Delhi gangrape: Why we should remember the victim for more than her courage

December 16
10:48 2017

The Delhi gangrape case of 2012, often dubbed as the ‘Nirbhaya’ case, was one unfortunate incident that brought tens of thousands on the streets in protest and soon turned into a wave against issues of sexual violence. From setting up of the Justice Verma Committee and the rapid enactments of the Criminal Amendment Act (2013) and the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act (2013) to new youth movements like “Hyderabad for feminism”, “why loiter” groups and Delhi colleges’ Pinjra Tod movement, a lot has happened in the past five years. But how have these affected, if at all, our consciousness about women’s issues? Mary E John explores in this BS Special piece.

It was just five years ago that a young student was gangraped in a moving bus in Delhi. She died within a week, and by then she had become an icon for tens of thousands who spent days and nights on the streets protesting the brutality that had befallen her. Are five years enough time for us to take stock of what difference it has made? Has anything changed in our understanding of sexual violence to make that tragic event and her death somehow more meaningful?

These questions cannot be answered directly. Some would say that what made the rape so eminently newsworthy, and for days on end, was that it came close to being a ‘perfect’ rape. By this is meant that it was the kind of crime that invited the greatest identification with the victim and next to none with the perpetrators. The national and international outcry that followed set many wheels into motion, including the state’s response in instituting the Justice Verma Committee and the rapid enactments of the Criminal Amendment Act (2013) and the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act (2013). It certainly brought issues of sexual violence into public discourse in a way that prior decades of agitation by women’s groups had not been able to achieve.

What strikes me most forcefully at this moment is how the aftermath has been a time of genuine learning about the nature and ubiquity of violence for women in a country like ours. Much of this new knowledge happened by questioning common-sense perceptions that the Delhi rape case was dangerously close to cementing – that the greatest danger to women lay in the stranger lurking in the streets after nightfall, and that the only way to curb such crimes was through the death penalty.

Several feminists are now taking fuller advantage of sources of data like that of the National Crimes Record Bureau. How many women’s organisations were aware that as many as 98 per cent of all rapes that are lodged as FIRs across the country’s police stations are by perpetrators known to the victim? And if we were to ask ourselves what proportion of such rapes are even reported in the first place, the realisation must sink in as to just how rare the Delhi rape case was. Sterling research has also been conducted in the intervening years, of which there was precious little before, which has gone even further in overturning some of our taken-for-granted notions of rape. For instance, Rukmini Sreenivasan of the newspaper The Hindu, examined more closely the data on rapes in the city of Delhi, so routinely referred to as India’s rape capital. She found that the largest number of rapes are lodged under the category of kidnapping and abduction, and hence are overwhelmingly not acts of rape but rather cases lodged by a girl’s parents against the boy with whom she has a relationship, especially if the girl is barely 18 years old. To take another example, new research on rape in the city of Mumbai by the organisation Majlis made a very different kind of troubling finding: There were more cases of incest by fathers in broken impoverished families than there were cases of rape by strangers.

So in many ways, the Delhi gang rape set up a norm that was repeatedly thrown into question. It also crowded out media attention to the shocking avalanche of rapes of Dalit girls and women in the neighbouring state of Haryana which were happening around the very same time. On the surface, these too were cases of young school or college girls seeking a better future for themselves who became victims of young men from the dominant caste in their neighbourhoods, thus inviting comparison with the Delhi rape victim. But this is where the similarity ends – these cases of violence were not just horrific and tragic events, but ones that revealed a form of victimhood buttressed by the inequalities of caste, land, capital and gender, which is why the whole question of justice for those young women in Haryana’s law courts has proved to be so elusive.

In several cities and towns the anti-rape protests spawned new movements among the youth – such as “Hyderabad for feminism”, an online forum for combatting violence and harassment in that city that emerged in early 2013; the “why loiter” groups that have demanded a new relationship to public urban spaces and a redefinition of what counts as safety; the Pinjra Tod (break the cage) movement in Delhi’s colleges and universities, calling for an end to discrimination in women’s hostels; transgender groups in cities like Bengaluru and Chennai that are lifting the veil on the extent of the everyday sexual violence and humiliation they are subjected to by the police. The list could continue. In recent months, there has been a new groundswell of activism on social media and on campuses naming the problems students face when trying to deal with sexual harassment, whether by fellow students or by professors who are in positions of power over them.

It would be foolish to imagine that the swiftness with which the Delhi gang rape was dealt with might have had a much hoped for deterrent effect on future acts of violence. But it does appear to have set in motion something else – a fundamental rethinking about violence itself, especially by a younger generation, who might therefore be better prepared to fight back when they encounter it. If so, then the Delhi rape victim should be remembered not just for her extraordinary courage, but also for raising a curtain on the very different kinds of violence other women have been suffering.

Mary E John is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.

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