealt with 380 rape cases in 2013 compared with 547 rapes tried in ordinary courts in 2012.

Equally disappointing is the government's failure to make rape within marriage a crime. Parliament was not even prepared to discuss it. ''A man can get drunk, come home and rape his wife every night and nothing can be done to stop him,'' says lawyer Vrinda Grover.

Clearly it will take more than a year to undo centuries of relentless patriarchy. Men still disrespect and dominate women.

But, despite the many policy failures since Jyoti Pandey's rape just over a year ago, there has been one clear, undisputed victory for women.

''The silence around rape has been shattered,'' says Vamika Kapoor.

Without doubt, the new awareness of sexual violence and a willingness to discuss it is the biggest shift that has taken place in a country steeped in foetus-to-funeral patriarchy.

Amrit Dhillon is a Delhi-based journalist.

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