Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In India, A Culture Where Rape is Routine

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the rape of a photojournalist by five men in Mumbai on August 23, 2013. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

In these days, as Mumbai is agog with news of another rape, a young journalist friend told me about a conversation on a suburban train. She was in the women's compartment, on her way to work not far from where this latest outrage happened. Naturally, several women around her were discussing the episode.

One woman zeroed in on—wait for it—the core of the issue. "You look at the clothes these girls are wearing these days," she said. "Why just one, she should have been raped by 10 men!"
Outraged by this remark, my friend tried to say something. The woman rounded on her: "You keep out of this, I wasn't talking to you!"
Rudeness apart, here's my opinion, whatever it's worth: Attitudes like this—and it's a delusion to think they are not widespread—will ensure that women keep getting raped. And this is why the lesson for me, to take from one more ghastly rape, is about attitudes.
Like the rickshaw driver's attitude: Not long ago, I took a rickshaw home from the airport. We passed a long stretch that is a favorite spot for young lovers seeking a modicum of privacy. In a city that affords them so little, they find it, ironically, on the side of a busy highway. On any given evening, that stretch is populated by dozens of young couples, embracing and chatting and kissing, as couples must do. All as cars and buses and taxis, sometimes with loads of gawkers, zip past.
As we drove by that day, my til-then-silent rickshaw driver began muttering. He was clearly irate about something and soon he couldn't keep his feelings to himself any longer. "All these people," he burst out, waving a hairy arm at the lovers so vigorously that our rickshaw careened across the lanes, "someone should bring a gun and shoot them all dead, one by one."
"Why?" I spluttered, confounded.
"Don't you see?" he said. "They are spoiling our Indian culture!"
Ah yes, that Indian culture that, no doubt, calls for the wholesale murder of cooing couples. That's the one my driver must have meant.
Like the collegiate moral brigade's attitude: One evening a few weeks ago, 70 city college students turned up at another favorite lovers' hangout spot, a 20-minute walk from the highway stretch. It was International Youth Day, August 12, and to observe it, these kids had come up with the perfect campaign.

What they did was they surrounded other young people they found there—more couples doing some cuddling—and "asked them to refrain from public displays of affection (PDA)." They held up placards that said (in Hindi, in which it rhymes better): "The crime you're committing with your girlfriend, go get a room", and "Have some shame, do all this in your home."
Note the "your girlfriend." As ever with moral champions, somehow it's the man corrupting the woman.
One of these moral policewomen—herself just 17—had this to say: "We would like to frequent places such as [this] but prefer not to because it is full of people indulging in embarrassing displays of affection. We are not against couples, but only against those indulging in PDA which makes others uncomfortable. They should instead get rooms and do it in privacy."
It embarrasses her and makes her uncomfortable, but she chooses nevertheless to close in on these couples and harass them. What we're seeing here is what Alexander Cockburn once saw as well, after the Monica Lewinsky episode: "What we're seeing here is one of the most disgusting of all spectacles: Puritans wringing their hands while clambering on one another's shoulders to peep in the bedroom window."
Like the god-man's attitude: soon after the horrifying rape of a young woman in Delhi last December, the famous "spiritual leader" Asaram Bapu announced that the girl was as much at fault for what happened to her as the rapists were. Mistakes, he said, are "not committed [only] from one side." What's more, he said, the woman "should have taken God's name and ... held the hand of one of the men and said 'I consider you as my brother', and should have said to the other two, 'Brother I am helpless, you are my brother, my religious brother.'"
Had she done this, said Asaram Bapu, "the misconduct wouldn't have happened."
Never mind the reference to a gang rape and murder—for the woman eventually died of her wounds—as mere "misconduct.” Never mind the nearly obscene advice that a woman about to be raped should call the murderous thugs "brothers" in the hope that this would save her. Never mind those things, and merely consider Asaram Bapu's most recent appearance in the public eye.
Just days ago, a 16 year-old girl accused the man himself of sexually assaulting her.

"Baseless allegations are leveled against me," said Asaram Bapu, "because I preach Indian culture."
In an angry, passionate outburst after this Mumbai rape, Lakshmi Chaudhry writes: "[Indian women] all live with a debilitating sense of being under constant siege, an ever-present anxiety that a lewd comment or casual grope may lead to a full-on assault; the nagging worry that this auto or cab or bus driver may turn out to be the wrong one; the paranoia triggered by a slowly circling car filled with men. This, this is the price of being a woman in India. And it is paid by all of us, irrespective of color, caste or class."
The price, indeed. Let's talk about attitude. Let's talk about culture. In fact, let's give Chaudhry the last word there: "The ugl[y] reality is that while rape may be considered a crime, we live in a culture where sexual harassment is so routine as to be unremarkable."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What has changed since December 16?

"The rape victim opted for life than to become a martyr at the altar of sexual purity and has challenged the judicial premise that virginity is the most priced possession of an Indian woman"
by Flavia Agnes

Since the gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai on August 22, I’m constantly being asked two questions by the media — print media, television media, international media, the British, the American, the French, the Australian, the entire lot.

The first question: Has there been any change at all since the public protests following the gruesome gangrape of a young women in Delhi in December and the law reforms that followed or does one get a feeling of déja vu? And the second: Is Mumbai going the Delhi way and losing its sheen as a safe city for women? And the associated question — Will this incident change the way women in Mumbai think, feel, work and will their lives be ruled by the constant shadow of rape that will hover over them?
I hope not. I believe that women of Mumbai are made of sterner metal and one such incident cannot change the way they think or work. Incidents such as these are not unusual for Mumbai or any other city for that matter. We have had a fair share of them. Many go unreported, and even if reported, many don’t get a lot of media attention — most at best get a three-line report on the ninth page of the newspaper, which no one notices.

But what has changed now is the media attention, both national and international, and the curiosity and voyeurism masquerading as concern. As a photojournalist and an acquaintance of the survivor responded, shrugging her well-built shoulders during a talk show on television, “Not at all, why should this incident change my life? I have surmounted worse hurdles and have emerged a winner. Why would this incident mar my life?” This summarises the spirit of a working woman in Mumbai whose labour holds up this financial capital. How can five lumpen youth from poverty stricken and marginalised families shake its base?
The blood-thirsty media has splashed photographs of old and frail women in their meagre dwellings in a vulgar display of this flashy and opulent city’s underbelly of poverty and subhuman existence for us to gloat over. They seem to be making the point that it is these women and their dwellings that breed rapists. And it appears that once again we will be braying for the blood of a teenaged boy on the cusp of maturity to cleanse the city of sexual crimes rather than ponder a viable scheme of income redistribution and poverty elevation, so that every poor child’s basic needs are fulfilled and an innocent child is not turned into a drug addict, a murderer or a rapist.

Why did the youth rape her? Because they thought they could get away with it. It is for the same reason that fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, neighbours, boyfriends, acquaintances, teachers, wardens, jailers, politicians, policemen, bosses, men who wield any type of power over a vulnerable woman think they can rape. Because reporting rape causes greater stigma to the victim and navigating the justice delivery system is an ordeal only the few brave ones can endure. Only when women learn to survive rape with courage and dignity, and when the justice delivery mechanism is able to sensitively respond to their need, will the situation improve. Opting out of work or not venturing out at night will not, since most rapes occur within the domestic space or in the neighbourhood. But, ironically, these rapes do not invoke the same type of media attention as the ones where the victim is from the middle class and the accused are lower class. The class bias in the media glare is very disturbing indeed.

The hordes of television cameras parked outside Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai to catch a glimpse of the young woman or her family members, threatening to intrude into their privacy, must be an equally frightening thought for the young woman as the threatening advances of the gang of five. Reporters have visited not only the scene of the crime, but also the girl’s residence. They have spoken to the watchman and are baffled that he and other residents were not aware that a woman from the building was raped the night before. Well, thanks to the media, now they know! In a recent case, popularly referred to as “the Spanish woman’s rape case”, while awaiting the test identification parade before flying out of the country, the young woman and her support person went around the city in a burqa to shield themselves from the intruding cameras which always seem to lurk round the corner as she got in and out of the car. This constant intrusion was her biggest nightmare, post the incident.

What has changed since the December incident? Well, that our women parliamentarians did not screech in high-pitched voices and proclaim that the woman has become a “zinda lash”, a living corpse; that threatened with a broken bottle, the young woman did not think that she must fight till she dies to save her honour and her virginity. Sensing danger, she acquiesced. She opted for life rather than to become a martyr at the altar of sexual purity and has challenged the judicial premise that virginity is the most priced possession of an Indian woman. What has changed is that she has pledged from her hospital bed that she will not let this incident ruin her life and that she is eager to get back to work. (The hounding by the media will hopefully stop by then!) 

This is the most important lesson this incident has taught us.

It may take a few weeks, a few months or even a few years to overcome the trauma, but hopefully, when she does, she will be able to tell us the story of how she survived rape and became a survivor.

***The writer is a women’s rights lawyer


Monday, August 26, 2013

A rape is a rape. Period.

"We get roused into action only when someone like us is affected. But isn’t every single rape a human tragedy of the worst kind? And surely every single rape should shock us into action?"
By: Anil Dharkar

A rape is a rape is a rape. At least one would think so: any violation of a woman’s body is brutal, it is physically damaging, but more than that it is psychologically traumatising to such an extent that the person is scarred for life.

Our hearts, therefore, go out to the victim of the gang rape in Mumbai; we want to say sorry to her on behalf of every male in the world, but we know that’s a meaningless gesture. We end up doing nothing, except hoping that time will heal the wounds.
In the first three months of this year, 91 cases of rape were registered across various police stations in Mumbai, for long considered India’s safest city. If that average is maintained through the year, 2013 will be one of the worst years ever. Figures over the recent past confirm a rising graph: in the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, the number of rapes totalled 192, 219 and 231 respectively. Here we are talking of registered rapes; as any sociologist will tell you, there are many more that go unreported. That’s because many take place within families, and families do a cover-up to “save face”; many others go unreported because the woman is too scared to file a report.

Then, of course, there are rapes which do not enter our consciousness. On Thursday, August 22, the day the gangrape of the photojournalist took place in Mumbai, only about three kilometers away an unidentified man lured a six-year-old girl with chocolate, took her to a secluded spot and molested her. For some unexplained reason, he didn’t rape her, which is the only surprising element in the story because our newspapers carry tiny items like this on the city pages every other day: the “action” takes place in a slum, a man —
usually a neighbour — sees a little girl by herself, offers to buy her chocolate (the only weapon needed in these cases), takes her to an isolated place and rapes her. If she is lucky, he sends her off with a warning; if she isn’t, he kills her.

The police may register these cases if the girl’s parents insist, but they certainly don’t register all. For us, this has happened in a slum, in the underbelly of the city where “these things happen”. These brutalised young girls probably suffer even greater physical and mental trauma than an older, educated woman who can secure better medical treatment and counselling, but do we really care?
Don’t misunderstand me: I am in no way belittling the horror of the young (and brave) photojournalist; I am just pointing out that a rape is a rape is a rape isn’t necessarily true. We get roused into action only when someone like us is affected. But isn’t every single rape a human tragedy of the worst kind? And surely every single rape should shock us into action?

What should that action be? The Shakti Mills rape case has brought on the usual shrill cries of “Hang the rapists!” or “Castrate them all!” Spokesmen of political outfits like the Shiv Sena, always looking for opportunities to flaunt their favourite battle-cry, jump up and say, “These crimes happen because of outsiders and migrants.” They say this even before any of the suspects are caught and, for all you know, all of them were born and brought up in Amchi Mumbai. Whatever their origins, punishment like castration and hanging should never feature in any debate on rape. At least not in a civilised country. Chemical castration has been used in the West, but only for habitual offenders who, after repeated sexual crimes and repeated incarcerations, show no sign of either repentance or reform.
So what is to be done in rape cases? Punishment, without doubt, should be severe — perhaps as severe as life imprisonment. The judicial process should be quick and taken up in fast-track courts so that the accused doesn’t get off on bail with a chance to further traumatise the victim.
Yet, will this stop rapes? Realistically, it is impossible for the police force, given its small numbers, to patrol all isolated areas. Some experts have said that rapes wouldn’t happen if people were afraid of the law, but is this really true? Most rapes are committed on the spur of the moment: an opportunity is seen and, literally, seized. In such a scenario, the rapist acts without any thought of the consequences, so the prospect of even a long jail term does not act as a deterrent. If we look at both the December 16 gangrape in New Delhi and now the gangrape in Mumbai, the rapists don’t seem to have considered the consequences of their actions at all. In Delhi, they dumped the 23-year-old victim and her friend out of the bus in Mumbai, they only threatened the young photojournalist with uploading the pictures of the rape.

For women, and for us as a society, any solution has to be long term. And they have to focus on our attitudes to women. Recently, three women tourists from Delhi visiting a historic fort in Maharashtra were harassed by a group of young men who constantly brushed against them and also photographed them. A Chicago University student Michaela Cross’ article on the CNN blog has gone viral on the Internet. “Do I tell people about our first night in Pune when we danced in the Ganesh festival?” she writes, “Or do I tell them how the festival stopped when we started dancing, and every man began to film us? Do I tell them about bargaining at the bazaar for beautiful saris or the men who pushed by us, clawing at our breasts and groins? When people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for 45 minutes after I purchased them?”

This, sadly, is par for the course if you are a woman. How will all this change? With education? Better living spaces than slums? How long will all that take? Do women have to live through hell until then?

The writer is a senior journalist


Friday, August 9, 2013

In India Rape Trial, Even Fast-Track Justice Plods

A student prays during a vigil for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi, in Ahmedabad. (Photo: Reuters)
NEW DELHI — The government promised swift justice after the gang rape of a young university student on a moving bus in India’s capital late last year sparked nationwide outrage.But speed is relative in a legal system so overburdened that even a normal criminal trial can stretch well over a decade.
Seven months later, the trial in a special “fast track” court is still plodding along.Take a recent day in the case.

The court was in session just two hours, as it is every day of the trial. Only one witness—out of nearly 100 called in the case—had time to testify. The judge himself translated the testimony sentence-by-sentence from Hindi into English, and carefully corrected the court stenographer’s errors.“That’s not how you spell ‘sign,’” the judge admonished, as assembled reporters and police nodded off in boredom.That was one of the more efficient days in the trial.On the bad days, the three mercurial defense lawyers delay proceedings with their infighting, accusing each other of colluding with the police or the prosecution. Or witnesses listed for cross-examination don’t show up—so the court adjourns early.

The attack on the 23-year-old woman in the heart of New Delhi on Dec. 16 shook a country long inured to brutality against its women. Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets demanding justice now, not the usual yearslong trial.The pressure led to the creation of a fast-track court for violence against women, and the rape was its first case. Optimists say closing arguments could be made by the end of August and a verdict reached in September.

“The judge has a busy case load and all of us lawyers also have other clients. We cannot drop all of them and just work on this case,” said A.P. Singh, one of the defense lawyers.While it’s not unusual in other countries for high-profile cases to drag on, the court hearing this trial was formed specifically for speed, a standard it hardly begins to meet.Still, if the case does wrap up soon, it would be remarkably fast by Indian standards.

One reason for the delays in India’s justice system is a shortage of judges. India—a country of 1.2 billion people—has approximately 11 judges for every million people, compared with roughly 110 per million in the United States, according to a 2009 report by India’s Law Commission, which was set up by the Law Ministry to suggest reforms. Then there is the endemic problem of corruption, which delays the process of gathering evidence and ensuring cases are trial ready. Court procedures lack flexibility and often involve excruciating layers of paperwork.

The commission has suggested the entire legal system be overhauled, with more judges, time limits on trials and bans on “frivolous” adjournments.Meanwhile, the rape case keeps throwing up new twists. Last month, the lawyer of two of the surviving adult defendants accused a third of changing his testimony at the last minute to get a lighter sentence at the cost of his co-accused.The four defendants are accused of convincing the woman and her male companion to board an off-duty bus after the pair had watched an evening movie at an upscale shopping mall. The police say the men then raped the woman, using a metal rod to inflict such horrific injuries that she died two weeks later at a Singapore hospital. The four adult defendants all face charges of gang rape, murder and kidnapping and are likely to face the death sentence if convicted. A fifth defendant was found dead in his cell in March and a sixth is being tried as a juvenile.

The verdict in the trial of the juvenile was expected last month but has been indefinitely delayed.Mukesh Singh has testified he was driving the bus—even though his brother was the official bus driver—and did not attack the woman. But he said all the other defendants charged were there. The others have all claimed they were framed by the police and were not on the bus. A.P. Singh, who represents two other defendants, said Mukesh Singh had earlier said he didn’t know who was on the bus, but changed his account because “his lawyer has been hijacked by the police and is colluding with them.”One of the lawyers on Mukesh Singh’s defense team, Vibhor Anand, called A.P. Singh’s accusations “weird.”

“My client is only speaking the truth. He hasn’t changed his story at all. These are all false stories cooked up by other defense counsel,” Anand said. News reports say defense lawyers have shouted at one another in court. On a recent day in court, one defense lawyer smirked and giggled openly as another’s witness testified. The four accused, who in the early days of the trial came to court with their faces covered by caps and scarves, surrounded by dozens of policemen, now sit at the back of the courtroom listening blankly to the ongoing testimony. Each man is flanked by an officer. A few other policemen wait outside the courtroom.
While prosecutors refused to talk on the record to The Associated Press, news reports say they have consistently blamed the defense team for deliberately delaying proceedings. The defense blames the prosecutors, who have called a whopping 82 witnesses compared to their 15.
Rebecca John, a criminal lawyer who practices in India’s top court, said the prosecution had put up such a massive witness list because of the high profile nature of the case. She also criticized the fast track court system, saying it promised justice in only a few very visible cases.

“The entire Indian legal system needs to be overhauled and made fast-track,” she said. “When you fast-track one case out of 100 you actually slow-track all the others.”