Women in India Won't Be Stopped

By Mitchell, Penni | Herizons, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Women in India Won't Be Stopped


Mitchell, Penni, Herizons


There are two approaches to law reform.

One says, bring out the lash, punish perpetrators and set an example. Focus on individual criminals, not the social forces that influence them.

The second approach involves looking at the underbelly of the beast. Why does the beast act this way? In the case of rape, this approach seeks to address societal attitudes that encourage sexual violence. It asks what institutions condone rape. It's messier, more time-consuming, but ultimately more effective.

These two approaches are playing out in India, where the December death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student following a brutal gang rape in Delhi sparked an unprecedented fury of outrage that saw daily street protests.

Bring on the death penalty for "extreme" rapes, said those in the first faction - the six charged with her death must pay. And, indeed, a new ordinance passed in February will permit the death penalty in some rape cases, since India's government, like most, is eager to be seen as being responsive to public opinion.

The unnamed woman and a male friend were lured onto a private party bus on December 16 after seeing The Life of Pi in a movie theatre. The woman was brutally assaulted, while her friend was knocked unconscious. After they were tossed out of the bus, there was an attempt to run the bus over the woman. She died a week later in hospital.

For years, feminists in India have lobbied for reforms, complaining that trials take years to be heard before slow-moving, underfunded courts staffed by judges who are predominandy male. In Indian courts, they say, victims are blamed and shamed by defence lawyers. As a result, courts tend not to believe victims' testimonies, and sentences are light. Social attitudes are part of the problem. A 1996 survey found that 68 percent of judges in India believed that provocative clothing is an invitation to rape. Women's advocates complain that rapes committed by men in the upper classes of Indian society are rarely tried.

Sound familiar? Thirty years ago, women in Canada sought to reform their country's rape laws along the same lines as women are now demanding in India. And while India's government has bowed to pressure to try rape cases more quickly, the move addresses only a small part of the underlying problem.

Not surprisingly, India's feminists did not join the calls for the death penalty. Instead, they directed their anger into demonstrations, along with students, and called on lawmakers to make systemic changes. …

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