When “Lightning” Strikes: The Start of India’s Gender-Equality Revolution

On December 16th, a 23-year-old woman and her boyfriend encountered a group of drunken men aboard a bus while heading home from a movie in New Delhi. The intoxicated men on a “joy ride,” beat the woman’s boyfriend and proceeded to brutally torment and rape the young woman with an iron rod. The critically wounded woman was flown to Singapore for treatment, but passed away on December 29 from her injuries. The ruthless gang rape has shed light upon the harsh realities of female prejudice and injustice in Indian society, leading to shrieking calls for a revolution.

Image courtesy of ramesh lalwani, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of ramesh lalwani, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The tens of thousands of protesters overtaking India’s streets have conducted countless anti-rape demonstrations fuelled by anger. Men and women alike are desperately seeking justice for the unnamed woman they have nicknamed “Damini”: the Hindi word for “lightning.” As a dedicated university medical student, Damini served as a symbol of hope and perseverance for the new generation of strong and motivated Indian women who seek to overturn the antiquated, misogynistic aspects of India’s culture.

Although there are great numbers fighting on behalf of Damini, an alarming portion of India’s population views her as the perpetrator rather than the victim. A prominent Hindu guru, Asaram Bapu, says Damini could have prevented the rape if she had addressed her violators as “bhaiyya”, the Hindi word for “brother”, and begged for mercy. The concept of women bearing blame for rape is not uncommon in India; with even politicians citing skirts, revealing clothing, and a lack of an overcoat as instigators of abuse.

The Hindi phrase “izzat lootna,” meaning to “steal the honour of,” is most regularly used to describe the act of rape. Mumbai actress and women’s rights activist Leeza Mangaldas posits the question, “Why should a rapist be given so much credit?” She says that when a woman is raped, her basic rights as a human being are severely violated. However, her honour is still very much intact. The rapist is the one who has abandoned his honour.

Rape is associated with unspeakable shame in India. It is seen as a negative reflection upon the victim instead of a disgusting act to which one has fallen victim. The National Crime Records Bureau reports the occurrence of a rape case in India every 22 minutes. Nonetheless, due to the shame linked to sexual abuse, a vast majority of female abuse cases go unreported. Women fear ridicule from fellow members of society who might view them as “soiled”.

This past September, a 16-year-old girl was raped by a group of 8 men in her village. The family tried to keep the matter a secret, but one of the attackers showed footage of the incident to residents of the village. The victim’s father, due to great distraught over the shame brought to his daughter’s name, committed suicide. The stigma which rape holds in Indian society illogically leads to hardship for the victim, while rarely causing consequences for the perpetrator.

Prejudice towards women has a bewildering presence in Indian society, but its manifestations are not limited to sexual abuse. Rape is only one of many sources of violence and discrimination that leads to the death of 2 million Indian women annually. Situations of domestic violence are very common, and often stem from disputes over dowries. Though the practice of dowries is illegal, it is still a prevalent tradition.

Families, especially those of lower-class backgrounds, are often eager to avoid the so-called burden and expenses generated by female children. Nearly half a million female fetuses are aborted every year. Male children are more likely to receive things like an education and necessary medication. In general, they are usually the subjects of their parents’ primary care and attention. Bias towards females is cultivated at a young age, and can lead to more serious cases of abuse in the future. A 2012 UNICEF survey showed that 54% of Indian men believed it acceptable to beat their wives.

The media attention on Damini’s sexual abuse case is unprecedented, and has played a significant role in highlighting the unjust leniency the Indian government exhibits towards initiators of violence against women. Corruption in the police and government leaves women unable to receive proper justice for crimes committed against them. Officials tend to normally ignore these cases because of a general air of indifference, ignorance, and prejudice.

The key to the success of India’s gender-equality revolution lies in the power of education. Government programs geared towards adult males need to stress that women are equals. By emphasising that women should have the same opportunities and be privy to the same treatment as their male counterparts, men will no longer assume they are the stronger gender. Female empowerment programs also need to be enacted, so women feel they have the ability to stand up to injustice.

Changing the mindset of Indian society is not an easy task, but can be done through perseverance. As today’s adult generation learns the ludicrous nature of their prejudices, they will be inclined to pass on ideologies of tolerance and equality to younger generations. In the meantime, hearings for Damini’s rapists (five adults and one juvenile) have commenced, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assured the public that justice will be properly served. Although the future of the human rights campaign in India cannot be predicted, Damini’s death was certainly not in vain: she has become the lightning rod for India’s gender-equality revolution.