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Women demand justice at a vigil in New Delhi Thursday after a young student was raped and left near death in the city Sunday. (Associated Press)
Women demand justice at a vigil in New Delhi Thursday after a young student was raped and left near death in the city Sunday. (Associated Press)

Can horror over rape prompt cultural change in India? Add to ...

She was the 637th case of rape the police registered this year in the Indian capital.

But the story of this young woman – found naked and near death after being gang raped on a bus Sunday night – seems to have pierced the pained resignation of Indian women and the men in their lives as few similar crimes previously have.

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The attack has prompted feverish debate in parliament, with female members weeping in rage and vowing to bring change. There have been days of street demonstrations in the capital and beyond, with crowds demanding the death penalty for the rapists and fierce young women denouncing a “sick” patriarchal culture.

And this rape has ignited a new debate about how safe women can expect to be in this rapidly changing nation. On Thursday, protests and vigils in support of the victim spread beyond New Delhi to other cities.

The woman fighting for her life in a Delhi hospital is a denizen of the new India: She comes from a poor family and her parents sold their small parcel of land in Uttarakhand in the north to help fund her dream of becoming a doctor, according to Meira Kumar, the speaker of India’s parliament, who met them in the intensive-care unit. The young woman recently completed a physiotherapy degree and was soon to start an internship; on Sunday night, she went to the movies with a male friend, a 28-year-old software engineer, and they caught what they thought was a city bus home around 9 p.m.

Police say the “conductor” collected 10 rupees – about 20 cents – from them for tickets and then taunted her, saying that only prostitutes are out in the streets after dark. Her friend tried to intervene. Then the conductor, driver and four friends – who had posed as passengers on what was actually a chartered bus – first beat him senseless with iron bars, then attacked the young woman, while the vehicle cruised through south Delhi, past some of India’s most elite universities and research centres. The hospital said Thursday that after a second surgery, they were unable to save any of her intestinal system. She was briefly conscious on Wednesday; she wrote a note asking doctors to save her, and one to tell her parents she wanted to live, the hospital said.

She was found in the road barely 100 metres from one of the city’s frenetic 24-hour news channels, and soon her story dominated the media. Irate members of parliament disrupted the session on Tuesday, demanding the government explain why women were not safe in the city. The next day, there were demonstrations outside police stations, on the highway and outside the chief minister’s home in Delhi.

Police said they have arrested four of six men they believe, based on closed-circuit television footage from around the city, were involved, and that two have confessed to the crime, saying they went out for a night of “fun” after drinking.

Several of the accused are reported to have previous criminal records and at least one charge of rape. Sushilkumar Shinde, the Home Minister, promised to fast-track the prosecution of this case.

The outraged media coverage of this latest attack has recycled the popular idea that Delhi is the country’s “rape capital,” but the statistics reflect that it has better rape reporting than any part of the country. The Centre for Social Research, which works with Delhi police to offer rape crisis support, estimates that one in 10 sexual assaults in Delhi are reported. In less developed states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, “you hear of one in 25, and one in 100 is reported to police,” because of the widely held belief that a woman raped is permanently shamed, said Ranjana Kumari, director of the centre.

There are approximately 40,000 cases of sexual assault pending before courts across India, according to the centre, cases which have dragged on for eight or nine years; most of the accused are out on bail and have little reason to believe they will face serious punishment for their crimes.

However, there is a particular dynamic in the capital that is making women vulnerable, Dr. Kumari said. “The higher level of mobility of women – more independent, self-minded, strong women – their presence is very overwhelming for some set of people who are totally patriarchal, in a macho culture,” she said.

She referred to a series of incidents in the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, which surround Delhi, where in recent months khap panchayat, self-appointed local councils, have issued decrees variously banning women from wearing jeans and using mobile phones, and ordering that they marry young, all with the ostensible goal of preventing sexual assaults.

“There is a lot of intolerance growing to women’s newfound independence, and women will have to confront it,” she said.

While demonstrators are describing the victim of this week’s attack as “everyone’s sister,” the police noted that when they found the pair of victims lying in the road, there was a crowd of 60 bystanders, men and women, gathered around watching, and that none had offered a coat or scarf to cover the naked pair on a cold night. Police had to go to a nearby hotel to borrow sheets before taking them to hospital.

There has been fierce debate here this year, following other high-profile rapes, about women’s “responsibility.” Women assaulted leaving bars or late at night or while wearing Western clothes have been chastised by police, judges and politicians for bringing their misfortune on themselves. This time, however, there is a current of defiance in the protests, noted Subhashini Ali of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. A young woman in central Delhi on Tuesday carried a sign saying, “Stop telling me how to dress, start telling your sons not to rape.”

But rape is still not seen as a men’s issue, Ms. Ali said. “I don’t think many people are asking that question yet [of how men are being brought up and how it shapes their attitude toward rape].”

“But that’s where we have to go.”

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