There is a story in the Hindu epic Mahabharata about an Indian princess named Draupadi. Draupadi's husband has the sinful weakness of gambling. One day he loses everything he owns -- including his wife -- in a dice game against his family's archenemy. Draupadi is violently dragged from her chamber by her hair to appear before a court. As a final insult to her husband, she must be stripped naked in front of all the men present. One of the men grasps her wearing cloth and begins to pull, and Draupadi calls out in despair to the god Krishna. Her wearing cloth suddenly turns into a never-ending sari, and Draupadi's despair melts into freedom as she spins and spins in the midst of the bright silk. The men give up, exhausted.
If Krishna came to the rescue of every rape victim in the world, we would surely all drown in the mountains of never-ending cloth unraveled by perplexed perpetrators. But we would also gain back hundreds of daughters, sisters, mothers, and cousins whose dignity and indeed even whose lives have been taken and turned over to the most brutal and repulsive form of "pleasure" imaginable.
Nirbhaya ("Fearless" in Hindi) would be among the survivors. But today, Nirbhaya is dead. An abstract interpretation of the life and death of the 23-year-old Indian woman could be an application for sainthood. With a rural farm background and a father who sold family land to pay for her education, "Fearless" was a student in the medical field, working as an intern in a Delhi hospital when she was attacked and brutally gang raped on a bus by six men. Recovering from her wounds, she vowed to survive. She did not. Last Friday, four of the six men were sentenced to death by the Saket District Court in Delhi. A fifth committed suicide in prison while awaiting trial, and a sixth was sentenced to three years in a juvenile facility. But why should any of this matter to you? The list goes on, but here are what I believe to be the three most important reasons -- reasons that affect everybody here and now.
1) It matters to the law.
Nirbhaya's case has set crucial precedents -- especially for Indian law -- that signify one more global step forward toward addressing the issue of violence against women. Most notably, the fact that four of the six convicted men have been sentenced to death for their crimes sends a strong message: this will not be tolerated. Death penalty politics aside, I ask you: if Nirbhaya were your daughter, your sister, your best friend: what should be the punishment of these men? Many agree: the sentence is just. But some disagree, and for them, victim-blaming enters the picture. After the verdict was announced, defense attorney A.P Singh made a public comment that he would burn his daughter alive for his interpretation of Nirbhaya's actions: engaging in premarital sex and showing herself in public with a man at night. Instead of sweeping these comments under a rug as it has likely been done in the past, the Indian court is considering revoking his law license. Singh has until October 11th to prove the merit of his comments before the court. Come mid-October, he will likely be looking for a new career.
2) It encourages women to report rape.
The majority of men across the world do not spend their spare time in packs on buses, looking for women to rape. In the United States, we should be grateful that this is an uncommon occurrence. We should also be grateful for the fact that rape is reported significantly more frequently in the United States than in most other countries (though the nature of this vulgar beast means it will always be underreported to some extent, everywhere). A report means admittance of a problem. And the first step to solving a problem is -- as we all know -- admitting you have one. Thankfully, rape is being reported more frequently in developing nations, too. According to The Guardian, in Delhi alone the number of rapes reported across the first seven months of 2013 more than doubled in relation to the same period in 2012. This means more women are feeling safer and seeking help for the crimes committed against them. This is an excellent first step.
3) It (should) affect how men and women alike think about sex.
If you are reading this as a U.S. citizen, it is unlikely that you know anyone who has been brutally raped. But it is tremendously likely that you know someone who has been raped. And while we're thinking about rape, let's think about sex: men, do you ask women if your intimate initiations are okay with them? At each "boundary"? I mean verbally, do you ask? Or do you assume? And it's not a one-way street; women, what about you? There is no culture on this planet guilty of over-communicating when it comes to having sex. Speak up. Asking if something is okay shows an incredible amount of respect for the bodies, minds, and hearts of both parties involved.
Nirbhaya did not receive a never-ending sari from a Hindu god on the back of that bus last December. Still, a metaphorical never-ending sari is being woven from the drastic changes and widespread discussions inspired by her story. We tug and tug at the cloth, and yet we find it has more and more folds. In the shadows of these folds, we find that our global society's morality is not quite right. We are nowhere close to solving the problem of violence against women. Still, Nirbhaya's story speaks from her grave in colors of the brightest silk, fearlessly shining light on our darkest problems and spreading the hope that there is a better future for women across the planet.