India’s collective conscience is finally stirred
The widespread abuse of women and general undervaluing of females has been an ugly fact of life in India that’s been shamefully tolerated by the population and authorities alike for far too long. The horrific gang-rape of a 23-year-old medical student planning to wed was just the tip of a shadowy iceberg that most Indians have ignored, preferring instead to extol their nation’s economic successes; understandable perhaps in a socially-conservative country where most rapes go unreported for fear of staining the family’s reputation. There’ve been numerous incidents of rape victims taking their own lives, unable to withstand the trauma and shame.
Victims were also deterred from coming forward as it was known that convictions were almost impossible to come by in a male-dominated country where in many rural areas females are still regarded as chattels. Delhi’s rape statistics for 2012 speak volumes. Out of the 745 arrests of alleged rapists during the year there was one solitary conviction which may indicate that even police, prosecutors and judges work within some kind of Old Boy’s Club system.
Yet the sheer brutality of the attack that robbed this intelligent young woman of her right to life has impacted Indian emotions in the way that the self-immolation of a vegetable-seller touched the hearts of Tunisians. Hopefully, her appalling mental and physical suffering before she slipped away in a Singapore hospital wasn’t in vain. Hundreds of thousands of outraged Indian youth, academics and elites have taken to the streets of major cities and towns demanding stringent new laws and harsher sentences.
Initially the Singh government was slow to react. The prime minister failed to tap into the nation’s pulse or to realize that this attack on a girl, whose name is still unknown, marked a tipping point; he showed that he was taking the matter seriously when he visited the airport to receive the woman’s body that’s now been cremated.
Columnists have furiously picked up their pens to berate the country’s social inequalities and are criticizing the movie industry for turning females into objects. Bollywood stars and well-known personalities have participated in candle-lit vigils. Father of a 12-year-old daughter, actor Shahrukh Khan is beating himself up on twitter, saying he’s sorry that he belongs to the male fraternity and has vowed to respect women so that he can gain his child’s respect.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has spoken-up urging the Indian government to do its utmost to protect women. “Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected,” he said. But why did he take so long to say it? The United Nations has been aware of the dirt Indian has long been sweeping under the carpet for generations but has little to expose it. The US and the UN didn’t hold back on the abuses suffered by Afghan women at the hands of the Taleban because in 2001 that was politically expedient. Today, the plight of Afghan females is no better, but their cause has been shelved. It’s shocking that some Afghan families without sons dress up their little girls in boys’ clothing and chop off their hair so they be their surrogate son out in the world… until they reach puberty when they’re confined like their sisters.
It seems to me that the entire subcontinent requires a cultural tsunami to free 50 percent of populations from brutal subjugation by their own fathers, brothers and husbands. Rapes are only one symptom. Female infanticide, widespread in some Indian villages, is another.
Around 20 years ago, I was in tears watching a documentary that focused on an Indian village where newborn girls were routinely fed poisoned herbs and buried directly after birth. I was driven to write a letter to a Dubai English-language daily expressing my feelings and was shocked to receive vitriolic responses from Indian nationals, including one I had considered to be a friend, attacking me personally. I was also cold-shouldered by a few of my Indian colleagues. At the time, I thought it inconceivable that the murder of innocent babies for whatever reason could be excused or defended by anyone — and especially not by cultured Indians. But that was then and this is now when attitudes are beginning to change for the better, at least in urban centers.
The question is how long will it take for real change to permeate through rural villages and remote parts of the country where many are ill-informed, ill-educated and impoverished? That will take a proactive government drive to get the message out that feticide, infanticide, rape and bride-burning (also common in Pakistan and Bangladesh) will no longer be tolerated.
According to India’s National Bride Bureau, in 2010, there were 8,391 so called bride-killings carried out because greedy grooms weren’t satisfied with their wives’ dowries. Such hapless women are frequently beaten, starved or kept in isolation until their parents paid up. If not, they are doused with kerosene and set on fire when the police are usually told they caught on fire while cooking.
Moreover, men seeking revenge on their wives or on a girl who had the audacity to refuse a marriage proposal, sometimes resort to acid throwing, leaving the victim facially scarred or blind. A case that hit the headlines was that of Sonali Mukherjee. She was just 18-years-old when three assailants, including a suitor she had turned down, threw acid in her face that left her permanently disfigured. The perpetrators are still on the loose. On Sunday, two women rickshaw passengers in Uttar Pradesh were waylaid and attacked by acid.
The Thomas Reuters Foundation pronounced India the world’s fourth “Most dangerous country for women” after Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan in terms of health, discrimination, cultural factors, sexual violence and non-sexual violence. Fifth on the list was Somalia. What more can be said! Will India return to mass denial once the brouhaha subsides or have the powers that be truly been galvanized into making a visible difference? Only time will tell.