Mass protests after the brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi drove attention to problems of rape and sexual assault in India. With the defendants on trial — one of whom admitted earlier this week that he drove the bus on which the attack occurred — it seems that women have suddenly become empowered by a sense of community. Even pop culture took a stab at aiding women.
In the days following the December rape, Bollywood actors and actresses joined protesters and led a silent march through the streets of Mumbai, looking to transform laws and therefore ensure women's safety. Celebrities like Priyanka Chopra, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, spoke of their disgust, uniting with other angry Indians. Chopra tweeted, "A woman is not raped because she's out at night or wearing a short dress or drinking … She's raped cause SOMEONE bloody RAPED HER!!! And there is no excuse or explanation for that!!"
In the months following, big names in pop culture took initiatives aimed at uniting Indians to take care of women. Shaving product brand Gillette released an ad in February, asking men to be soldiers who protect women (see above). In March, renowned actor and filmmaker Farhan Akhtar established the Men Against Rape and Discrimination campaign, or M.A.R.D.; mard is an Urdu word for "man." Through concerts, merchandise and ads (see below), the campaign attempted to create respect for and protection of women.
And Tata Tea's Jaago Re campaign got Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan to pledge to run female actors' names above his own in film credits because "women should be above men."
These simple contributions seem to be garnering attention and approval. They attempt to drive men toward chivalry, which is of utmost importance. It is imperative to have better safety regulations and to create greater respect for women. However, these do not give women a voice. While safety regulations are a good step forward to lowering instances of rape, they may not be enough for a country of 1.2 billion people. And let's be honest here, the chivalry of placing a woman's name first is not going to stop rape or make women fearless.
The stigmas surrounding rape have been infused in Indian culture for a long time, just as they have in other South Asian countries and elsewhere around the world. A woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, and yet women are reluctant to report such crimes for fear of being shunned and shaming their families. Furthermore, authorities and police take part in blaming the victim for wearing revealing clothing, for dating, for going out to bars, and more.
Even though female independence has grown in India, the stigmas still exist. "Without a fundamental change in the cultural mindset … any justice [for rape victims] would be in vain," Ruchika Tulshyan wrote in Forbes.
Although some celebrities have taken a stand and spoken up about the issues at hand, it must be noted that their words have not changed anything about the patriarchal culture within which they work every day.
Some argue that Bollywood — the largest film industry in the world — has created a culture of objectifying women, using male heroes, female damsels in distress, sexually-inviting item numbers, and film plots in which men continue to pursue women even after they’ve said no.
"Where I do blame Bollywood is that they have so much power and people emulate them," said actress Simi Garewal. "They could have easily made things easier for women. They could have shown women with more freedom and dignity and that it's all right for a woman to work. But they never did that."
Though there may be no direct connection between these and the December gang rape, it is true that such ideas have pervaded Indian culture for years. Because they are so ingrained in the pop culture that Indians love, changing it is an incredibly difficult process that may never actually come to fruition.
So what can be done? Instead of reinforcing the idea that men are protectors, celebrities should take initiatives that empower women to make change. They should focus on the idea that women are human beings who should have the freedom and choices to go about their lives without fear of violence. They should not need protection from men.
In the months since the gang rape, the number of rapes reported in New Delhi doubled from the number in 2012, according to Le Monde, and many believe this is because victims are now more comfortable reporting rape after the December and January protests. A phone app targeted at women for getting help in risky situations has gone live in India. Women's organizations like the Red Brigade offer self-defense classes and warning systems to perpetrators of sexual assault.
These actions — not words, but actions — should serve as examples for Indian celebrities and pop culture to build real change that can push aside stigmas and shame and bring forth strength and power.