Woman as Reason: Rape protests in India

February 8, 2013

From the January-February 2013 issue of News & Letters:

by Terry Moon

The recent rape of a 23-year-old medical student in India was brutal: a metal rod was jammed with such force into her vagina that it reached into her diaphragm, destroying her intestines and ultimately killing her. It happened in Delhi, and demonstrations–first against the rape and then against a government that proved itself incapable of comprehending the tragedy or what to do about it–have been ceaseless.

It does not take away from the inhuman nature of this rape to point out that similar rapes have been happening on a massive scale in Congo for over five years, rapes every bit as brutal and deadly to thousands of women. (See N&L Nov.-Dec. 2010 “Congo, capitalism and rape,” and Feb.- March 2008 “Congo: women’s obliteration.”)

What is new, then, is the outcry.

Some speculate this is because this young Indian woman was the “perfect victim.” She was doing something completely normal–coming home from a movie, accompanied by a man; she was a medical student. Her rape showed it could happen to anyone.


But that alone doesn’t explain the sustained, angry and militant outcry, one that is supported by women worldwide and recently spread to nearby Nepal. Rather, at least three developments are also involved in what appears to be a deep, militant, spontaneous response.

First is the initial reaction of the Indian state, which acted as if the demonstrations that sprang up in support of the rape victim–and in condemnation of her attackers and the lack of political will to end widespread rape and street harassment–were a direct attack on the state. Rather than meet with demonstrators, listen to demands, show sympathy–any kind of decent human response–the state attacked them.

Police beat demonstrators viciously, battered them with water cannons, arrested them, and cut off access to demonstration sites. So fearful were they of the demonstrations that they sent the victim to a hospital in Singapore so that when she died–which doctors knew was inevitable–she would die outside the country. Even now, after weeks of protests, they refuse to actually listen to what women are saying needs to be done.

Second is the international nature of the struggle against what is now widely being called “rape culture.” That is what the Slutwalks are all about that started in Canada and spread across the globe. Worldwide, women are making it clear that when a woman is raped, the rapist is at fault, period. No longer is it acceptable–it never should have been–to say that it was because of her clothes, or she was drunk, or she shouldn’t have been alone, or out at night, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Women rightly see these as excuses for the rapist, as a dehumanization of women and an attack on our freedom.


Third, and most importantly, is that the Arab Spring happened and showed what is possible and worth fighting for. Egypt is known for its harassment of women and yet what happened in the struggle to bring down Mubarak was more than the creation of a real democracy in Tahrir Square. In the Square, for the first time in their lives, women could participate openly and together with men in the transformation of their country and their lives. For the first time women were not dehumanized, but seen as comrades in the struggle. Salma El Tarzi, a 33-year-old filmmaker, put it this way:

“I was one of many women, young and old, there….Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line, that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now. The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt.”


There is no doubt that the demonstrations in India are for justice for the woman who was so horribly raped, maimed and murdered. Furthermore, feminist organizations and many demonstrators include a condemnation of the Indian army’s use of rape as a weapon of war in Kashmir and other places. They are demanding that their government listen to what women are saying is necessary: a total transformation of relations between men and women.

What Arab Spring has made clear is how that demand is a demand for revolution–one so deep and total that all human relationships are transformed. What Arab Spring has also made clear, once again, is how fleeting victories won by women in the heat of battle can be. That is why we have to work out how the revolution can become permanent. At this moment, our solidarity is with the demonstrators in India as the struggle there–and worldwide–continues.

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