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Indian gang-rape victim's attackers charged with murder, protesters push for broader women's rights

Democracy Now - January 6, 2013

Juan Gonzalez: We begin our show in India, where six men have been formally charged with the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus. The woman, identified only by the Hindi word for "fearless," "Nirbhaya," died from her injuries on December 29th in a hospital in Singapore, where she was flown for special treatment. Police are likely to press murder charges and could seek a death penalty sentence for the five adults. On Tuesday, the woman's ashes were scattered in the Ganges River, and many New Year's celebrations were canceled as mourners honored her memory. The woman was mutilated so badly during the rape she needed a gut transplant, but ultimately succumbed to severe organ failure. In her memory, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a candlelight and called for perpetrators to be punished.

Anjali: Being a woman, I feel it's not just about these six people who have been, you know, arrested. It's about everything that goes wrong against women. It's about child abuse. It's about domestic violence. It's about rape. It's about molestation, eve teasing. And a very simple thing to a very simple thing that we can do, both men and women, is that we need to raise our voices.

Juan Gonzalez: Meanwhile, the father of the Delhi gang-rape victim has been speaking to the BBC about his daughter. This is an excerpt from his interview.

Father of gang-rape victim: [translated] My daughter was very adamant on what it was she wanted. When she used to go to school in class four, there was a sweet shop on the way. And if she made up her mind to have a sweet, even the shopkeeper had to relent.

The same happened in her higher education, and she was doing what she desired. I remember asking her once, "Who are all your friends?" And she replied, "Dad, it's only my books I am friends with." She always wanted to be a doctor and was sure about it. The reason why we moved from this rural place to capital Delhi was the need for a better future for our children.

When my daughter was a kid, she used to hold me tight and sleep for hours. After the incident, for the first two days she was unconscious. But when she regained her senses, she asked the doctor to offer her something to eat. As food was not allowed, she specifically asked for toffee. The doctor asked, "Will you mind a lollipop?" She replied, "Yes." She kept talking to her mother when in hospital in bits, of course. And one day she held her mother and whispered, "Mommy, I am sorry. I am sorry."

Juan Gonzalez: The gang-rape case has shined a light on other instances of sexual violence in India, where one woman is raped every 20 minutes, according to the national crime registry. The registry also found 24,206 cases of rape were documented in the country in 2011, but three-fourths of the perpetrators are still at large. The conviction rates in the rape cases in India have decreased from 46 percent in 1971 to 26 percent in 2012.

Amy Goodman: Meanwhile, anti-rape protesters in India are bracing record-breaking cold to continue their calls for legal reforms to increase punishment for rapists and prevent legal cases from languishing. Protesters are not only calling for increased sensitivity toward survivors of sexual violence but also an expansion of the very definition of rape under Indian law to include crimes varying from physical dehumanization to penetrative assault. They are also calling for laws prohibiting marital rape, which India does not currently have, as well as more sensitive forensic procedures during medical examination of survivors of sexual assault.

Well, for more, we're joined right now by several guests. From India, via Democracy Now! videostream, we go directly to Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, one of the main protest organizers. Last week, Krishnan led protesters outside the Delhi chief minister's residence, when the police charged at them with water canons.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you begin by telling us what happened, why this particular horrific rape on a moving bus has sparked so much outcry in India?

Kavita Krishnan: It's difficult to understand exactly why this particular case struck such a chord, because there have been so many other incidents. Of course, this incident was particularly graphic violence, but there have been other terrible incidents, as well, including incidents in Delhi. But I think it was a cumulative effect and a cumulative feeling of anger and outrage at the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of sexual violence and at the imposed insecurity, at the restrictions that insecurity imposes on women.

And it all burst out in this, perhaps because this young woman was doing something so normal: She boarded a bus to go home after watching a film with her friend. And I think that somehow struck such a huge chord because everyone identified with her and felt that in their own situation. Delhi has a huge number of young people coming for coming to study, coming to do a variety of courses, or coming to work in a number of casualized, contractualized jobs, insecure jobs. And I think they all they all felt a deep connection with this nameless person.

You mentioned her name I mean, the name that has been used for her, but I think that's just a name, a tag that was used by a couple of newspapers. But for many people, she was nameless, and they choose to refer to her without her name, without seeking to know her name or without seeking to personalize her by giving her some other name, because I think she was, in a sense, every woman, and she could have been any of them.

Juan Gonzalez: Could you talk also about the response of major leaders in the country and to what degree that had an impact on the size and the continuation of the protests?

Kavita Krishnan: Yes. I think that the governments in India in the states as well as at the center, the central government and the police and the entire missionary of law enforcement are used to responding with great apathy and indifference to the entire issue of violence against women. And sexual violence, in particular, has been greeted with a has always been greeted virtually every case is greeted with a chorus of victim blaming, not just from, you know, voices in society, but from people in authority, from you know, it's a routine response from the police, and there are politicians across the board who have indulged in rape culture remarks.

And I think that in this case also, the apathy and indifference and the refusal to take responsibility and be accountable to what happened to this young woman, because it was deeply felt that this bus was a private bus, which had violated multiple rules and regulations, and yet it was being allowed to run amok on Delhi streets, picking up passengers, robbing them or indulging in violence against women. And the police knew of its existence. They had they maintained a diary. The police the traffic authorities in Delhi maintained a diary, and this bus was traced through a diary, which maintains records of bribes taken from private bus owners and so on. And that is how they traced this bus. So it goes to show that they knew this bus was plying. They knew this bus had no business to be on the streets in this way. They knew it was violating it was behaving in a it had gone rogue. And yet, they were taking bribes and allowing it to ply. So I think all that accumulated.

Since then, you know, what has added fuel to the fire is remarks, for instance, like the member of Parliament from the ruling party, the son of India's president. He made a remark about the protesters. He said, "Oh, these are dented and painted women, and these are not real students. I know what students are like. These are people who go to discotheques. These are beautiful, pretty, pretty women. And we should not take them seriously, because their protest is just something fashionable." And similarly, there were there was another leader

Amy Goodman: Kavita, we actually --

Kavita Krishnan: from the ruling party in the state of Andhra Pradesh --

Amy Goodman: We actually have a secret --

Kavita Krishnan: who said that yes.

Amy Goodman: We actually have a secret recording of a policeman speaking. I want to turn to an expose by Tehelka, the New Delhi-based online weekly news magazine. In April, the magazine's reporters secretly recorded conversations with 30 Delhi police officers who blamed women for being raped. The police named everything from fashionable clothes to having boyfriends, to visiting bars, to drinking alcohol, to working alongside men, as justifications for the rapes. Here's what one police officer was secretly recorded saying about a rape victim.

Sub-inspector Roop Lal: [translated] If a girl asks for a birthday party and is alone with two or three boys and sees that they are drinking, she knows what is likely to happen. When she, herself, goes for such a party, she can't complain of rape. How can you call it rape when she is sitting there drinking with them?

Amy Goodman: That was a secret recording of a police officer. Kavita Krishnan, if you could further talk about this, the attitudes, and what you're trying have enacted.

Kavita Krishnan: Yes, I think you're very correct. This was a major expose. And it's all the more telling that no action was taken against the 17 police personnel from the Delhi and national capital region of India who were recorded making these kind of remarks, because it is taken for granted. There have been top police officers, very senior police officers, very famous police officers, who have made absolutely identical remarks saying that sexual violence and rapes are increasing in Delhi because women are wearing fashionable clothing.

So, I think what we are seeking is that an acknowledgment of the deep-seated gender bias and that is existing in the police force, in the laws, in the entire investigative mechanism, in the judiciary, and of course in society. And we want a comprehensive set of actions to correct these, because they're not even acknowledged now publicly. So what we are seeking is, to begin with, is that there are more than 100,000 pending rape or pending sexual violence cases in the country, many of them which have dragged on for years, for nearly, you know, more than a decade. So we want that these should be addressed on a priority basis, that they should be brought to court and heard speedily, and that some closure should be there here.

And in the police system, we are wanting that there should be a standard operating procedure, a protocol, for responding to crimes against women, not just sexual violence but the so-called "honor crimes" or domestic violence or other forms of violence against women, and that there should be a protocol and which is publicly displayed in all the police stations. And there should be some redressal, some way in which a woman who goes to a police station and finds that the police officer does not record her complaint or does not respond to her correct, she should have a way to complain and ensure that he does not remain in his post anymore, because his views, he may have private he may have all these feudal and patriarchal views about women, but if he is a public officer, he has to be accountable to a public code of conduct, an accepted code of conduct, a democratic code of conduct. That's one.

Amy Goodman: We're speaking with Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, one of the lead organizers of the mass protests after the rape and now death of a young woman student on a moving bus. When we come back from break, we'll also be joined, in addition to Kavita, by Elora Chowdhury, who is a professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Then, a New York Times expose on the factory in Bangladesh that killed at least 111 people, the factory that was contracted with Wal-Mart. This is Democracy Now! We'll come back in a minute.


Amy Goodman: Our guests are Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, one of the lead organizers of the protests in the aftermath of the rape and death of a young woman student on a moving bus in Delhi. We're also joined by Elora Chowdhury, an associate professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Juan?

Juan Gonzalez: Well, I'd like to bring Elora Chowdhury into the conversation. Your reaction, not only to what the massive protests in India, but also to the way the media in the West has been covering events there and the somewhat level of hypocrisy in terms of the fascination with the specifics of the terrible attack that occurred?

Elora Chowdhury: Yes, I have been following the media reports both in South Asia and in the US and UK, in the so-called Western world, about on coverage on this event. And I think what I would suggest here is that we bring a dual critique to these events. So, on the one hand, we see in the Western media some reporters taking this moral this moral high ground and pointing fingers and demonizing Indian culture, as though sexual violence against women is pervasive in only certain parts of the world and that it's somehow reflective of deeply inherent cultural traditions of that part of the world. Of course, what that obscures is that both rape and domestic violence are pervasive in the United States, and domestic violence being one of the leading causes of injury to women, and exceedingly high numbers of rapes that, in fact, mostly go unreported in the United States. So, I think embedded in these kinds of reporting is a certain colonial mindset, of course, that there's a long history of that. And these kinds of mindset that women are the measure of the progress of a society emerges from colonial practices, that these ideas were used to legitimize both colonization and also imperialism. So that is something that we have to keep in mind in reading these reports.

At the same time, however, I think that while the massive protests that have occurred in India around this particular case are very significant, and one can hope that it will lead to also significant changes in women's position, however, we I think we also have to think about the particularities of this case and how embedded in these kinds of the reporting in this case are also a certain class-based assumptions about the poor. So, one of the things that I have found striking is that how so many of the reports are referring to the slum colony, where I think at least four of the perpetrators live, as some kind of a breeding ground for criminals. Also, referring to poor men as illiterate and as violent somehow normalizes these kinds of violent attacks and associates them with poverty, and it ends up criminalizing the poor, whereas rape and sexual violence, of course, is pervasive, it's systematic, it's routine. And we have to also think about the ways in which rape attacks and violence against women reported in middle-class communities, in certain elite communities, are not exposed or talked about or do not elicit quite as much of a moral outrage. So I think the assumptions, the class-based assumptions here in this reporting, are also something that are quite striking.

Amy Goodman: I mean, looking at figures in the United States, I think it's something like, according to one organization, every two minutes a woman is sexually assaulted. Another figure is that in the United States, here, one in four college students, college women, have been either raped or attempted rape, sexually assaulted.

And then I want to go to the broader issue: As protesters take to the streets in India, women's rights activists here at home are lamenting the news that House Republican leaders have stalled the 2012 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, an embattled bill that would have extended domestic violence protections to 30 million LGBT individuals, undocumented immigrants, Native American women. Given the delay renewing gender equality bills at the federal level, some activists are ramping up their calls for the US to, once and for all, ratify the UN Bill of Rights for Women. Only eight countries have failed to ratify the convention, leaving the US in the company of Iran, Somalia and Sudan. And the public protests against sexual violence in India are leading some to question the United States' own track record, where only 24 percent of alleged rapes even result in arrest, never mind a conviction.

I am wondering, Kavita Krishnan, your thoughts on this issue, as a leading women's rights activist in Delhi who is leading the protests in the aftermath of this particular brutal rape and death?

Kavita Krishnan: I completely agree with I just wanted to say briefly that I agree with what Elora said. And the person who's led the charge in trying to demonize the migrant workers has been India's prime minister, who has referred to them as a "menace" and called them "footloose migrants" and said that they are the main threat of sexual violence, which is completely misplaced, as she said. You have you know, across the board, you have a huge number of cases of custodial rape. Some of the most important cases which have galvanized the women's movement in India, before this incident, have been the custodial rapes of a indigenous woman called Mathura around 35 years ago and the custodial rape by army of a woman in northeast India who was suspected of being a militant, arrested, raped and killed in 2004. So, it's important to contextualize that.

But what you said about the US, I think that's very true. We should keep in mind, you know, the kind of victim blaming I described, obviously, that is not happening only in India. Those biases are not only in India. You had the SlutWalk protests all over the world, so obviously this is a larger phenomenon.

But I wanted to briefly tell you that we are also seeking changes in the laws, because the laws in India are again, many of them are a colonial legacy, and we are continuing with investigative practices and laws which are a colonial legacy and are extremely biased towards women. For instance, a woman who goes through rape, who's a rape survivor, she is subjected to a medical test called "the two-finger test," in which the doctor puts two fingers in her body to make sure to find out if she is habituated to sex. There have been court judgments in India against this practice, but it continues, and the government has yet to put an end to this practice. Then you have laws which refer to molestation as "outraging of modesty," sexual harassment as "eve teasing." So these are these are usages and laws that trivialize the experience of sexual violence and are laws that have a very narrow definition of sexual violence that do not cover a whole range of types and varieties of sexual violence, including stalking, throwing of acid to disfigure the face, and stripping and sexual humiliation, and so on. So we are seeking changes in the law that actually recognize Indian women's experience of sexual violence.

Juan Gonzalez: I'd like to ask Elora Chowdhury also about the larger issue, obviously, as India has been rapidly industrializing in recent decades, and millions of people have been coming from the countryside into the cities, and women, of course, have been joining the industrial workforce and the city workforce in huge numbers. The larger social pressures and the impact on male supremacy and on oppression of women, that this movement is really sort of the tip of the iceberg of what's going on there?

Elora Chowdhury: Yes, absolutely. I think I was I completely agree with Kavita here, that I was struck from the reports that I think almost all six of the men who have been charged with rape in this case are economic migrants to Delhi. And this is of course reflective of a larger trend. Reports also suggest that if you combine the number numbers of rapes that were reported in major cities in India in the last year, Delhi exceeds the combined number of rapes in other cities. Delhi is being called the rape capital of the region. I think we also need to look at the changes happening as a result of various social and economic and cultural forces that are underway increasing globalization, movements of people, conspicuous consumption, the representation of all this in the media that is so easily available. All of these, I think, and just the changes happening in urban spaces as a result of all of these different kinds of forces and gender dynamics jostling with one another, create different kinds of changes in gender dynamics. We have to think about the particularities of this case, from what I have read, that the young woman was being punished for speaking out, for being out late so night for being out so late at night with a male companion, that she dared to defy male authority on the bus, that all of these contributed to this horrific event. And we really need to look at sexual violence against women not only as an issue of men versus women, but also these other changes that are occurring in our societies and how those contribute to challenging male supremacy and --

Amy Goodman: Finally finally, Kavita --

Elora Chowdhury: the sense of entitlement.

Amy Goodman: Kavita Krishnan, we just have 30 seconds. What are the plans now for the mass movement dealing with this rape and death? Today, the five men formally charged in an Indian court with gang rape and murder of the woman who has yet to be publicly identified.

Kavita Krishnan: Well, we are struggling now to keep the concerns of women's rights and women's aspirations for freedom center stage, because there's an attempt on part of the government to shift the entire debate onto certain forms of punishment or onto whether to name a law after this rape victim or not. So we are trying to keep the concerns about women's rights and their aspirations for freedom center stage. The women in this movement have been I just want to mention that briefly, that they have been raising slogans, saying, "My voice is higher than my skirts," and, "Don't tell me how to dress." And we think that that is something which is an important assertion, and it's something it's a very important takeaway from the struggle, and we will build around that in the days to come.

Amy Goodman: Well, we will continue, certainly, to cover it. Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, one of the main protest organizers, speaking to us from New Delhi, and Elora Chowdhury, associate professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, speaking to us from Boston.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, New York Times has another expose on the Bangladeshi factory making clothing for Wal-Mart, where there was a major fire, at least 111 deaths, many of them rural women who had come into the capital of Bangladesh for work. Stay with us.

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