Many of us from the women’s movement, who have been struggling to address the issue of rape, both through public campaigns and by providing support to individual survivors, over the last 30 years, are equally dismayed at the responses to the gruesome incident of gangrape of the 23-year-old in Delhi, who is battling for her life in a hospital, as the incident itself. We are wondering where we have gone wrong all these years as rape continues to be described as a “state worse than death” by our women parliamentarians while they express their anger in an emotionally charged voice. “Agar bach jayegi toh zinda laash ho ke jiyegi (If she survives, she will be a living corpse),” said a parliamentarian, eloquently expressing her anger.
What is the message being sent out to thousands of rape survivors and their families and friends who have stood by them in their quest for justice, who would be watching the news channels when our women leaders, film personalities and the general public proclaim this? Does such a statement induce future victims to come forward and seek justice or will it drive them further into the shell so that they are not branded as “zinda laash” and cope with their post-rape trauma on their own terms, in private?
There are so many aspects of this unprecedented public fury that need to be examined from a cool and analytical perspective. The girl is struggling for her life because of the injuries caused by the use of weapons, not just the incident of rape. The brutes who attacked her attempted to murder her and her friend. But in the wake of the premium attached to rape in public discourse, the rest fades into oblivion. The girl lost her intestines due to the gruesome attack on her with iron rods.
Even if they had not raped her, these would be equally serious. Would that have induced less public fury because she would not have to survive as a “zinda laash”. Is it the titillating aspect of the crime of rape that induces this public outrage? Do we react to all types of attacks upon women in public — the acid attacks, the slashing of the face with knife, the kicking and beating, the lewd and obscene comments and humiliation of their male companions? Do these warrant similar indignity and invoke the wrath of the public to demand death penalty for all of them?
There is another question which is worrisome. Is it possible to examine this issue only within the framework of men versus women or, more particularly, middle-class women versus lower-class men? The girl was not alone, she was travelling with a male companion. He, too, was beaten and thrown out. If he had lost his intestines in the scuffle that followed, what would the public response be? What about the death of a young 19-year-old boy who lost his life while protesting against lewd comments being passed against a girl from his housing society? Ought not that too warrant death penalty? If not, why not?
Another question. In some recent gruesome cases of gangrape, the girl was out with a male companion. Is the outrage against her an indication of the societal desire to curb any expression of sexual freedom among young, unmarried girls? Recently, in Bengaluru, a law student of the prestigious National Law University was gangraped when she was in a lonely spot with a male companion.
The doctors who examined her were more concerned about the elasticity of her vagina than finding forensic evidence of the gruesome crime. In 2010, a young 16-year-old Hindu girl travelling in a bus with her Muslim friend in the outskirts of Mangalore was dragged out of the bus and taken to a police station and a case of rape foisted against her friend. That night the girl committed suicide.
In one of the earliest narratives by rape survivors in Mumbai during the anti-rape movement in the Eighties, Sohaila Abdulali, who later became a renowned author, has talked about her gangrape on a lonely hill in Chembur where she was out with her boyfriend during her vacation from the US.
The friend was held at a knife-point while she was being raped. She narrates how her only concern during the rape was that she and her friend should survive the ordeal. So she kept talking to the boys even while they raped her, requesting them to be gentle and asking them to think about their own mothers and sisters. As she had to get back to college in the US, the police advised her not to initiate proceedings. To get over her guilt of not pressing charges, much later, she wrote about her experience.
It is these incidents that make us wonder whether the gangrape in Delhi is meant to be a message to all youngsters not just to not venture out in the dark but to not venture out with male companions. It is the same message that the parents and the community give to their daughters.
It is the same message that the moral brigade has been communicating through the raids on young couples in Mumbai under the direction of Maharashtra home minister R.R. Patil, who has now recommended death penalty in rape cases. Perhaps he and most protesters out on the street in India today are unaware that around one-third of all rape cases are filed by parents against boys when their daughter exercises her sexual choice and elopes.
Such cases will only increase in years to come as the recent enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Abuse Act has raised the statutory age for consent to sexual intercourse from 16 to 18 years and all youngsters who indulge in any sexual activity are prone to harassment from their families and the police. These types of cases have led to the use of phrases like “genuine cases” and “false cases” among the police, prosecutors and judges. With the clamour for death penalty, how will we deal with such cases?
Death penalty will not act as a deterrent. In the case of the Delhi gangrape, the accused are “young offenders” and the court is not likely to give them death. What will act as an effective deterrent is access to justice.
In India, rape does not attract capital punishment and even if the law is changed, it cannot be applied retroactively to this case. Further, if punishment for rape and murder is the same, many rapists may kill the victim to destroy evidence. Thus we need more soul-searching answers from our parliamentarians and experts about how we can make our public places safe for women.
The writer is a women’s rights lawyer