A brutal rape, then outrage. What next for women?


When I was home in Kolkata several years ago, I climbed aboard a crowded public bus to go across town. The experience was far from pleasant.

It was hot and crowded. The bus was filled with the stench of body odor. I could feel the sweat of others on my bare arms as I clawed my way to the front door to get out at my stop.

But all of that could be borne in some way or the other. This was the price of getting from south Kolkata to its financial center in Dalhousie Square on a ticket that cost me all of 5 cents.

But there was another memory that came hurtling back in the last few days as I read the news of a 23-year-old woman attacked and raped by a gang of men on a moving bus.

Men on the bus pinched me and groped me and there was nothing I could do. My right arm was up, holding onto the grab bar for dear life as the rickety bus bumped its way over gaping pot holes.

I could not move in that packed bus. I could not hit them back. I was helpless.

But that was just the way it was. Not one person around me thought to do anything about it.

What happened to me happens to women all over India. Every day.

I’ve been stared at on the streets. Or heard catcalls and whistles.

In every instance, I was violated. But I was lucky.

Many times, the attacks are violent. In the December 16 rape of the Delhi woman, the circumstances were unimaginable. Her assailants gang-raped her and dumped her battered body off an expressway. Her injuries were so horrific that part of her intestines had to be removed in hospital.

The shocking nature of this crime galvanized Indians to take to the streets to express their outrage.

But I believe that anger was a long-time coming.  It stemmed from years and years of hearing about rapes and other forms of violence against women in which victims are blamed and perpetrators face little or no punishment.

I believe that Indians were finally finding a mass, united voice by which to say: We have to change the way we think about women and the way we treat them.

Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, got it right in a speech that was posted online:

There is barely a woman here who has not at some point fought for her dignity on the streets of Delhi, or in its buses. There is not one amongst us that has not found herself alone in such a situation. When we do this, we are told that we are inviting trouble; that we are asking for it.

The Indian government has promised stricter safety measures on buses. It can also, perhaps, make policy changes that will make reporting and convictions in cases of violence against women easier.

But ultimately, there has to be changes in the Indian mindset that affords women the dignity they deserve.

Here’s what journalist Shoma Chaudhury wrote on Teleheka.com:

Rape is already the most under-reported crime in India. But beneath that courses a whole other universe of violence that is not even acknowledged. It’s not just psychopathic men in a rogue white bus who can be rapists: it’s fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, friends. Almost one in every two women would have a story — perhaps told, perhaps untold — of being groped, molested or raped in the confines of their own homes. If they dare speak of it at all, they are told to bury and bear it. Take it as a part of life. To name an uncle who has been molesting a minor niece would be to shame the family. And marital rape — that stretches the very imagination. It’s a mark of our bestial ideas about women that even judges often suggest that rape survivors marry their rapists to avoid the hell of life as a single woman rejected by society.

It’s clear, say Indian women’s rights activists, that passing laws is not enough.

Legislation might give a sense of change, said Ratna Kapur, a professor at Jindal Global Law School, when in fact, very little is being done. This is what she wrote in The Hindu newspaper:

To confront the hatred that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways is to move forward as a society. We need to think about how we can handle women’s equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. That demands greater responsibility on the part of parents as well as society not to raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need on the part of young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women’s equality rights.

I am horrified by what happened in New Delhi.

I am heartened that so many people hit the streets in outrage.

I can only hope that from this brutal crime will come the beginning of a safer future for women.

Killed in the name of honor

“All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone.”

That’s what Pakistan’s constitution says. But the plight of women in Pakistan today is grim.  Last year almost a thousand women were murdered in honor killings, according to the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. The real number is feared to be much higher — many such killings are covered up by families.

Of the 943 cases documented by the commission’s staff, 93 were girls. 

Here’s why these women and girls were killed by husbands, brothers, fathers. They were accused of illicit relations or they voiced a desire to marry a man of their own choice.

Before being killed, at least 19 women were raped, 12 of them gang-raped.

They were shot, bludgeoned and even strangled to death. 

Only 20 of these women and girls were provided any medical aid before they died.

This is now. In Pakistan.

I don’t know the statistics for my native India or neighboring Afghanistan. But all three of these South Asian nations top the list for the worst countries in which to be a woman.

I was horrified to read the Pakistan report today. It probably won’t get much attention in the Western media. So I write this and ask you to think about how these women and girls lost their lives all in the name of saving a family’s honor.

Could there be anything more dishonorable?

A long journey

In the world’s largest democracy, men are still very much in control.

Even though we’ve had a woman as prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and the current president is also a woman (Pratibha Patil), women still lag way behind men in many ways. India has only 21 women in the 233-member Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament. In the Lok Sabha or lower house, women represent 11 percent of the seats. That ranks India 99th in the world in female parliamentary representation – behind neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh.

On Monday, which was International Women’s Day, the United Nations blamed a gender gap for the disappearance of 43 million women in India. Lost because of lack of health care, decent nutrition and proper education (only 55 percent of women are literate in India.

Gender bias leads to the killing of infant daughters. Brides are still burned to death in hopes of securing another dowry.

Those are obvious ways discrimination rears its ugly head. I can remember acts that were more subtle, yet insidious none the same.

The women in my mother’s generation cooked all the meals in the house but rarely sat with the men at the table. The men, of course, were served first; the women waited on them and then cleaned their mess.

Women on their periods could not enter a place of worship. I did not understand why when I was a teenager and wanted to join in on the puja festivities at my grandparents’ house. Now I am sure a man insisted on that rule.

My great aunt, who lived to a very ripe old age, was married and widowed when she was still in her teens. She lived a life of austerity, wrapped in white muslin, eating strict vegetarian food by herself on the floor of the kitchen. Somehow, she had been dishonored because her husband died on her. If she had been born a few years earlier, she might have had to plunge into her husband’s funeral pyre to save herself.

My own mother’s marriage was arranged. She left her own family to live with strangers. She gave up her own ambitions, her dreams in life to do what was expected of her. She was not a stalwart feminist. Nor was she one to complain about the way women were treated in Indian society. But I know, from all our quiet conversations, that she endured. And she told me many years ago that she would never wish the same for me.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recognized the uphill climb for women in India.

“Our women faced discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, they face discrimination in equal access to education and health care,” he said this week. “There are all these things. All these things have to end if India is to realise its full potential.”

A bill was introduced 15 years ago reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for women. The male-dominated Rajya Sabha finally passed the bill on Tuesday. It next goes to the Lok Sabha for approval.

There’s a long journey still ahead but the bill is a crucial first step to giving Indian women the voice they so richly deserve.

My mother died nine years ago. But I know she would have been proud of her homeland on this day.

Goddess of strength

Thousands of deities are on their way to the banks of the Ganges in West Bengal today. The immersions have to be finished by Wednesday in the capital, Kolkata.

Ma Durga, the goddess of strength, returns to Ma Ganga, the holiest of rivers.

In the next few hours, murtis or images made from clay, wood, paper mache, bamboo, straw, shell and sand will begin dissolving in murky river waters.

Durga Puja, the biggest Hindu festival in my home state, is culminating this week.

When I was young, Durga Puja was the highlight of my year. Like an American kid looking forward to Christmas.

The five-day festival usually falls in September or October, depending on the position of the stars. We were off from school for several weeks. The streets were filled with fun and food. We wore new outfits for each day of the puja and went from pandal to pandal (temporary structures that housed the images) to see which one was the biggest, the baddest.

Hindu mythology tells the tale of Durga this way: Only a woman could kill the demon named Mahishasur. So the gods got together and each gave a virtue and skill to create the ultimate warrior, the goddess of strength. They gave Durga 10 arms so she could carry weapons in each to slay the Earth’s evil.

And so she did.

As I grew older and Kolkata became more congested, Durga Puja became somewhat of an inconvenience. The crowds, the road closings, the heat, the rain, the mud and muck of the dwindling monsoons. Last year, I almost missed my flight back to Atlanta because it took so long to weave through city streets to get to the airport.

The 15 million people of Kolkata all seem to be out together during Durga Puja. The constant banging of the dhol (drums) and blaring Bollywood music deafens my ears. At the end of every street, on every corner and in the neighborhood parks and schools, clubs fight for best in show. Who will win the prize for the most attractive Durga display? Some images are realistic. Others abstract. Some simple, others so ornate they would make Marie Antoinette gasp.

And when the five days of worship are over, throngs of people parade down the streets behind a lorry carrying their neighborhood Durga to the Ganges, so she can return to the heavens.

Whether you get into the Hindu puja spirit or not, there is something awesome about seeing millions of people fall at the feet of a woman to worship her strength, especially in a country like India, where women still have a long way to go to gain equal standing with men.

Last year, I was walking home from the bank and I stood and watched workers put the finishing touches on their Durga display. The beautiful and mighty woman, steely in body and soul (and loaded with weapons to boot!).

I stared into the eyes of the image. And felt her strength recharge me.

Check out this Web site for more information on the ceremony, rituals and story behind Durga:


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