Nahlah Ayed: Delhi's voices, women and rape in India

There is something callously casual about how the media reports rape in India, Nahlah Ayed writes. But that, among other things, may change in the wake of last month's brutal gang rape as more and more woman here are finding their voice.

There is something callously casual about how the media reports rape in India. Though often harrowing, these accounts are usually routine, crime-page fare.

No surprise, perhaps. The government's own statistics indicate an Indian woman is raped every 22 minutes. As a phenomenon, rape in India is just one symptom, one form of a grander injustice dealt the country's women every day, and across the generations.

"You flip through the newspapers, and you just see someone's raped here, someone's raped there, it's so common," says university student Faiza Mookerjee. She is only 19.

But one particularly harrowing assault that took place on a moving bus last month catapulted this endemic problem to the front pages, and kept it there for weeks.

It was so grotesque an attack, on an innocent 23-year-old student, that not only did it mobilize protests in New Delhi, where it happened, and around India, but across the world.

Rarely has one individual's grim fate generated so much international outrage.

"The biggest, major thing that has happened — which is so wonderful — is that gender has emerged as a central issue for political discussion, for political debate," says Kavita Krishnan, one of the leading figures in the protests that erupted after December 16.

"I can't remember the last time," she says. "It's so common to make lip-service remarks about women's empowerment. All governments do it. All parties do it.

"But to talk about the content of justice for women, to talk about equality and freedom for women … and have a right to live without fear, is something which has never been discussed in quite this way before."

Mookerjee agrees: "This issue is one thing that every woman in this country would be in agreement, so for the first time there wasn't political interference, just the masses with their own personal anger going and fighting for something they face every day."

It was the spontaneous protests, by ordinary men and women, which led the conversation. The media responded, and eventually, so did politicians and the police.

'Have you ever been harassed?'

Recently, much attention has also been paid to the so-called backlash — the inflammatory comments made by religious and other figures, not least by a lawyer for one of the accused — about the culpability of women who get raped.

All of it providing fodder for yet more rape-related headlines.

Manohar Lal Sharma, a defence lawyer in Delhi's gang rape trial,accused police of beating his client and tampering with evidence. He also caused a stir when he said 'no respectable woman' gets raped in India. (Saurabh Das / Associated Press)

But to really get a sense of the fallout in India, and what might happen here now in the wake of this outrage, you have to talk to the women of Delhi. Talking to its young women is the most revealing.

"No, Delhi is not safe, there is a crime happening in every house," a young woman selling food from a cart on a side street in old Delhi told me.

"We are constantly harassed. We can't sell our food in peace. I try to tell the police, but they ignore me. I have to fend for myself."

We put the question to every woman we met: Have you ever been harassed? Almost all nodded an immediate yes.

They had all, at one time or another — sometimes daily — been forced into the gritty battle against leering, pinching, cat-calling, and Eve-teasing (the local term for harassment).

No one is immune, no matter her class, sect or way of dress.

"All of us face it in our daily lives while we are travelling by public transport," says Arkamitra Roy, a university student. "We sometimes overlook it because we're in a hurry or we just don't want to get into trouble.

"You learn to be quiet and take whatever comes your way."

Sisters and brothers

Roy, however, also notes that this particular incident "kind of streamlined things" and provoked a spontaneous reaction.

"That was the beauty of it, it was spontaneous," she says, "and not just young people. On TV, I saw housewives and women you wouldn't expect in a movement. They were there."

Today, rape is also being discussed openly here, and because of "India's Daughter," the name being given the young rape victim — and her father's approach to talking about her experience — it's being discussed in a novel way.

As Krishnan puts it, "at no point did she or those close to her talk about how she was at fault. They also, even in their great grief, embraced her courage" — a key factor, she says, that "brought many young men and women onto the streets."

Today, there also appears to be more willingness on the part of ordinary women here to take on some of the deep-seated currents that can encourage violence against women.

"In our families, a girl is different from a boy just because of the physicality, they kind of differentiate between a sister and a brother," says Kamakshi Amar, another university student.

"So we need to take it up in our homes first, and we need to teach our parents first that this is not right. Just because I'm a girl you can't treat me like this."

Freedom without fear

None of this is going to change overnight, of course.

"It's not easy, it's not easy," says Kanini Gubta, a sub-inspector with Delhi police, whom we met while she attended a rape sensitization course.

"It will take a long time to change their mentality, their mind set," she says, referring to those who demean women.

But women may have to change, too. "We expect them to come forward, to have confidence in us," said sub-inspector Neelam Tomar.

"Most of the time we're unable to help them because of social pressures and taboos attached to these kinds of things," social pressures that inhibit some women and their families from seeking police help.

At the moment, there is a great deal of hand-wringing (or celebration, depending which side you're on) about the protests dying down.

But there is also ample evidence that both women, and men here have found other venues to keep the spirit of reform alive.

For example, in Bawan, a suburb of Delhi, we met a group of women who have stepped up their efforts to make the area safer for women, and to encourage women to report harassment and rape.

The latter is simply a piece of cardboard, on which they had hung letters written by women who have suffered such indignities, and who decided to speak up, and complain.

The local women's group set up committees, which hear these complaints, then take them up with the appropriate authorities for resolution. The posters are hung in the centre of town for others to read.

The project provides these women with "a little bit of empowerment," Nisha Khateri, one of the organizers, told me.

"Sometimes men react positively, saying it's good for (providing) a safe environment for women. But some give a negative reaction."

Much of the forward planning is happening on India's campuses.

In a cavernous auditorium at the Delhi school of social work, dozens of the young men and women who participated in those early protests gathered again over the weekend to talk.

We asked some of them: Has anything really changed since details of this horrific case came to light?

"A 23-year-old girl raped in a public transport, it could be like any other girl," said Ankita Sharma. "We all felt it and everybody went out, enough is enough. We won't tolerate this anymore."

These people have come together to try keep their movement, Freedom without Fear, going, and they've invited seasoned activists to give advice.

"We are in a process of evolution and I think the movement will liberate us in a way," said Chinmayi Sarma. "We have to keep it awake."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.