Ending India’s Rape Culture

NEW YORK – The crime seems incomprehensible. A 23-year-old physiotherapy student is dead, 12 days after having been raped for more than an hour by six men in a bus traveling on main roads in the Indian capital. Her internal injuries from the iron rod that her attackers used were so severe that doctors had to remove her intestines in their effort to save her life.

Indians, it seems, have had enough. Dozens of large and increasingly angry demonstrations have been held to demand that the government ensure women’s security and stop treating rapists with impunity. While the authorities have sought to quell the protests – cordoning off central New Delhi and subjecting the rest of the city to traffic restrictions – violence has escalated. After a policeman died, live ammunition was fired into the crowds – killing a journalist, Bwizamani Singh, and provoking a rebuke from Reporters without Borders.

It is not simply the high rate of rape in India that is driving the protests’ virulence. In a passionate speech, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, spoke to the deeper issue behind the protests: the blame-the-victim culture in India around sex crimes. She notes that government and police officials recently insisted that most rapists cannot be prosecuted in India, because, as one official put it, they are known to the women attacked. Other officials have publicly suggested that victims themselves are “asking for it” by their use of freedom of movement.

This return to pre-feminist discourse is not confined to India. Italy is having a similar debate about whether women’s clothes and behavior invite rape. Even in Sweden, activists complain, rapes in which the men know their assailants go unprosecuted, because the victims are not seen as “good girls.”