I was already pretty nervous about coming to India. Then, as I was packing for the trip, came news of the Delhi bus rape. “Nirbhaya,” as the Indian press calls the victim (since she cannot by law be named), died on the day that I’d arrived. Riotous protests rocked the streets. My co-workers, who knew of my travel plans, warned me to be especially careful, and to give Delhi a wide berth. Naoko, who lives (alone!) in Delhi, told me to avoid going out at night. Other female friends who have been to India concurred.
Echoes of what my co-teacher had told me, about how India had made her appreciate being a woman in Korea, rang through my head. One of my plane reads was the travel memoir Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald. In it, she mentions a time when she had to be hospitalized, and how her husband had to stay with her during those days, because “it’s not uncommon for women in Indian hospitals to be raped.” She also describes waking up on a plane to catch the passenger next to her attempting to molest her. After she complained to the flight attendant (another woman), the flight attendant said it was her fault for sleeping, and proceeded to be rude to her for the rest of the flight. Oh, joy – what was I getting myself into? After reading this part, I looked askance at my seatmate.
I arrived after the Delhi bus rape had made global news, so I’m not sure how to compare the media before and after. But from what I understand, the media’s obsessive coverage of a sexual assault was unusual. Previously, such incidents were ignored by media and police alike. But the Nirbhaya story proved to be a powder keg, setting aflame a long simmering outrage over daily atrocities against women. All Indian newspapers seemed, in essence, “The New Rape Times.” Every day, gruesome and frankly invasive details about the incident were printed on the front page, which I’ll not repeat here (the Wiki article linked above includes plenty of that). One newspaper, evidently running out of material, published Nirbhaya’s finals exam results. I guess this was to show what a good, un-rape-worthy student she was? (Thank heavens she hadn’t flunked).
When the media were not mining every last detail of Nirbhaya’s existence, they reported other awful and sickening rapes. Some victims I read about were as young as six years old. Another gang rape victim, this one only eleven, was brutalized so badly that she had to have fourteen reconstructive surgeries, and is still clinging to life a year later. In Assam, I read about a fourteen year old who worked on a tea plantation. She had stolen a cell phone from another worker. The man, in his fury, gathered up four of his friends to chase the girl into the forest and gang-rape her as punishment.
The tea plantation girl is the same age as my former students. My kids are always stealing cell phones, especially ones belonging to students on whom they have major crushes. Retribution is typically exacted by posting unflattering pictures of the perpetrator on Kakao Talk. What a different, innocent world.
Finally, miraculously, Indian people have had enough. The public outrage seems to have alarmed the patriarchal establishment. Conservative Indian politicians keep trotting out remarkably backward, pig-headed comments, blaming short skirts, Bollywood, modernisation, and of course the victims themselves, for rape. Blaming everything, save for the attackers themselves.
All throughout India, Nirbhaya’s ghost hovered at the edges of my trivial touristic doings. In Jodhpur, I took a leisurely stroll around the courtyards inside the impressive Mehrangarh Fortress, listening to my audio tour guide lecture about the institution of purdah. Purdah, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the act of veiling females to shield them from the predatory leers of strange men. I listened to the sonorous voice in my ears, telling of London news reporters flocking to snap a photo of a visiting Indian royal’s ankle, as she stepped out of her palanquin. Then I turned the corner and saw this art gallery:
Implicit assumptions in purdah: men have no self-control over their sexual urges, and thus no responsibility. Women have the burden of control. If sexual assault happens, it’s because she did something wrong.
In the wake of this rising awareness about rape in India, I worry that the response will be a backlash against modernity, a reversion to the purdah past. To keep women covered and indoors for their own ‘safety.’ Nirbhaya’s attackers admonished the couple for being out so late, unchaperoned. They used the fact that she was out and about, living her life like a normal modern Indian woman, as some kind of twisted moral justification for their assault. The defense lawyers’ case is hinged upon the same asshole logic, with one of the lawyers claiming that “until today, I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady.”
I felt both heartened and a little unsettled by all the riots and protests. Outrageously pigheaded comments aside, it seems that the majority of Indians do not agree with them. The global attention to the Nirbhaya case has shamed the legal system into introducing a fast track court specifically for sexual assault cases, which have otherwise languished for decades in backlogged courts. Special police units and hotlines dedicated to assisting victims of assault have also been established, long overdue. In the news and in the streets, people howl for the blood of Nirbhaya’s attackers, particularly that of the juvenile offender, who is ineligible for the death penalty because of his age. People want them hanged.
Even given all the attention and outrage, I don’t know that the country is any safer for women these days. Something about the inchoate fury of mobs is also rather disturbing, if not on the same level as the rapes themselves. Maybe post-Nirbhaya India will be a little less safe for rapists, for whatever that’s worth.
As for me, nothing terribly serious happened to me during the trip, thank goodness. There was one night in the seedy backpacker district in Kolkata, when Eli and I turned down an alley to find an internet cafe. Eli was walking some steps ahead of me (he is always walking too fast), and I tried to pass a group of guys who were just standing around talking. One of them creeped up next to me as I walked past, grabbed my arm and pulled me into his grasp. I darted away, unharmed but a little shaken.
He was “Eve-teasing,” the jolly sounding name given to sexual harassment in these parts. I’d like to propose a new, fun trend of “Adam-stomping.”