This morning, I heard the news that a 23-year-old medical student who was brutally gang raped in Delhi on December 16th had died. Another gang rape victim, in the state of Punjab, committed suicide this week after being pressed by police to drop the case and accept money or even marry one of the rapists. The girl, a teenager, and her family wanted police to open an investigation.
In 2011, in India, 256,320 violent crimes were recorded. In a country of a billion people that doesn’t seem very high. By comparison, there were 1,203,564 violent crimes reported in the USA in the same year. That’s more than four times as many crimes for less than a third of the people. Now, comparisons are problematic because of different definitions of violent crimes and much different enforcement and justice systems. In the USA, as much as there is to complain about when it comes to treatment of certain groups of people based on income or skin color, police do tend to be much more egalitarian toward victims of violent crime than police in India, where poor victims find it difficult to get the police to take much of an interest. But that’s another discussion.
My point in bringing up the violent crime statistics is that of those 256,320 recorded crimes, 228,650 of them were committed against women. That’s 89% of violent crime. Let me just state that in a style that does justice to its mind-boggling wrongness: EIGHTY-NINE PERCENT OF VIOLENT CRIMES IN INDIA LAST YEAR WERE COMMITTED AGAINST WOMEN. EIGHTY-NINE PERCENT!
I was traveling in India this month and was in Delhi on December 16th, although when media accounts of the rape surfaced, I had moved on to another part of the country. My experience everywhere I went tells me that, despite the public anger currently being vented through protests, India has a long, long way to go before women can feel safe.
Growing up, I learned, without really being aware of learning it, that my body was mine; no one had the right to touch me or talk to me in a way that made me uncomfortable or in any way inflicted damage on me. As a young women being groped on a bus in South Korea, I had not yet internalized that lesson enough to overcome the other lesson I learned unconsciously: Be polite and don’t make scenes. As a 23-year old, I got off of that bus in Korea and sobbed on the street. As a 43-year old in Malaysia, when a 70-something gas station attendant groped me, I had, apparently, appropriately ranked the lessons because I went a bit, shall we say, mental on his ass. Very publicly and very loudly. I doubt he’ll be copping any feels from crazy foreign women in the future.
Before I tell the next part of this story, I want to add a disclaimer. I am certain that there are many (probably millions) of good Indian men who treat women (or at least women in their own class) with respect, who look at women as equals, and who are vehemently outraged by what happened to this one particular woman in Delhi as well as thousands of other women who are routinely raped in Delhi and around India. I know some of these men and I know that they are horrified.
When I was alone in India (which, thankfully, was not very often), I was constantly approached by men. Men wanting to be my tour guide, men wanting to chat, men wanting to “hang out” or men whose motives were never completely clear to me. I tend to be a bit cold and unreceptive to men who approach me when I’m traveling solo. It’s my defense mechanism. I’m probably missing out on many positive interactions, but it only takes a single negative one to do permanent damage to my body and my psyche, so I error on the side of bitchiness. In most places, men will try two or three times and give up. In India, the men follow you down the street, asking the same questions over and over and over and over again until my feigned bitchiness became outright hostility. One man had the unfortunate gall to ask me, “Why are you being like that?” He got a bit of the very loud and very public mental fit I mentioned above.
In Jaipur, which was the only significant part of my trip where I didn’t have travel companions, I was reduced to tears in my hotel room and seriously considered cutting my trip short. I was besieged by men any time I tried to walk anywhere on the street. At one point, a group of adolescent boys walked up and showed me porn. As I walked away swearing, they shot rocks at the back of my legs with a slingshot. Nice boys they’re raising in India. The only way I survived Jaipur was arranging a tour guide through my hotel. Once I had one, I guess I was considered “his” because nobody bothered me when I was with him. Fuck that. If there are places in this world where I can only feel safe when I have a man around to protect me, I do not want to visit those places.
I should be able to tell someone to leave me alone and have my wishes respected, instead of being followed all the way to my hotel and then having a desk clerk shrug when I told him I was made uncomfortable by the same man skulking about the hotel lobby, waiting for me to check in. I should be able to walk unmolested down a street in any city that is not in a war zone. I should not have to look at the penises of a hundred men who don’t bother to shield themselves while they are pissing on public streets or train tracks. (Seriously, I saw more penises in India than I had previously seen in my entire life.) And I should not been seen as an automatic whore because I’m a western woman. Yes, I have sex and I’m not married. But it does not follow that I have sex indiscriminately. I get to choose who and when.
That is a choice that is denied millions of women in India. Women are raped on buses, by taxi drivers, in cities, in villages—pretty much wherever and whenever some man or group of men decides they want to rape. Up until now, women haven’t been considered valuable enough for the police to take action against their rapists. India is currently in the midst of protests, some violent, some peaceful. Will it be enough to change a culture that had always ranked women as a low priority? Sadly, I doubt it.