After a woman was gang-raped and died of her injuries in New Delhi in December 2012, the Indian government tried to set up swift and judicious ways to report and address such crimes. Fast track courts were set up, social workers and police were given sensitization training. Women were told things would be better when they stepped out.
Fast-forward four years and the country is buzzing angrily at how much has not changed. Women bringing in the new year in downtown Bangalore, the country's cosmopolitan IT hub, were surrounded and groped by mobs of pushing, shoving, handsy men.
Photos and videos captured that night show young women trying to push through crowds of up to 300 men pressing in on them. Some of the women were crying, some yelling, others were being defended by their friends. Many of the women said they used their shoes to beat off gropers. A short distance away, an emcee walked out of his event and stumbled upon 25 men threatening a group of women. According to some women on the scene, not only was the harassment frightening, the apathy of cops who looked away and didn't intervene was worse.
In the days that have followed, the official stance on the mass harassment has done somersaults. First the police vowed to punish the offenders and called on the victims to file police complaints. Three days later, the police said they found no street camera footage to support the claims of sexual harassment, although the police commissioner has since said there is "credible evidence" of the attacks.
And then came the remarks of home minister G. Parameshwara, one of the highest ranking officials in the state of Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital. He went on record to say: "Youngsters ... try to copy the Westerners not only in the mindset but even the dressing. So some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen."
On January 3, Abu Azmi of Mumbai, the state leader of a political party, said on national TV: "If my sister or daughter is roaming around on December 31 with random men who aren't their husband or brother, I don't think that's right." He added, "If there's petrol near fire, it will burn. If there is sugar, ants will come." His words were highlighted in angry tweets.
Trisha Shetty, a lawyer, is the co-founder of SheSays, a nonprofit group that educates young women about their rights, especially in the areas of sexual violence. She said the responses from officials were reprehensible. "We reject this sense of entitlement men have over women's bodies, sexuality and spaces," she said. And, she added, the display of such parochial mindsets from people in charge of ensuring safety in public spaces is a huge setback for women.
Meanwhile, on social media the #NotAllMen hashtag started to trend the next day defending men who didn't do it, arguing that women were generalizing their anger.
Japleen Pasricha, who runs the Feminism in India platform, was a critic of #NotAllMen tweets: "The #NotAllMen tag detracted from the conversation, hijacked the narrative, and moved it away from how to deal with what's happening. We're not saying all men do this, but we do know all women are harassed."
To counter it, Feminism In India and Pasricha dusted off the globally used #YesAllWomen hashtag. Their tweet inviting Indian women to share their stories of public harassment, assault and abuse has been retweeted more than 900 times, with at least 1,000 responses, says Pasricha.
Sharing stories publicly may not change too many minds (although one Twitter troll changed his handle to "I'm sorry" after being taken to task for sexism)m says Pasricha, "But, mainly we wanted to take the narrative back."
A petition has been floated demanding unconditional apologies from the politicians, and on January 21 solidarity marches will be held in seven cities: Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata, organized and supported by 18 organizations, including Take Back the Night and Why Loiter, under the umbrella hashtag #IWillGoOut2017,
Will a march make a difference? In late 2012 and early 2013, protests and vigils took place across the country, but soon other issues overtook demands for women's safety. "In the wake of the Nirbhaya case [the 2012 rape] the nation was in fervor — taking to the streets, debating on various media outlets," the organizers of the #IWillGoOut march told me in a collectively authored email. "Some blamed her and her partner. Some fathers vowed to never send their daughters out again because the world was cruel to them. Is this how we deal with assault? By limiting the freedoms and mobility of half the population?"
What's more, cases of sexual attack are on the rise. Data shows that police reports of assault on women rose92 percent from 42,968 in 2011 to 82,422 in 2015. But conviction rates declined by 5 percent. In Karnataka, the rate of conviction is 1.2 percent.
Sukriti Gupta, co-founder at the Academy For Earth Sustainability, an environment education organization, said she's still hopeful of making a difference. "I strongly believe reclaiming public space, making our voices heard, is important to remind and encourage others, especially women, that there is a support system out there — that we have a right and a place in our country, at night, regardless of what we wear." Plus, she said, "the visual nature of marches can cross socioeconomic barriers and provide food for thought for those who are normally not engaged in tweets/English press such as women and young girls living in more conservative families and slum areas."
The organizers of the march told me that the Bangalore harassment was not an isolated incident: "It is a visible part of systemic inequality that prevents, hinders and shames half the population from moving around their cities, their homes. It is time to stake a claim in our landscape and our rights to own the streets and go out!"
India's tourism minister expressed the opposite perspective in August 2016. After high profile rape cases across the country, some involving foreign tourists, in August 2016 Mahesh Sharma advised foreign visitors to avoid wearing skirts and venturing out at night: "For their own safety, women foreign tourists should not wear short dresses and skirts," he said, because "Indian culture is different from the Western."
This attitude toward safety seems to have been a contentious issue even a century ago. The Twitter account for the Why Loiter group has shared a quote from 1905 that mocks how keeping women safe means locking them up rather than changing or punishing the attitudes that endanger them.
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