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ONE WOMAN RAPED EVERY 22 MINUTES: Can a Culture of Sexual Violence Ever Change in India?

January 23, 2013
tags:#Asia, #education, #gang rape, #human rights, #India, #rape, #sexual abuse, #sexual harassement, #women, #women's rights
by:Jack Bicker
As the trial of five men accused of the gang-rape and murder of a student begins in New Delhi, FairPlanet asks a 21 year-old Mumbai medical student about the cultural dangers of growing up a woman in India.

India has a systemic problem with sexual violence: one woman is raped every 22 minutes, as is one child raped every hour.

The recent high-profile case of rape in Delhi has brought thousands onto the streets in a sustained wave of public outrage and protest in India and across the world. However questions must yet be asked of a culture in which sexual violence is so very prevalent, and in which the horrific assault of a middle-class, medical student from a ‘good’ family elicits such a large amount of publicity, while the stories of those thousands of women and children who have suffered similar crimes go unnoticed.

In light of the international attention, Fairplanet spoke to another young medical student from Mumbai, Manasi Jiwrajka, for an insight from within.

Jack: Manasi, thanks so much for talking to me. First, can I ask for your reaction to the recent case in Delhi, and to maybe reflect on your own experiences travelling as a woman in India.

Manasi: When I read about the rape, I was just so angry. It is true what a lot of writers have pointed out - that this is not new. Women in the tribal areas, or lower socio-economic strata are being raped every day. This particular case has become so popular in the media because this girl was one of us - middle-class, educated, coming from a well-to-do family, and was travelling with a male friend.

I have never been comfortable alone in India during the evenings and especially at night. Partially due to my upbringing, and just hearing about these incidences, I don't feel safe to go out alone. That being said, I did not feel very safe in New York or London past midnight either! Once in Bombay, I was travelling on the public bus alone, and in a crowded bus everyone was very close to each other. I was lucky to find one of the ‘ladies only’ seats next to another woman. But there was a man who stood next to me, and he touched his crotch area on my shoulder. This was years ago, and I had no idea what was going on or how to react. I shifted towards the woman next to me hoping that if it was a ‘mistake’ he would understand and move away or realise. However, he didn’t stop and I looked directly at him, and he moved away. This by no means is an experience that compares to some of the other atrocious crimes men do, but neglecting such incidences is considered normal because there are so many other big things happening.

Two of my female friends have had men touch them when they were sitting next to them. Neither of them did anything about it other than to act uncomfortable. Not because they enjoyed the attention but because they didn’t know how to react.

Jack: It would be wrong for me to suggest that sexual crime isn't also a problem in Europe or the US, but I feel that the women I know would be more able to react against a man who is acting inappropriately. Why do you think this might be different in India?

Manasi: At a more general level there is definitely a sense of shame attached to anything sexual - sometimes not for the woman as much as the family, and it is the family that stops the woman from being vocal. In the case of more serious assaults, the family is worried because of societal implications - the woman is now ‘tainted’ and therefore unfit for marriage, and her prospects for an arranged marriage are significantly reduced. In such situatons then, it is usually advised that the woman keeps it a secret. Obviously this means that the rapists get away with it because they assume that no woman would mention this crime for her own sake.

On top of this, when we have people saying that the women are being influenced by the western world, and that they are asking for it by wearing revealing clothes, it does nothing else but bring a sense of guilt for a woman - namely that she deserves being treated like that, and therefore the man/men in question have done the right thing.

Jack: So there is a marked sense in which unchanged Indian societal attitudes towards women - gender constructions about the status of women relative to men - play a role in the ongoing prevalence and acceptance of sexual violence? I read recently that some Khap pancahyats - community elders responsible for setting village/local codes of behaviour and sanctions - have suggested that the solution to India's current rape culture is not to increase punishment or policing, or to increase education, but instead to merely reduce the age at which young people can get married!

Manasi: I am so appalled by some of the things that renowned politicians and our leaders have said about this rape - that women should not do this, should not do that, and coming from a family with two girls, I have heard this throughout my life. My aunts tell me stories of women who have ‘made bad decisions’ and ended up with bad men, or devastating lives, and then blame it on the women. It really frustrates me to think that they say it is an important lesson for girls rather than saying, we should teach our boys to be better, and teach them respect.

It is normal here to discriminate between your sons and daughters, to the extent that the daughters are denied certain treats which are then given to the son. We are talking about middle-class Indians who have some kind of educational background. They organize parties for a son being born but we don’t get any invitations when a daughter is born. When I was born, my grandmother refused to let my parents organize a party because you don’t celebrate if you have a girl - they are a liability. 

I could go on and on about the messed up situations in India - female foeticide, dowry, forced practice of ‘sati’, prostitution, patriarchy, our religious texts too that show women as subservient creatures… and whatnot. According to a recent study of the G20 countries, India is the worst place for a woman to be born in. Did you know that even though there are female positions installed in some village panchayats, they are just nominal because the men still control.

Jack:  So the Indian societal structure, in which girls are secondary and boys more prized, contributes to a more general cultural atmosphere in which many men could be led to believe that they have a right to sexually harass a woman, and that this is - politically and socially - acceptable?

Manasi: It is a situation in which many men on the street can think that they are entitled to any woman they see, and that they are allowed to treat her in this, or any manner. Men often prove to be hindrances, perhaps because they are taught by society and by their parents that they are entitled to everything, including women.

I can't be sure as to exactly what the reason is, but I can speculate; there are many men who come from villages where men rule (not hard to find in a patriarchal society like India), and where there are very few women, owing to the increasing men to women population ratio in the country. In some of these villages, either they have not seen women, or seen terrible examples of how women are treated. So they think they can go to the cities and treat women there in the same manner - horribly.

Jack: Is this situation inevitable in a patriarchal society?

Manasi: I am not sure… on the one hand patriarchy implies that women have a secondary position but on the other hand also implies that the men of the society are leaders and can look beyond the primal needs of a human…?

Jack: Has it become fashionable to be seen protesting loudly while caught up in the moment, despite not actually engaging to change the general culture in the rest of everyday life? The reason I ask this is that I've seen many protests on TV - many organised via social media - including, for example, a group of lawyers on strike outside of a court in Delhi who stated that they would never defend someone accused of rape; this goes against some of the fundamental protections within the legal system... everyone has a right to a fair trial. So it made me question whether - especially when considering how easy it is to work up a collective digital-outrage via facebook - many of the men (and women) who are vociferously taking part in protests are maybe doing so as a result of social/peer pressure. Such protests, of course, won't necessarily guarantee that something will actually get done in regard to dismantling the societal structure that you've outlined. So do you read the last month of protests as a good moment for sustainable change for India and gender-rights or something more short term?

Manasi: Protesting has become fashionable not only in India but throughout the world, and you’re right, it's easy to hide behind the idea of change or revolution. Protest has been fashionable for a very long time …protest without clear cut pointers towards what and how things should be changed can be futile. However, in India I think it is necessary for the educated class to get off their butts and get their hands dirty—even if it is in the form of just protesting. I say this because a lot of us end up being apathetic about it or we complain privately to friends and family without actually doing something. If a protest serves as a forum for those who may not know how and where to voice their opinions, then I think it may in fact be a good start to raising awareness and involving people (as a sidenote, watch the movie Rang De Basanti if you get a chance).

Jack:  Manasi, thank-you so much for your answers. With all of the international attention, it's great to get the perspective of an insider - so to speak - and someone who approaches these issues so articulately! One final question before we finish. At the end of our last conversation, we discussed whether or not men, generally speaking, 'like/respect women as equals'. How would you respond to that statement today?

Manasi: Ah, the number of times I have revisited this statement, revised my opinions, and then re-revised my opinions! I like to think that there are some men who do respect women as equals but there is a huge majority that doesn’t. Maybe in a few more years, there will be more to say.

Manasi, 21,  grew up in Mumbai, is a graduate of Mahindra United World College, University College London, and Vassar College in New York. She has recently commenced her medical studies in Brisbane - Australia. 

To watch a recent BBC interview with a victim of harassment from Delhi click here...

Images: 1) Portraits © of the authors, 2) All others are stills taken from youtube footage of the recent protests. 

Article written by:
jack bicker
Jack Bicker
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