Five years after Jyoti Singh was brutally assaulted with an iron rod and gang-raped in a private bus on New Delhi streets — a horrific crime that roused a nation’s anger — it might be pertinent to ask: has anything changed for women in public spaces?
If you read the newspapers on just one morning of last week, it seems nothing has. Neither the intensity of the assault: A 15-year-old girl was gang-raped in Lucknow, and when she sought help from a passer-by, he too raped her. Neither the brutality: A six-year-old girl raped and murdered in Haryana’s Hisar district had a wooden stick inserted into her body to ensure she didn’t live to identify her culprits. Neither the harassment (at any place and at any time): A teenage actor was molested by a senior executive in the business class of a Delhi-Mumbai flight.In the five years since ‘Nirbhaya’, violent crimes against women have not abated at home or outside. Attitudes against women being out in public space, particularly at night, just for leisure, or worse still, solitary pleasure, have not dramatically changed. Women are still held responsible for assaults against them — from the Shakti Mills gang-rape survivor (Mumbai) being rebuked for being out on work at a lonely location, to the Uber cab rape survivor (Delhi) chastised for “falling asleep”. Most recently, the Chandigarh woman who was raped after she took a shared autorickshaw was advised by BJP MP Kirron Kher, who seemed clueless about the practice of shared taxis/rickshaws, to be “alert and aware”.
Useless advice really. As our research on public spaces shows, women in public are, in any case, always alert and aware, for the onus of negotiating and strategising the use of public space, including finding adequate and safe transport at all times, still lies on individual women. This is as true of India’s small towns as it is in the nation’s capital.
Five years after December 16th, little seems different. And yet some of it is. Soon after Jyoti Singh was attacked and died, ordinary people took to the streets of Delhi, occupying its public spaces to raise their voices in anger, demanding justice and safer cities. When the police and the Congress government at the time responded harshly with water guns, tear gas and beating up protesters, even shutting down key metro train lines, the people’s anger spread to other cities.
That one crime, in a long line of vile crimes against women, caught the nation’s attention in such an intense way, that today rape is treated as a mainstream issue, with people who don’t identify as ‘feminist’ also speaking out. The media front-pages it often and every political party since 2012 has had women’s safety among its top five promises. Of course, all this doesn’t translate so easily into real on-the-ground changes, but yes, as a nation, we are talking about it.
One area where more action has taken place is the law. India’s rape law (Section 375/376 of IPC) expanded the definition of rape beyond peno-vaginal intercourse. Voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks are now punishable crimes. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 makes it easier for survivors to seek medical help and justice. More women now bravely report violence, but law enforcement still has a lot of catching up to do. But for me, the best change in these five years is that young Indian women have found their voice, and what a wonderful ferocious voice it is! Whether they dissent on hostel curfews that discriminate against their right to use campus facilities, or take on menstrual taboos that shame them, or candidly discuss sexual harassment, assault, consent and perpetrators (#MeToo), or assert women’s right to public spaces despite the continued threat of violence (#IWillGoOut), young Indian women are speaking out loud and that is the finest tribute ever to Jyoti Singh.
(This appeared in The Hindu. Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets)