In India and beyond, shock at a woman’s death

December 29, 2012

Demonstrators grieve in New Delhi after the death Saturday of a young woman who was gang-raped on a bus in the city. (Altaf Qadri / AP)

The young medical student whose gang rape on a bus in New Delhi  sparked mass protests and demonstrations has died. Her six attackers have now been charged with her murder.  

The student was never named after her sexual and physical brutalization, but her death is being widely viewed as the potential fate of any woman traveling through India. The event has shocked Indian society, and many women in other parts of the world are also finding themselves compelled to speak out.

Officials have called for calm as the nation steels itself for further outpourings of grief and outrage over what many call another senseless attack on a woman for which the woman herself was blamed for the violence inflicted upon her.  

Protesters say they are demonstrating to help smash the beliefs pervasive throughout Indian society that women simply don’t matter and that it’s just a woman’s lot to deal with sex-based harassment and assault.  Despite orders to not assemble, these women — and men as well — have taken to the streets by the thousands.

How has it happened that India — a country that hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus was sexually progressive enough to give the world the “Kama Sutra” and the concept that lovemaking and sexual pleasure could be an avenue to closeness to God — is now described in travel guides as a place where women must take great care?

Indian women and their supporters are demanding that their pain be taken seriously and that abusive men not be dismissed as akin to pranksters.

Many powerful people, however, stand in the way.

The son of the Indian president, Abhijit Mukherjee, himself a politician, called the protesters “highly dented and painted” women who go partying in discos and then decide to turn up and take part in demonstrations. On national television, he later offered an “…unconditional apology to all the people whose sentiments got hurt.” Of course, he didn’t actually apologize for insulting the demonstrators or implying that women shouldn’t assert their human rights by protesting mistreatment.  

But Abhijit Mukherjee is no anomaly. His philosophical colleagues — empowered figures who speak for those who benefit from the status quo — are plentiful. And the fight to change the way such men think and speak, diminishing the horror of the behavior they excuse, must be redoubled with each utterance.

Just this past Election Day, many American women went to the polls to vote against American Mukherjees. According to outgoing Missouri congressman Todd Aiken (R), a woman’s body can tell the difference between the sperm of a man who loves her and that of a rapist. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he said.

Richard Mourdock, a defeated candidate for the Indiana Senate, explained that impregnation through rape is a blessing, that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, … it is something that God intended to happen.”

This Christmas, an Italian priest named Perio Corsi posted a message to his social media page blaming “provocative” women for triggering a surge in domestic violence in Italy. “They provoke the worst instincts, which end in violence or sexual abuse,” he wrote. “They should search their consciences and ask: Did we bring this on ourselves?”  After protests, Corsi says he’s taking time off for reflection and “rest.”

But where shall the rest be found for women who are all too justifiably afraid of their bodies being abused and broken for sport? It’s not an exclusively Indian problem that authorities blame women for being attacked, further shaming victims into silence and heaping embarrassment upon their families.  

When an 11-year-old child was gang-raped by 18 men in Cleveland, Texas, two years ago, the New York Times reported that “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.”

It is pervasive, this conviction that “good” girls and women are not raped — and that women need to make an effort to not get raped, as opposed to men and boys being taught to not rape in the first place.

Some protesters have named the Indian student “Damini,” which means “lightning” in Hindi. “Damini” is also the title of a Bollywood movie about a woman’s fight to bring justice to a rape victim.

According to Kevin Loh, the chief executive of Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, where the woman died, “She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds but the trauma to her body was too severe.’’  She ‘‘passed away peacefully,’ Loh said in a statement.

“Peacefully,” he said. After she was raped and tortured, mutilated and finally murdered. “Peacefully,” she “passed away,” as women scream out they they’re just as valuable as men and are insulted by their leaders for daring to protest.  

Damini, women realize, could be any of them. Anywhere.

In India, the fight today is in the streets. But the fights and the protests must continue to be waged in the voting booths, on the editorial pages and even by leaving the venerated institutions, from churches to Congress, that frequently treat women as inferior to men.

Unfortunately, there will be other Daminis. There can be no rest until the world seeks justice for each of them. We can begin by calling to task those in power who treat them as of less consequence than any man.

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Diana Reese | December 28, 2012