THE BLOG

New Delhi Gang-Rape: Why We Are the Problem

"It appears to be that a rod was inserted into her and it was pulled out with so much force that the act brought out her intestines along. That is probably the only thing that explains such severe damage to her intestines," he said.

I was at work yesterday when I read this. I had to leave my desk to go to the bathroom to cry. Through various points in the day yesterday, this detail drifted into my consciousness. I couldn't un-read it. Or un-imagine it.

For some context, four days ago, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang-raped in New Delhi, India's capital. She'd gone -- with her boyfriend -- to watch the Life of Pi at a well-known cinema in an affluent part of the city. Then, she decided to take a bus home. Instead of waiting for a public bus, she and her friend boarded a private chartered bus. The bus had tinted windows. Over the next several hours, several men raped the woman, beat her friend and then left them on the side of a freeway. She was abused so horrifically that her intestines had to be removed. If she survives, she will spend the rest of her life being fed intravenously.

India has erupted in outrage since the incident. There are calls for sweeping policy changes -- for capital punishment for rape, for the rapists to be publicly hanged and, more bizarrely, for their castration.

It's easy for us Indians to get swept up in the public hysteria -- to take to angry Facebook statuses, and furiously talk about it amongst ourselves. But as I walked back to my desk from the bathroom yesterday, I realized this: This mattered only because that girl reminded me of me.

The 23-year-old was clearly English-educated (she'd gone to watch The Life of Pi), she had a boyfriend who was an engineer, she was a physiotherapist -- all markers of an independent, upper middle class, urban identity. This is why we are collectively angry. It is an affront to us, India's small English-speaking elite.

Yesterday, an 8-year-old girl was raped in Bihar, a desperately poor state in central India where one-third of the population lives under the poverty level. Think about that. AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD. The trauma of any incident of sexual abuse is, of course, impossible to quantify or compare, but the crime against this little child is perhaps just as horrifying as the Delhi rape. And still, I'm writing about this little girl's rape only because that rape in Delhi is legitimizing our conversation about sexual violence against women in India.

At the end, after all the public hand wringing subsides, the question remains: Will anything change? The probable answer is no. Not because of corrupt officials or the lack of political agency -- although those are no doubt enormous obstacles to change in India. But because Indian society is corrupt. And that means you and I.

As India continues its inexorable march into economic empowerment, its people have refused to look inward. Dissent, criticism, self-reflection are all marginalized as Indians delude themselves of their greatness. To deflect responsibility, the government -- and the consistent failure of the public machinery -- is the easiest target of the country's collective ire.

Sunday's incident is another example of blaming "them" -- the drunk, poorly-educated rapists. Which is not to say that they must not be punished or are not part of the problem.

But more significantly, we need to ask what secrets of patriarchy we all hide within us. We may not all be sexually violent but we are products of a society that insidiously and systemically promotes the denigration of women. We abort female fetuses. We secretly kill our girl children. There are now 914 girls for 1,000 boys in India -- the result of decades of murdering newborn baby girls. We tell our girls that they don't need to study. We marry them before they're barely adolescent. In more wealthy circles, we marry them just as they reach adulthood and then expect them to spend the rest of their lives being submissive to their husbands. We don't let them wear jeans. We tell our teenagers to stay out of temples and kitchens when they begin to menstruate.* We tell our daughters to cook and encourage our sons to become engineers. We teach young women to temper their ambitions. We are suspicious of female sexuality. We consistently and continuously take away agency from our women.

The problem isn't just "them." The problem is us.

* Some Hindu and Jain families believe in the practice of separating women from the rest of the family during her period since menstruation makes a woman "unclean."

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