GOA, India – My niece was only 4 years old when she turned to my sister-in-law in a packed movie theater in Mumbai and asked about gang rape for the first time.
We watched the latest Bollywood blockbuster about vigilantes, nationalistic fervor and, of course, gang rape. Four male characters grabbed the hero’s sister and dragged her away. “Where are they taking Didi?” my niece asked, using the Hindi word for “older sister.” It was dark, but I could still make out her small forehead, frowning with concern.
Didi’s gang rape took place off screen, but did not have to be shown. As instinctively as a newborn fawn senses the mortal danger of a fox, little girls in India sense what men are capable of.
You may be wondering, “Why are you taking a 4-year-old to a movie like that?” But there’s no escaping Indian rape culture; sexual terrorism is treated as the norm. Society and government agencies often excuse and protect men from the consequences of their sexual violence. Women are blamed for sexual assault and are expected to sacrifice freedom and opportunity in exchange for personal safety. This culture infects public life – in movies and television; in bedrooms, where women’s sexual consent is unknown; talking in the locker room from which young boys learn the language of rape. India’s favorite swear words are about having sex with women without their consent.
It is the particular horror of gang rape that weighs most heavily on Indian women I know. You may have heard of the many gruesome cases of women being gang raped, disemboweled and left for dead. When an incident gets national attention, outrage boils over and women sometimes protest, but it passes quickly. All Indian women are victims, traumatized, angry, betrayed, exhausted. Many of us think about gang rape more than we care to admit.
According to government data, a woman was raped every 20 minutes in India in 2011. The pace accelerated to about every 16 minutes by 2021, when more than 31,000 rapes were reported, a 20 percent increase from the previous year. In 2021, 2,200 gang rapes were reported to the authorities.
But those grotesque numbers only tell part of the story: 77 percent of Indian women who have experienced physical or sexual violence never tell anyone, according to a study. Persecutions are rare.
Indian men can be prosecuted for being Muslims, dalits (untouchables), ethnic minorities or for daring to challenge the corrupt powers. Indian women suffer because they are women. Soldiers must believe that war will not kill them, that only bad luck will kill them; Indian women must believe the same about rape, trust that we return safely to the barracks every night, in order to function at all.
Reports of violence against women in India have steadily increased over the past few decades, with some researchers reporting a growing willingness of victims to come forward. Each rape desensitizes society and prepares it to accept the next, the evil becoming banal.
Gang rape is used as a weapon, especially against lower castes and Muslims. The first case women my age remember was in 1980, when Phoolan Devi, a lower-caste teenager who had run afoul of a criminal gang, said she had been kidnapped and repeatedly raped by a group of upper-class assailants. caste. She later returned with members of her gang and they killed 22 mostly upper caste men. It was a rare example of a battered woman taking revenge. Her rape might never have made headlines without that goddamn retaliation.
Ms. Devi threw the spotlight on caste apartheid. The suffering of Bilkis Bano – the foremost gang rape survivor of my generation – highlighted the seething hatred that Indian institutions led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, harbor towards Muslim women.
In 2002, brutal violence between Hindus and Muslims swept through the state of Gujarat. Ms. Bano, then 19 and pregnant, was raped by an angry Hindu mob, who also killed 14 of her relatives, including her 3-year-old daughter. Critics accuse Modi, Gujarat’s top official at the time, of condoning the riots. He has not lost an election since then.
Mrs. Bano’s life took a different turn. She moved from home repeatedly after the attack, for the safety of her family. Last August, 11 men sentenced to life in prison for raping her were released – on the recommendation of a review committee made up of members of Mr Modi’s ruling party. After they were released, they were greeted with flower garlands by Hindu rightists.
The timing was suspicious: Gujarat was due to hold important elections a few months later and Mr Modi’s party needed votes. One member of his party explained that as upper caste Brahmins, the accused had “good” values and did not belong in prison. Men know these rules. They wrote the rulebook. The most frightening thing is that releasing rapists could well win votes.
After Ms Bano, there was the young physiotherapy student who was beaten and raped on a moving bus in 2012 and penetrated with a metal rod that pierced her colon before her naked body was dumped on a busy New Delhi road. She died of her injuries. Women protested for days, and even men joined in, faced with water cannons and tear gas. New anti-rape laws were drafted. This time it was different, we naively thought.
It wasn’t. In 2018, an 8-year-old Muslim girl was drugged and gang raped for days in a Hindu temple and then killed. In 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit girl was gang raped and later died from her injuries and a broken spinal cord.
The fear, especially of gang rape, never completely leaves us. We go out in groups, cover up, carry pepper spray and GPS tracking devices, avoid public areas after dark, and remind ourselves to shout “fire” instead of “help” when attacked. But we know that no precaution will guarantee our safety.
I don’t understand gang rape. Is it a medieval desire to dominate and humiliate? Do these men, with little power over others, who feel inadequate and ordinary, need a few minutes of power?
What I do know is that other men share the blame, the countless brothers, fathers, sons, friends, neighbors and colleagues who have collectively created and perpetuated a system that exploits women. If women are afraid, it’s because of these men. It’s a protection racket of epic proportions.
I’m not just asking for equality. I want retribution. retaliate. I want young girls to be taught about Ms. Bano and Ms. Devi. I want monuments built for them. But men just want us to forget. The release of Ms. Bano’s rapists was about men’s refusal to remember our trauma.
So we build monuments with words and our memories. We talk about gang rape with each other and keep it central to our lives. We try to explain it to our youngest, to start protecting them.
This is how the history of the slain is recorded. That’s what it all comes down to: a battle between forgetting and remembering.