Is India's Culture Of Rape Finally Changing?

Seven months after a student was brutally gang-raped and killed on a public bus in New Delhi, India has new legislation and an established women's movement -- but is it enough?

Students protesting the rising violence against women in Dec. 2012
Students protesting the rising violence against women in Dec. 2012
Frédéric Bobin

NEW DELHI - As gang members accused of brutally raping and killing a 23-year-old student on a public bus here last December await their post-trial fate, India is reflecting on the tragedy that drew tens of thousands people into the streets.

Never before had the country experienced such a movement to end violence against women. Has this tragic event marked a turning point in societal evolution? Has it moved the national conscience enough to impose a new understanding of women's rights? Or was it just a flash in the pan caused by unprecedented media coverage?

In New Delhi, women activists are cautiously optimistic. “We were concerned the interest might vanish quickly, but they still talk about it at school, at university and in the media,” says Urvashi Butalia, founder of the feminist publishing house Zubaan. “It is improving, though we hoped for much more.”

Vrinda Grover, a lawyer and feminist activist, adds: “This tragedy broke the silence on the rapes and sexual harassment Indian women are victims of.”

Mass mobilization last December led to a significant achievement — a new law, passed in March, reinforcing criminal penalties for perpetrators of sexual violence. A rapist now risks a minimum of 20 years imprisonment, and up to a life sentence or even the death penalty in cases when a victim dies or when the rapist is guilty of repeat offenses. And so far, the new penalties have teeth. The six men who gang-raped a Swiss tourist four months ago in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh were sentenced to life in prison on July 20.

Going in the right direction? Photo: Rafiq Sarlie

The new law is largely inspired by the report of an expert commission led by Judge Jagdish Sharan Verma, whose recommendations received overwhelming approval in India. The document denounces “gender discrimination” and “the state of mind of society” and calls for “systemic changes in education and social behaviors.”

As Grover puts it, “The Verma report explicitly says what women associations have been stating for years. It is the first time an official report relies on these theses.”

An ambiguous reality

Statistics aren't clear about whether the public debate and the new legislation have helped curb sex crimes in India. During the first six months of the year, the number of rape complaints registered in New Delhi (806) doubled compared to 2012. It's impossible to know whether this means these crimes are on the rise despite December's social movement — or whether more victims are simply reporting attacks now thanks to the social movement.

There aren't reliable statistics for past years, so the first hypothesis is difficult to argue one way or another. But many say it's indisputable that victims now feel more comfortable reporting rapes. “They got rid of the weight of guilt that paralyzed them before,” Grover says. Butalia adds: “The growth means women hope to receive the system’s attention and justice. And this is new.”

After December’s rape, some conservative politicians — invariably men — tried to make the debate about security. In short, they defended women’s right to be better “protected,” which sounded more like patriarchal condescension than true concern for women.

But attendance levels at self-defense and martial arts clubs in fact increased, showing a desire among women to ensure their “protection” themselves. Six months later, the impetus has lost some strength but is still powerful. “The number of women who come to our club is higher than in 2012, though the popularity has waned some since the beginning of the year,” says the owner of a martial arts club near New Delhi.

Unfortunately, the kinds of positive cultural changes that have been obvious in the capital don't necessarily reach the hinterlands of a continent-like country with 1.2 billion citizens, many of them poor. Sexual violence in India is linked to social hierarchy, so that rape is often a way to establish and exert power and control. “Rapes of untouchable women — the lowest class in the social-religious Hindu order — are still a systemic problem in our country,” Grover says.

The bitter irony is that the anonymity of the New Delhi student may have been decisive in the media coverage of her martyrdom. “Everyone could identify with this dying girl,” Grover recalls. “As she did not belong to any community or caste, people could tell themselves: ‘she could be our daughter’.”

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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