We are talking about rape in our living rooms.
Everyday rapes, the rape of children, rape within the family, custodial rape. We are discussing the glorification of rape in popular culture and the threat of rape we have perceived in our own lives. We are recounting incidents from our lives that we have never told anyone before. We are arguing, validating, questioning and adding to each other’s accounts. We are listening. We are listening to women, to survivors and activists. Indian newspapers and primetime news bulletins are reporting and discussing sexual violence in their top stories. We have begun, collectively, to admit to the horror that we have grown up with in our lives.
The high walls of silence surrounding sex crimes have cracked. In some parts, they seem to have collapsed. It took a brutal crime in the heart of Delhi to trigger a citizen’s uprising and a collective call for action from the state.
Three weeks ago, a 23-year-old student was brutally gang raped by five men in a moving bus. Her male friend and she were beaten with iron rods and thrown off on a road, barely conscious. One minute, she had been just another one of us, going home after watching a movie with a friend and then, suddenly, she was the random victim of a crime so mindless and horrific, it shook thousands of people into action.
The woman, whose name was not released to protect the privacy of her family, was alive for two weeks before succumbing to multiple organ failure. Unable to speak, she wrote on a piece of paper, "Mother, I want to live." Her brother spoke to journalists and reported that she had fought the rapists, biting and hitting back whenever she could.
Last year, I wrote a personal account of the everyday traumas of growing up in Delhi. It was in response to a video that went viral on the internet showing a young woman in Guwahati being molested on a street by a mob of men. Video journalists continued to film the scene instead of intervening to rescue her. I never did watch the video but the news brought back memories of a similar incident in my life when I was a student in Delhi. Like most other women, I had been groped, pinched, rubbed, hurt, chased and abused in public spaces since the age of 12. I had known fear and dread. Almost two decades later, I put out my story in the public domain. Comments and e-mails from readers revealed how rampant such incidents are in the life of urban Indian women. Many had never spoken about it before and most had received no help. Reading the account of one had created a space for many others to recount their experiences.
Misogyny. Patriarchy. Call it what you like. It embeds itself in our consciousness from very early in our lives. It’s in the way we watch our mothers being treated by our own family. It’s in the way she swallows her pride and dismisses her hurt. The terror that paralyses her when she wants to rescue her child from abuse at home, but doesn’t because she fears her intervention will make it worse. It’s in the way we learn to treat women when we take the first subconscious decision to choose sides. Be with the aggressors or be a victim. What is your survival plan?
We are taught to feel shame. We internalize the primacy of family honour. Don’t tell anyone. What will the neighbours say? Your grandfather will be angry. Father will be hurt. Or worse, father may kill you. Look down and carry on. Don’t engage with aggressors. There’s no point in involving the police. Learn to avoid trouble. These are the messages we carry in our heads.
Sometimes I walk around a marketplace and memories surface. A group of young men and women hanging around together. The boys say things. Silly things. The girls laugh. Embarrassed laughs, cackles. The joke is often on the girl. She attempts to be a good sport and looks like she’s enjoying herself too.
I sit on the periphery of family get-togethers and hear the same script being re-enacted. Boys getting first preference. A veiled pride in how disobedient and violent they can be. Girls encouraged to compromise and let go of their privileges. Children losing their natural spontaneity and nursing a kind of muted anger that will express itself self-destructively.
Yet, at another level, something seems to have changed fundamentally in the way civil society has responded to the gang rape and murder in Delhi. Men and women have marched on the streets demanding action from the state. They have braved tear-gas and water cannons. Amendments and suggestions are being compiled to strengthen existing laws. Petitions have been signed and delivered to Parliamentarians. Besides the open activism, there is the speaking out. People writing their accounts and saying, ‘I have been violated too. This is unacceptable.’
There is no going back to the tyranny of silence for those who have stood up and shared. The apathy of both the political and social system has been challenged. Social media has served as a conduit to connect the isolated outrage of individuals to form a collective that will effect change.
This is not a fight on behalf of others, this is a personal battle for everyone. Those who have found their voice are unlikely to misplace it again. The young woman’s two-week-long struggle to survive has left her world with this unexpected gift. There is no going back.
Natasha Badhwar is a writer and blogger for the New Delhi newspaper Mint