Last December, a young woman we call “Nirbhaya” was so brutally assaulted and raped by six men on a bus that she died from her injuries two weeks later. She was barely older than my daughter Mira. Grieving, I looked for solace in student memories. I had resisted going to a women’s college at Delhi University, but a few years later at Mount Holyoke, a college for women in Massachusetts, I discovered a world where no one had to remind you to “lean in” because every woman already had her shoulder to the wheel and was moving the needle on everything from microbiology to challenging history with herstory. I was surrounded by women who wrote poetry, discussed politics, dismantled engines, designed buildings, managed newspapers, and danced for the joy of being able to do so. It was a world where women were not less than but equal to – a world, as the playwright Wendy Wasserstein put it, of “Uncommon Women.”
The assault happened in New Delhi – the city of my birth and the city where I now live. It is comforting for many to believe that cultures of rape arise in war-torn places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now suddenly it was New Delhi that was labeled the “capital of rape.” The latest statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau indicate that a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes and that this horrendous statistic could well be worse because of high levels of underreporting. According to the N.C.R.B., the number of crimes against women reported to the Indian police has increased from 228, 650 in 2011 to 244,270 in 2012. Out of the 24,923 rape cases registered by the police across India in 2012, 706 cases of rape were reported in Delhi, according to the N.C.R.B. In 2011 the number of rape cases reported in Delhi was 572.
A woman is raped every six minutes in the United States, and across the globe one in every three women has experienced violence. The persecuted are not an ethnic minority, or a racial group, or a religious sect; they simply had the “misfortune” of being born inside female bodies.
A young woman who attends college has already beaten the odds – two out of three illiterate people in the world are female. Yet even schools and universities are not safe spaces for women. Teachers routinely demand sexual favors, date rape is common, and a majority of girls are discouraged from pursuing competitive sports or fields like science and mathematics. A 2011 report by Princeton University in New Jersey found that too few women at the university held visible positions of leadership like head of student government or editor of the college newspaper. Women’s colleges are outliers, providing environments where in addition to intellectual skills, women’s physical confidence and sexuality are also valued.
Yet I wondered, Will young graduates hold onto confidence in a world struggling to deal with women’s equality? Will they find the courage to speak up when they see injustice perpetrated – not just against women but against religious and caste minorities, transgendered people and the poor? Will they challenge assumptions made about them on the basis of their class or the color of their skin? Will they tell themselves it isn’t worth getting upset about, that they should just smile and change the subject?
Will they balance the contradictory demands being imposed on them in our “mad mad world”? They aspire to freedom and equality, but are bombarded by messages on television, in advertisements and in movies showing women as sexy accessories to fancy cars. People say guys don’t go for girls who are “too smart,” “too aggressive” or just “too much.” Even feminist mothers worry that their daughters’ skirts are too short or their necklines too low. It is even harder for people who are gay or bisexual or transgender – can they celebrate their sexuality and humanity and deal with those who are threatened by it? Can they become loving parents and partners and still sail around the world, become doctors or carpenters, stand-up comedians or artists, climb mountains, advocate for Dalit rights or environmental justice? Will today’s graduates educate the men in their lives – their employees, fathers, sons, lovers and brothers — about male privilege with humor and unabashed candor?
These were the questions that haunted me as I joined in the protests after Nirbhaya’s death. I remembered the last time I marched on Delhi’s streets. It was 1983.
For three years since my graduation from high school, a nationwide anti-rape campaign had demanded the reopening of the Mathura rape case and pushed for amendments to India’s rape law. Mathura, a teenage tribal girl, was raped in 1972 by two police officers, in the police station in the dead of night, while her relatives were waiting and crying outside. A female lawyer took up her case immediately afterward, but the court cast the blame on Mathura, calling her a woman of “easy virtue,” and the two police officers were released. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling. The growing women’s movement in India was outraged.
Prominent lawyers took up the cause, as did the national news media. Women organized public meetings and poster campaigns, collected thousands of signatures, staged demonstrations and submitted petitions to members of Parliament and the prime minister. My friends and I joined a street theater group. Our play “Om Swaha” addressed the horrors of dowry murder, another prevalent form of gender violence. We performed on our college campus, in slums and at busy street intersections. Sometimes people laughed at us; sometimes they cried and shared their experiences. My mother and many of her friends courted arrest in front of Parliament and were hauled off to police stations. It was an inspiring time, but the protesters were limited to upper-middle-class, educated women who belonged to women’s rights organizations. Even caring men, like my father, were not present at the rallies.
After heated debates and much prevarication, Parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 1983, which said that in cases of custodial rape, the burden of proof would lie with men, and that if a female victim made a statement that she did not consent, the court would believe her. It felt like a significant victory.
Yet here I was 30 years later protesting one more in a series of sexual assaults against women and girls. I walked with an unbearable sense of failure. What difference had my activism made? What about the Global Fund for Women and the thousands of women’s groups that it had funded? What about women like Betty Makoni, a schoolteacher in Zimbabwe who founded the Girl Child Network to challenge sexual abuse in schools; and Oral Ataniyazova in Uzbekistan, who fought environmental contamination in communities around the Aral Sea; and Sakena Yacoobi in Afghanistan, who ensures girls have the right to go to school? What were we to make of our idealism now?
I turned in despair to the young man walking beside me and asked, “Why are these men here? You do this to women. Why the calls for the death penalty? Why?” He turned to me, his face somber. “Ma’am, you may not believe me, but I was shaken by this experience. Nirbhaya was not alone – her male friend was beaten and thrown out of the bus along with her. He was a victim and he survived to tell us what happened. For years men have thought rape is a ‘woman’s issue’ that has nothing to do with us. This incident made us wake up, and we are asking what is our role in addressing this ugly side of ourselves and of the society we dominate.”
I looked around me – there were so many young men walking with their sisters, girlfriends and mothers. There were fathers and uncles too. It was different than in 1983. “We need the help of women, ma’am,” he went on. “This is a confusing time; we need to think what does it mean to be a man. Maybe if we work on this together, we can make it right.”
Yes, I thought, smiling back at him, yes we can. We can offer educations that teach how all human beings – women and men – are capable of great intellectual contributions, fierce sexual desire and deep empathy, as well as mean-spiritedness and bigotry. We can make it right when both girls and boys are taught the value of poetry, art, mathematics and scientific inquiry. To quote Bertrand Russell, we can make it right with an education that gives “a sense of the value of things other than domination, to help create wise citizens of a free community.”
We need less domination and more imagination to succeed in this world. We need uncommon women standing with uncommon men because our world faces uncommon challenges. We have no clearly marked strategies to resolve global warming and energy needs or explanations for why nations spend more on weapons than on schools or clean water. But we can be one billion rising against violence and for justice. We can make sure revolutions celebrate our right to dance.
We need uncommon men and women to make it right. We need them to be so strong they can be gentle; so educated they can be humble; so fierce they can be compassionate; so passionate they can be rational; and so disciplined that they can be free.
Kavita Nandini Ramdas
Kavita Nandini Ramdas is the Ford Foundation’s representative for India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.