log in

The gang rape of a young woman – who later died from her injuries – led to widespread protests across India. Lindsey German puts the assault in context

Woman protester in India

A 23-year old medical student was attacked on a bus in Delhi while on her way home from the cinema. The male friend she was with was beaten up and she was raped by six men for over an hour. They also violated her with an iron bar, causing the injuries which eventually led to her death two weeks later.

This horrific incident comes at a time of growing outrage in India about how women are treated and about the prevalence of rape and sexual assault. Demonstrators have repeatedly taken to the streets, to be met with tear gas, water cannon and attacks from riot police.

Police are guarding the presidential palace, parliament and war memorial in an attempt to deflect the rage which so many people feel not just towards the perpetrators of this and other rapes, but towards the government and police who are regarded as at best complacent - and at worst as colluding in growing numbers of attacks on women.

Sexual violence and official complicity

The government was silent for days after the attack. It has done little to challenge the climate where sexual attacks are widespread and offenders walk free. It is now proposing naming sex offenders, which may make some small difference but is hardly likely to alter the fundamentals of society where women are often not believed and where, if they are known to have been raped, they face social stigma and are unlikely to get married.

In a recent case, police jeered and laughed when a young 17-year-old woman in Punjab tried to report a gang rape. She was urged to drop the case and either marry one of the perpetrators or accept cash compensation. She committed suicide by taking poison.

Official figures show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year in India were against women.

Campaigners are demanding tougher sentences and better policing. Many will realise, however, that such demands will do little to stop rape and that there need to be fundamental changes in society if women are to be able to move freely around the streets and to have the right to live, work and study without the threat of sexual violence.

Governments and police have always dragged their feet in defending women and in clearly opposing violence and sexual assault. Laws have been changed as a result of campaigning on the ground.

Serious sexual assault is not, of course, a problem confined to India. Women activists in Egypt complain about the widespread attacks on women - including in the Tahrir Square demonstrations that have taken place since Mubarak was overthrown in January 2011. This is a reflection of the deeper patterns of sexual intimidation and assaults against women, graphically portrayed in, for instance, the widely read novel The Yacoubian Building.

In these countries, there is often a greater contrast between the lives of different women than there is in the West. Cultural and religious practices sometimes underline this. The desire of many women for independence, education and the right to work outside the home often comes into conflict with these traditional ideas.

Rape and women’s oppression in the West

But the culture around rape in Western countries also contains many of the same problems. Women are not believed and they are criticised for their dress, behaviour or alcohol consumption, as judges imply that they somehow ‘contributed to’ the assault on them.

Todd Akin claims 'legitimate rape' cannot lead to pregnancy

 

During the US elections, the Republican politician Todd Akin suggested there was some biological factor which made it impossible for women victims of rape to become pregnant.

In Britain a full 12% of rape accusations, which numbered nearly 16,000 in 2011, are classified as ‘no crime’. Less than a quarter of accusations result in either a conviction or a caution (it is unacceptable that any rape should be dealt with by a caution). Nearly a third of all cases which go to court result in acquittal.

It is generally acknowledged that rape is an under-reported crime and that many women, for a variety of reasons, do not report assaults against them.

Rape is the product of a society where women and sexuality are treated as commodities, something to be bought and sold. The images projected of women reinforce that view. These representations are part of a class society based on oppression and exploitation.

When women are seen as commodities, this makes some men think they should be sexually available. It dehumanises relationships.

It is perhaps one of the greatest contradictions of women’s position today that they are expected to play a full role in society, yet are also viewed as objects for sexual gratification and are sometimes subject, as in this case, to the most brutal violence.

The tragedy of the still anonymous young woman’s death in Delhi should remind us how far we are from liberation - and how important it is to continue to fight for it.

Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

Twitter

BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS