At last, India's men hear it loud and clear

06 January 2013 - 02:00 By Sonia Faleiro
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Protests against fatal rape raise hopes of action

I LIVED for 24 years in New Delhi, a city in which sexual harassment is as regular as mealtime. Every day, somewhere in the city, it crosses the line into rape.

As a teenager I learnt to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest and not making eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder first and avoided leaving the house after dark, except in a private car. At an age when young women elsewhere were experimenting with daring new looks, I wore clothes that were two sizes too large. I still cannot dress attractively without feeling that I am endangering myself.

Things didn't change when I became an adult. Pepper spray wasn't available and my friends carried safety pins or other makeshift weapons to and from their universities and jobs. One carried a knife and insisted I do the same. I refused; some days I was so full of anger that I would have used it - or, worse, had it used on me.

The steady barrage of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street and singing Hindi film songs rich with double entendres was how they communicated. To make their intentions clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by.

If only just public spaces were unsafe. But I couldn't escape the intimidation in my office at a news magazine, at the doctor's office, even at a house party.

On December 16, as the world now knows, a 23-year-old woman and a male friend were returning home after watching the movie Life of Pi at a mall in Delhi. After boarding what seemed to be a passenger bus, the six men inside gang-raped and tortured the woman so brutally that her intestines were destroyed. The attackers also beat up her friend and threw them from the vehicle, leaving her to die.

The young woman did not oblige. She had started that evening watching a film about a survivor and must have been determined to survive herself. Then she produced another miracle: in Delhi, a city habituated to the debasement of women, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and faced down police officers, tear gas and water cannons to express their outrage. It was the most vocal protest against sexual assault and rape in India and it set off nationwide demonstrations.

The victim's name was not released publicly. But although she remained nameless, she did not remain faceless. To see her face, women had only to look in the mirror. The full measure of their vulnerability was finally understood.

When I was 26 I moved to Mumbai. A commercial and financial megalopolis, it has its own set of problems, but it has, culturally, been more cosmopolitan and liberal than Delhi. Giddy with my new freedom, I started to report from the red-light district and travelled across rough suburbs late at night - on my own and using public transport. It seemed that something good had come out of living in Delhi: I was so grateful for the comparatively safe environment of Mumbai that I took full advantage of it.

The young woman, however, will never have such an opportunity. Last Saturday morning, 13 days after she was brutalised, this student of physical therapy, who had no doubt dreamt of improving lives, lost her own. She died of multiple organ failure.

India has laws against rape, seats reserved for women in buses, female police officers, special police helplines. But these measures have been ineffective in a patriarchal and misogynistic culture.

In the months before the gang rape, some prominent politicians had attributed rising rape statistics to women's increasing use of cellphones and going out at night. "Just because India achieved freedom at midnight does not mean that women can venture out after dark," said Botsa Satyanarayana, the National Congress Party leader in Andhra Pradesh.

Change is possible, but the police will have to document reports of rape and sexual assault, and investigations and court cases will have to be fast-tracked. Of the more than 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012, only one led to a conviction. If victims believe they will receive justice, they will be more willing to speak up. If potential rapists fear the consequences of their actions, they will not pluck women off the streets with impunity.

The volume of protests in public and in the media has made clear that the attack was a turning point. The unspeakable truth is that the young woman attacked on December 16 was more fortunate than many rape victims. She was among the very few to receive anything close to justice. She was hospitalised, her statement was recorded and within days all six suspects were caught and have now been charged with murder. Such efficiency is unheard of in India.

In retrospect, it was not the brutality of the attack on the young woman that made her tragedy unusual.

It was that an attack had, at last, elicited a response.

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