“They said, ‘if you go to school, boys will be troubling you, so stay home and there will be no sexual violence’,” Usha Vishwakarma recalled, while interviewed by The Guardian, “but we said no, and we decided to form a group to fight for ourselves. We decided we would not just complain; we would take a lead and fight for ourselves.”
In India, it is no wonder that women are having trouble feeling safe. Last year, the Reuters TrustLaw Group named India the worst country for women based on the prevalence of “child marriage, feticide, infanticide, sexual trafficking, domestic slave labor, domestic violence and high maternal mortality.” A 2012 report by UNICEF found that 57% of Indian boys and 53% of Indian girls under the age of 19 believe that a man is justified in beating his wife. In a 1996 survey of judges in India, 68% reported believing that provocative clothing can be blamed for rape. The continued prevalence of dowry payment by families make daughters a burden, and in impoverished families, boys are often fed better than girls. A husband in India legally has the right to all of his wife’s wages and because of this on top of a lack of sufficient Social Security, the elderly can only depend on male family members for support, resulting in female children as undesirable. In 2010, the International Center for Research on Women reported that 44.5% of girls are married before the age of 18. India’s court system is sluggish, and when rapes are reported, no more than 26% are convicted.
The numbers are bad, but the stories are worse. In December of 2012, a 23 year old Indian woman was attacked and brutally raped by five men on a bus in New Delhi. The victim of the attack, who’s name has not been released, died in a Singapore hospital as a result of her injuries. A witness reported that the bus driver made a lewd comment to the woman after she entered the bus and later took part in the beating, wielding an iron bar. In an eerily similar event that took place a month later, a married 29 year old woman was kidnapped by the driver of a bus and taken to an undisclosed location in Gurdaspur, Punjab, where seven men gang raped her continuously for a night. The next morning, the woman was taken back to her village. These two events have sent shock waves throughout India and the world, spurring protest for justice and safety. They have also brought more international attention to the violence toward women in India. These stories, however, are among countless attacks against women perpetrated every year.
Women are beginning to fight back. Usha Vishwakarma is the leader of a group called The Red Brigade, comprised of girls and women who demonstrate, train in self-defense and take part in their own form of vigilante justice against local rapists and abusers. Located in Lucknow, India, The Red Brigade began as a core group of 15 girls and women, ranging in ages from 11 to 25, and now boast a number of more than 100 members. Known for their bright red clothing, the Red Brigade have taught men who are seen or reported to be violent or sexually abusive to expect a warning, a report to the police, and potentially, a beating from the group. A member of the Red Brigade, while speaking to The Guardian, recalled the reaction of a boy who came face to face with them after his taunting became too much: “We all stopped and turned round and we surrounded him and grabbed his arms and legs and he thought it was a joke, but we were not kidding and four of us lifted him in the air and the others started to hit him with their shoes and fists,” she said.
The Red Brigade isn’t alone. Years before the Red Brigade came into being, another group of women began to call themselves the Gulabi Gang. Formed in 2006 in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pratesh, the women of the Gulabi Gang wear pink saris–the word gulabi meaning ‘pink’ in Hindi–and are known for attacking abusive husbands with bamboo sticks called lathis – beating them until they stop abusing their wives. The Gulabi Gang has also claimed to have stopped child marriages and protest against dowry practices as well as female illiteracy in India.
This kind of vigilantism may seem extreme for us in the United States, but it may be the only dependable justice for women in India. According to the Washington Post, although New Delhi is host to one of the largest police forces in the world, only one third of the force is actually engaged in public policing and protection on the streets. The other two thirds provide protection to VIPs–bureaucrats, politicians, and diplomats. There is only one officer for every 200 citizens in New Delhi–a city with a metropolitan population of almost 17 million–whereas there are 20 officers for every VIP. Of those police officers providing ‘policing’, many are involved in protection rackets, and many others simply choose to ignore crimes as they are taking place. During a Loyola University Chicago panel discussing the New Delhi gang rape, Dr. Tracy Pintchman reasoned that police officers in India are underpaid, which may cause them to lack a commitment to public protection. These low wages for police officers may also make them more likely to accept bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to a crime. Additionally, only 7% of the New Delhi police force is female, and studies have shown that women are more likely to report a sex crime if a female police officer is available. As Dr. Pintchman mentioned, there have been cases of Indian women complaining that after having gone to the police department to report a rape, they were then raped by the police officer himself. As a result of the backlash from New Delhi’s recent gang rapes, the police department has begun a special program aimed at recruiting more female officers. Although some progress is being made, victim-blaming and stigmatization continues to be common in India. In one case, a 17 year old gang rape victim committed suicide after being pressured by police to marry one of her rapists. It seems that women in India may have no other choice than to take the fight into their own hands.
Even as women rally together to fight back against their abusers and as the international community looks on, gruesome attacks continue to befall the women of India. On April 3rd, 2013, four women were attacked with acid by two men on a motorbike while walking home from school. The four women, all sisters, work as teachers at the same school in Kandhla, Uttar Pratesh. There are no reports of why these women were targeted and no arrests have been made as of the completion of this article.
As I end this piece, I would urge you not to look at the situation in India through the lens of an “enlightened Westerner” looking at a backwards culture. India should not be seen as having one engrossing cultural identity, and there are many Indian men who respect the rights of women and believe that rape is wrong. “In fact, many of the most repressive sexual morays that prevail in modern India were actually brought in by the British during the Victorian era”, Dr. Pintchman argued, “so they are not actually indigenous to Indians”. The “My Culture Made Me Do It” argument can be harmful and counter-intuitive.
There is a growing Internet community of Indian feminists writing about the issues of their country. Go read and support Ultra Violet, a wonderful zine for Indian feminists.
You can access the Loyola University Chicago panel referenced in this article here.
Author: Eva Trampka
The author has traveled to India and visited both New Delhi and Lucknow (pictured above in glasses). Eva traveled and studied under Dr. Shweta Singh, one of the professors who took part in the Loyola University panel discussing the New Delhi gang rape.