The Girl Who Fired an Outcry in India

By Chaudhury, Shoma | Newsweek, March 29, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Girl Who Fired an Outcry in India


Chaudhury, Shoma, Newsweek


Byline: Shoma Chaudhury

One horrible night, innocent victims, devastated families--and a country seething with rage and violence, stuck between feudal hierarchies and the modern economy.

Mahavir Enclave is a bustling working-class colony at the hard extremities of New Delhi. Houses snake up here in haphazard bursts whenever their inhabitants can afford to elbow a little more space for themselves in the world. For an outsider, these seem less homes, more just slivers of precarious brick slapped together. But for those who live there, it's psychological solidity: a toehold, finally, on life.

Here in Mahavir Enclave, in a tiny mole hole of a room a few feet below ground, in a warren of other similar rooms, two brothers, 20 and 16, struggle to hold on to a dream. The elder is studying to be an engineer; the younger wanted to be an astronaut. But their frontrunner, the lively, quick-brained sister who birthed these ambitions--who made them seem so tantalizingly possible in this nether layer--is no longer there. She has morphed into a symbol: globally known now as Nirbhaya, which means "the fearless one."

On March 8, Michelle Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry posthumously honored Nirbhaya with an International Woman of Courage Award. A week earlier, in his annual budget speech, Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced a 10 billion-rupee (about $200 million) Nirbhaya Fund to empower and promote safety for women. Briefly the Indian Parliament considered dedicating a new criminal-law bill to her name.

Over the last three months, the story of Nirbhaya--a 23-year-old paramedic who was gang raped with unspeakable brutality on a bus on December 16, 2012, and died 13 days later of her injuries--has triggered shock and outrage across the world and galvanized spontaneous and unprecedented protests in India. She has become an icon of resistance, a watershed moment. (Indian law forbids revealing the names of rape victims, so when an Indian media house came up with Nirbhaya as a substitute, it stuck: it encapsulated the spirit with which she fought.)

India can be a cruel place for women. Each day, the papers teem with stories of anonymous women raped, killed, and dumped in different parts of the country. Sometimes they are minors, girls no older than 3. The spectrum of chronic gender violence stretches even further: acid attacks, marital rapes, honor killings, female feticide, acute malnutrition, discriminative access to schools and jobs, the cultural misogyny rolls on. Of course none of this has abated since December 16, but something has shifted in India. The response to sexual assault in this country will never be the same again. The silence has been broken. Women everywhere are speaking up more; men feel freed (or enjoined) to be more supportive. Some of the stigma has been yanked off. Laws are being revised; judicial and administrative machinery is being revamped. Clumsy and inadequate as it may be, the government is being forced to respond.

At one level, therefore, the story of Nirbhaya could be read as a tragic yet celebratory one: a simple but soaring binary about courage in the face of immeasurable bestiality. But at another level, it is a window into a much more complex, perhaps even darker and sadder, narrative about contemporary India and the terrible collision of aspiration and frustration that has been unleashed within it.

Until December 16, Nirbhaya was just one among millions of faceless young people in India trying to break through the stifling fixity of their lives. Her father, Badrinath Singh, had left rural Uttar Pradesh decades earlier in search of a larger life, but failed to find it. Having run through a series of petty jobs in small industrial towns, he had come to Delhi in 1983, his wife pregnant with their first child. Singh carried a schism in his heart. His own impoverished father had had money to educate only two of his four sons. …

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