Alarming rise in Indian rape cases

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Shabana Akhter

Rabi' al-Thani 01, 1435 2014-02-01

News & Analysis

by Shabana Akhter

Rape is becoming so widespread in India that many women despair of ever getting any justice. The problem is deeply rooted in India’s predominantly Hindu religion and culture.

India has never been a safe place for women but it is now becoming exceedingly dangerous as beastly men prowl the streets and attack women not only to rob but also to gang-rape them. Rape has become one of the most serious challenges facing women in India, including foreign tourists.

In the latest case, a four-year-old Iranian girl holidaying with her mother was raped by a 32-year-old man in Goa. A predominantly Christian area, Goa, a former Portuguese colony, is also notorious for drugs but it would be wrong to conclude that it is the only dangerous place in India.

The Iranian child was raped on January 22 in the northern village of Arpora, where the rapist lived and where the Iranians were staying for their holidays. The young girl told her mother about the attack several days later; the girl’s mother promptly lodged a complaint with the police leading to the arrest of the rapist on January 27. Police inspector Paresh Naik announced the arrest the following day. “Police began search operations immediately and nabbed him,” despite the man’s attempts to escape on learning of the complaint, Naik said.

Rape of the four-year-old Iranian girl occurred the same day as a 22-year-old Indian woman was gang-raped by 13 men in the Birbum district of West Bengal. The village council ordered her to be raped because she was accused of having a relationship with a man outside her tribe. Fearing for her life, the woman escaped from her village and sought refuge elsewhere. “The girl wants to go to another village where her uncle lives in the same district,” said Shashi Panja, the West Bengal Women and Child Welfare Minister. “She is scared of going back to the village where she was gang-raped since the villagers there do not want her back. The girl’s family is also under protection of the police now.”

According to police sources, the 13 men have been arrested. The gang-rape victim took the unusual step (by Indian standards) of lodging a complaint with the police. She was taken to a hospital in Birbhum for medical examination where the doctors confirmed that she had been raped. The news caused outrage in India as well as abroad.

Statistics compiled by police show that there are more than 24,000 rape cases in India each year. Social workers and people involved in women’s issues say these are grossly underreported figures. Most women do not report rape for fear of bringing shame to the family or being ostracized by it or even the village where they live.

Last month witnessed a string of rape attacks against women, both Indian and foreign. The case of a 51-year-old Danish tourist who lost her way to her hotel in Delhi and sought direction from a group of homeless men in the early evening of January 14 made international headlines. Instead of directing her to the hotel, the Dutch tourist was assaulted by six men and gang-raped for three hours. She was also robbed of all cash and her cell phone. The attack occurred in a wooded area on the grounds of the Railway Officers Club on State Entry Road in the heart of Delhi.

She returned to her hotel deeply traumatized. The hotel receptionist told the media that she returned in a very bad state and asked for 200 rupees to give to the taxi driver. She then revealed what had happened. The victim refused to be medically examined but was clearly traumatized by the experience. She gave a detailed statement to the police in the presence of the Danish ambassador Freddy Svane. She immediately left India. The Delhi police said they had identified and arrested a group of young men in relation to the gang-rape.

The Danish tourist’s rape was preceded by that of a Polish woman who was drugged and raped by a taxi driver last month while traveling with her two-year-old daughter to Delhi. Rape cases occur in all parts of India with Delhi getting greater attention because of the presence of most media outlets. For instance, last month, eight men in the eastern city of Ranchi raped a schoolgirl while they tied down her male friend, according to a report in the Hindustan Times of January 15. Last December, a judge sentenced three Nepalese men to 20 years in jail for the gang-rape of a US tourist in June in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. In July, six men were sentenced to life in prison for the gang-rape and robbery of a 39-year-old Swiss woman cyclist who had been holidaying in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The case that sent shockwaves across India and around the world was the rape of a female student in December 2012. When the female student and her male companion boarded a bus in Delhi late one night, both were brutally beaten and several men repeatedly raped her on the bus. She was also raped with a metal rod causing extremely serious internal injuries leading to her death. Massive protests erupted across India and vigils were held for the girl for several weeks. People demanded the death penalty for the perpetrators, who were arrested from Delhi’s slums.

Indians from all walks of life marked the first anniversary of her death in December 2013 to ensure it is not forgotten. Her case has become something of a cause célèbre worldwide but has done little to address the real problem of the degrading treatment of women in India. Calls for tougher legislation against rape have gone unanswered because many members of parliament are themselves guilty of such behaviour. They sit in parliament without anyone able to touch them.

In Hindu culture, women are treated in a very degrading manner. Many are forced into prostitution in Hindu temples and given the fancy title of Devdasis (meaning female goddesses). Such women are used for the priests’ sexual pleasures. Hindu religion itself revolves around erotic symbols with women’s naked bodies prominently displayed.

There is an even more gruesome aspect of Hindu culture: widows forced to burn themselves on the funeral pyer of their dead husband. It is referred to as sati. This long-standing Hindu practice of widow burning was banned by British colonial administrators in 1829 but has continued to be practiced in remote villages in India.

The case of 18-year-old Roop Kanwar made international headlines in 1987. On September 4, she was forced to immolate herself on the funeral pyer of her husband at Deorala village of Sikar district in Rajasthan state. At the time of her death, she was 18 years old and had been married for eight months to Maal Singh Shekhawat, who had died a day earlier at age 24, according to a report in the New York Times (September 20, 1987). Eyewitnesses reported that Kanwar was pushed into the fire by attendees despite her screams and desperate attempts to flee the fire.

Several thousand people attended the sati event. After her death, Roop Kanwar was hailed as a sati mata — a “sati” mother, or pure mother. The event quickly produced a public outcry in urban centres, pitting modern Indians against traditional ones indulging in such barbaric practice. The incident led first to state level laws to prevent such incidents, then to the central government’s Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act. Such laws have not prevented sati from occurring in remote villages to this day although such incidents have become rare.

The outcry against Kanwar’s sati led to the arrest of 45 people who were charged with murder. After a trial lasting several months, they were all acquitted. A subsequent inquiry resulted in the arrest of 11 people including state politicians who were charged with glorification of sati. Yet on January 31, 2004, a court in Jaipur acquitted all the 11 accused. Even the courts are complicit in such crimes.

The case of the Indian village council ordering the rape of a girl for having a relationship with a man from a different tribe points to the low esteem in which girls and women are held in India. No boy would be similarly charged or humiliated.

Regrettably, this aspect of Indian culture has not received sufficient attention internationally. Indian-doting Western journalists look the other way despite such horrible mistreatment of women in India. Even when western tourists are assaulted and raped, their story quickly disappears from the front pages. Why is India treated with such deference?

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