Sometimes countries suddenly take a mighty leap forward, forcing everyone else to take notice. On one critical issue – sexual harassment and rape – India has moved far into the lead.
Following a number of brutal rapes that became notorious worldwide, Indian women are pushing back in ways that are radical, innovative and transformational.
The attacks against women have been ceaseless and indiscriminate. A 51-year-old Danish tourist and an 18-year-old German aid worker are among the most recent non-Indians to be raped. But the coverage of these assaults by India’s media has also been ceaseless and indiscriminate.
On Jan. 14, India’s largest selling weekly newsmagazine, The Week, reported on the case of Suzette Jordan, a 39-year-old Anglo-Indian mother of two in Kolkata, who survived what has become a numbingly familiar story. In 2012, she had a drink in a bar and agreed to a ride home with a man whom she had met there. When she entered the car, four other men piled in. They put a gun in her mouth, beat her savagely, raped her and dumped her on the roadside.
Her reporting of the crime brought new recriminations: The member of Parliament for her constituency, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, called the rape “a deal gone wrong”; another minister called her experience “a concocted story.” But Jordan fought on despite these statements, and a trial is currently underway. Jordan has also started a group to support rape survivors.
The level of sexual violence that is being directed against women in India is not unusual; what is unusual is that the country’s media are now covering the issue as a burning social problem, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
And women themselves are now politicizing the issue, rather than blaming themselves for being too friendly, not careful enough or in the wrong place at the wrong time. They – and the men who support them – are standing up to rape in ways that should be a model for the rest of the world.
Indian rape laws were changed in the wake of the rape and murder in 2011 of Bhanwari Devi, a 36-year-old midwife whose accusations of sexual misconduct implicated senior political figures. But Indian activists often refer to the case of another Bhanwari Devi, a social worker who was gang-raped in 1992, as an early turning point. The reason is that episode resulted in 1997 in the Indian Supreme Court’s so-called Vishaka judgment, which proposed guidelines in order to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. With pressure mounting for legislative action, India last year finally adopted a law banning sexual harassment in the workplace.
Perhaps some of the impetus for Indian women’s radicalism stems from the raw punitiveness with which rape is sometimes deployed – that is, as a weapon or a way to enforce social control. India currently is reeling from news that a 20-year-old woman was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a West Bengali village court for having had a relationship with a man from another village.
Some of the radicalism may have to do with the extreme violence of many of the rapes. Marchers in Kolkata, for example, recently protested against the rape and murder of a teenage girl in the village of Kamduni last year. The girl was burned to death soon after – and some believe as a penalty for – reporting the rape to the authorities.
Another recent case of an Indian woman fighting back shows how transformational this spirit of resistance can be. The Hindu newspaper recently reported on the case of a 24-year-old lawyer named Anima Muyarath, who was suspended from the Calicut Bar Association after posting a remark on her Facebook page about sexist behavior in the workplace by her male superiors. Muyarath has won the support of Indira Jaising, India’s first female additional solicitor-general.
And Jaising has another brave young attorney to champion as well: A former law intern who has alleged sexual harassment against a retired Supreme Court judge, Swatanter Kumar. Incredibly, the New Delhi high court took care of one of its own, prohibiting the media from reporting on the case. This dramatic and outrageous gag order – which kept journalists from reporting on a matter of public record and a situation that is of the public interest – led to a furious protest by the Editors’ Guild of India against what it called an “unwarranted intrusion into media freedom.” The gag order worked, however, for by the end of the week, it was impossible to follow the story.
Across India today one is witnessing a feminist fight from the highest levels to the grass roots. Women at the pinnacle of the bar bravely protest mistreatment and harassment, doing what I have long argued is necessary: Naming names in public even as powerful men circle the wagons and throw institutional tantrums. And women on the street protest against the violence inflicted on them by strangers, neighbors and acquaintances – and confront the police and officials who condone it.
It may not be entirely clear what has made Indian women so brave and so effectively combative. But that should not stop the rest of us from taking inspiration from their courage and from their strategic daring.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is “Vagina: A New Biography.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).