On December 16th, a 23-year-old medical student was severely beaten, raped for nearly an hour, and thrown out of a moving bus in New Delhi. She survived, but as of this report, is in critical condition after being flown to a hospital in Singapore. Reuters reports that she died of her injuries early Saturday morning. In India, this unfortunately is not uncommon. Crimes like these often go unreported because of public shame, as they do here in the States as well. But it's no secret that women's rights across India still have a long way to go. It's that rage-inducing irony of a majority Hindu country that continually prays to goddesses of all forms celestial, then leers at, chastises, shames, beats, and rapes the human female form.
The young woman's name has not been released, but media in India has taken to calling her "Amanat," an Urdu word meaning 'treasure.' Perhaps there is the bright spot in this incredibly tragic situation: Amanat's gang rape has sparked a reaction no one, least of all the government and police, expected, with crowds in the thousands marching up to physical heart of the Indian establishment. This is practically unheard of in modern India, where the middle class is notoriously more pre-occupied with their considerable and growing amounts of disposable income rather than their in disposable democratic voice. It is akin to marching up the National Mall to the Capital steps for us in the States.
Posted on Twitter:
So why protest now? Why the sudden and urgent call for action by the government and police for faster trials, justice for victims, faster processing of reports of rapes?
Due to the lack of mainstream media coverage in the States, I was left wondering whether the protests were being blown out of proportion by the zeal of the Tweet, but Raghav Chopra, a Delhi photographer, said to me, "Yes, people really are angry. This incident has struck a chord with the youth who have taken to the streets to vent their anger. This public display of their angst comes on the heels of the anti-corruption movement by Anna Hazare which has instilled a belief, especially in the youth, that it is time they participate in Indian democracy actively."
As Shiv Aroor, Deputy Editor of Headlines Today and based in New Delhi, explains: "The protests weren't organized, they were almost entirely spontaneous. This is hardly the first violent crime against a woman in Delhi, or anywhere in India, but I think the brutality and audacity of the crime has astonished people. There appears to be a real hope that the reaction to this crime serves as a tipping point."
Images of the protests in Delhi filtered out through Twitter and Facebook show an inspiring gathering of mostly college-aged or young professional women protesting … alongside men. It's not often in brown world that we get to see this, young men standing up for the rights of women with women. It's an image that should be portrayed more outside of India, and unfortunately you probably haven't even heard of the tragic story and the national outrage that has ensued. Many on social media have even compared the protests to those in Tahrir Square in Cairo, with the same level of anger and frustration with a silent government, absent politicians who claim to be pro-women's rights, and a violent police force.
As writer and journalist Nilanjana Roy relayed from the protests this incident was just the straw that broke the camel's back. There were "many calls for hanging/ castration/ torture of the rapists —while I understand the emotion behind this, mob justice and lynch mobs are certainly not what you want in the long term. But the larger anger was about women being blamed for the sexual assaults and violence they experience; was about the indifference of the police and the ways in which police and politicians blame women for being raped. It was clear from what the students said on December 22 that the anger was not new: fear and anger have been building for a while, especially among young women, as the media has reported more ... crimes against urban women."
Roy heard echoes among the crowd that the media's exposing of the details of the attack were shocking but necessary, and that many women around urban areas of the country said, "It could have been me, out in that bus."
As with any protest against a democratically elected government, you have to wonder why Indian citizens allow these politicians to continue to 'buy' votes through corruption, threats of ending public services, and the like. In any case, it should be clear to outsiders that the politicians and criminal justice system are only scratching the surface of a deeper-rooted issue in India: gender equality.
However, the latest government promise to provide better police safety and fast-tracked courts for cases of rape do no good in terms of the underlying general societal attitude and shame, though it is a small and important step in public perception of demanding equality through your voice.
As author and gender activist Rita Banerji points out, the women protesting are mostly in their early 20s to 30s and grew up in an India vastly different from generations of women before. The country has changed leaps and bounds in terms of access to telecommunications, the internet, and information from other countries every day for the past 30 years and this generation is a direct product of that change. Banerji says the protests were sparked by Amanat because Indian women have changed in the way "they view of their own status, and what they demand as citizens, and as women in India." She states, "I think there was a fear of expressing this anger before, from what I sensed from women here ... But what gave them courage I think is that the mainstream media and the social media backed them up."
It's hard to imagine the shock waves that would be sent through the world if its largest democracy were to actually make a huge stride for the rights of women and girls, their right to safety, education, and freedom. For those of us watching from afar, having lived in India, Banerji notes that there is a sentiment that "this is not going away. It is going to get bigger and louder, because this is not an idea that popped into somebody's head for a day. It is how women are learning to define themselves, and express themselves, and make expectations of the system and nation they live in. There are more generations coming — so there is only one way that this will have to move."