Can India's anti-rape moment change a culture?

India is no stranger to the massive political protest that goes on for weeks and then suddenly fades from the scene, Faiz Jamil writes. This one, about the brutal gang rape that shocked a nation, may be different because it feels so personal.

WARNING: This story contains graphic details

The shocking gang-rape and death of a 23-year-old university student has shocked almost all of India into emotional street protests and vigil to try to change the culture of rape. (Saurabh Das / Associated Press)

She was raped for over an hour on a moving bus as it drove around New Delhi at night. Even while crossing police checkpoints, its tinted windows hid the horror that was unfolding inside.

The five men and one youth aboard the bus allegedly beat both this young woman, a 23-year-old university student, and her male friend with iron bars before raping her. They even used the bar to violate her — which later led to most of her intestines being removed, and ultimately to her death weeks later.

The brutal and downright disgusting nature of the crime brought out angry droves of Indians by the tens and hundreds of thousands in cities and towns around the country, a protest that has gone on, sometimes violently, for weeks now.

Social media buzzed with calls for the death penalty against all rapists, or mandatory castration.

Yet, just days after this brutal attack, another woman was reportedly gang-raped in a neighbouring state and dumped in Delhi. The same week, an eight year old was raped by her father. This is clearly no country for women.

Since I started reporting from India in 2009, I've read almost daily about these kind of crimes happening around the country; and these are just the ones that are reported.

By some accounts, a woman is raped in India every 22 minutes. Statistics from India's National Crime Records Bureau show that cases of rapes and assaults against women are on the rise. 

What's more, these assaults are taking place not just in the "old" rural India, but in the urban centres, like Delhi, with their high-tech cores and cosmopolitan ways.

As Anchal Sabharwal, one of the young organizers of Delhi's first Slutwalk protest in 2011, told journalists, most women don't feel safe in the capital after dark.

"Even 8 o'clock is not a good time to go out."

Fading rage?

This incident, however, looks like it could be a tipping point.

The on-going demonstrations these past weeks, the rage, the candle vigils and social media protests are just the tip of the iceberg.

Many people in Delhi have told me about feeling mentally and physically sick trying to come to terms with what happened. People scaled back their New Year's plans, others have been very vocal on social media, one girl even shaved her head on YouTube as a protest.

Many here talk about this incident as a "This is it" moment; as in, this is when everything changed.

Veteran social activist Anna Hazare and his supporters shout slogans ahead of his day-long hunger strike against corruption in March. His proposed anti-corruption bill didn't quite make it to parliament. (Parivartan Sharma / Reuters)

But India has seen and heard this kind of talk before.

Indeed, India is no stranger to these massive, highly emotional protests, which soon lose steam.

Eighteen months ago, Indians across the country were galvanized against another dark sin: corruption.

Social activist and devout Gandhi follower Anna Hazare took on the ingrained culture of corruption, and seemed to have the backing of "the people" behind him.

This simple man had doctors, lawyers, students, housewives, actors, labourers, and the hopes of the middle-class behind him while taking on the veiled beast of corrupt politicians and officials.

The notion of not having to bribe your way to get things done, of being efficient like the developed economy that India aspires to be, moved people from all across the country into the streets.

But it seems like a dream now.

While Hazare almost got his anti-corruption bill to parliament, his version couldn't withstand the established cronyism and, worst of all, the complacency of chalta hai, the "this is how it is" mentality that persists almost everywhere here.

Hazare's subsequent attempt did not get nearly the same kind of traction, and seemed to only receive media coverage when nothing else was going on.

Will the problem of rape be any different?


The one thing that is different this time is that this incident has become almost personal.

While everyone in India deals with bureaucratic corruption at some point in their lives, it remains an institutional ill.

Mass rallies across India are asking governments to make key reforms to ensure a safer society for women. (Saurabh Das / Associated Press)

In this case, "Amanat," "Damini," "Braveheart," "India's daughter" are some of the names the media and politicians have given to the 23 year-old victim.

People seem to be connecting personally to this young woman as a symbolic daughter or sister. She is an actual person, a martyr now, for people to rally around.

The protests are much more calm these days but nonetheless continue, another sign, perhaps, that people are taking a stand at some more permanent level.

Still, these demonstrations are, for the most part, in the urban centres, where women in traditional clothes as well as in jeans hold signs with slogans like "My Skirt is None of Your Business" and "Hang All Rapists."

The rural areas, where most of India resides, have a very different mindset.

It is in the villages where local leaders offer their solution to the rape issue by saying that the age of marriage should be lowered.

It's there that men dominate society, and where the great equalizer of India's work economy has yet to reach.

It is also in the villages where the national politicians who make the laws meant to protect women are elected.

Today's movements and outcry are definitely a necessary step by the most vocal and more affluent segments of the population to change India's rape culture.

But for that to filter through to the other parts of society will take effort, education, and persistence, the last being the most difficult to achieve.

At best, one can say that the seeds of change, at least, have been planted. But the fruit may take years, or even generations, to come about.