“People tend to forget their duties, but remember their rights.”  – Indira Gandhi

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Usually I comb through daily news items, share what’s interesting to me and then pay it no mind until the next round of perusing. Sometimes a piece will jolt me, nearly make me spit out my morning tea. A Guardian feature did just that a few days ago.

It set me on fire. A controlled bonfire at first. An incendiary headline can do it.

‘if girls look sexy, boys will rape.’ Is this what Indian men really believe? [1]

To answer the obvious, yes. A journalist rounded up a sample of Indian men in Baga, Goa and interviewed them about their ideas and impressions of the fairer sex, to explain why the hell women in India keep being beaten and assaulted.

All eyes are on India now –scrutinizing a country that reportedly has some fucked up ideas on gender relations.

There was the beating and gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23 year-old medical student. Reports say she was with her boyfriend (or male companion, as some news agencies have called him), on a bus in New Delhi traveling home from the cinema when they were attacked by six men. That was December 16th, 2012. She died a few weeks later from her injuries.

By January 2013, two new rape cases were being investigated. The first, a gang rape in Punjab, a north-western state. The second, a woman who disembarked a train in Bihar (incidentally, a very conservative state) was attacked in a remote area.

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Citizens worldwide were outraged. Mass protests in major Indian cities sprouted, attended by female activists and supportive men. Raging on the streets for change. Hell yeah! Say it, sistah!

Yet…

It’s a dim anger, almost background music in an elevator. Present, but not penetrating. Because in the darkest recesses of your mind, you think, I feel so much for these women. The rape laws in India must change, but thank goddamn, it isn’t me. I’m safe.

What happens if that bonfire turns into an entire canyon being set ablaze and the bush fires are now beyond our control. Flames licking at our heels.

Recent headlines from India are about the rape of a 39 year-old Swiss tourist. She was cycling the country with her husband. They camped for the night in Orccha (Madhya, Pradesh) when they were attacked by a group of men. They beat her husband, restrained him, then took turns raping and brutalizing the woman in his presence.

And of course, I mustn’t forget a British woman in her 30’s having to leap out of her hotel window at 4 a.m. when a relative of the hotel owner knocked to offer a massage and was persistent about it. This was in Agra, which ironically is 130 miles from Orccha — the assault location of the Swiss tourist.

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Now it is tangible. A strange, bitter taste on our tongues. This is really happening and in frightening escalation, not just to Indian women, but to US.

‘US’ is a friend I met in Hong Kong over a year ago who is in Rajasthan right now. In Hong Kong, Connie Hum told me over dim sum about ‘active hands’ on a nightbus during her first trip to India.

Her current jaunt is rife with far worse. Anonymous and faceless hands grabbing her body parts, suggestive stares and bold caterwauling. Not honest, down home conversation. But aggression. Almost hate. It’s very disturbing to see her endure this. I think her article shows frustration, but also her love of the culture.

The wildfire reaches a climax. There doesn’t seem to be enough water, no matter how much is dropped by the airtankers. The intensity increases, columns of smoke and flame plume towards the sky. What we have now folks, is what they call a firestorm.

Just when I think it can’t worsen, that a unicorn might gallop up, followed by a glorious rainbow, it does.

In the Guardian interview, Journalist Gethin Chamberlain draws some shocking quotes from the six men he interviews, which shapes their attitudes on rape and who’s at fault.

“Rape is a big, big problem. It starts with the woman. They drive the man fucking crazy.” Papi Gonzales.

One interviewee explains cultural clashes:

“Our culture is different,” said Abhijit Harmalkar. “Girls are not allowed outside after six [pm] because anything can happen – rape, robbery, kidnaps. It is the mentality of some people. They are putting on short and sexy dresses, that’s why. Then men cannot control themselves.”

What’s confusing is the six men believe that women in India are more equal now.

“Before, for many years, girls were neglected, boys got opportunities. Girls did not get opportunities, but now it is equal. It is a new generation, no difference between girls and boys,” said Shretha.

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They don’t know what the solution to rape is, but one suggestion is that a girl’s movements at night should be stricter, because there seems to be a glaring difference between being a ‘day’ girl and a ‘night’ girl.

A ‘night’ girl is either close to a prostitute, antsy with provocations or a ripe target.

The interview setting is revealing in itself. Baga, Goa is the sexy capital for pale-skinned foreigners to splash in the Arabian Sea, baring skin by the inches. Bikinis are a regular sight.

Baga is also the spot where 15 year-old Scarlett Keeling’s body washed up on shore. She was raped and murdered and a court case with the two accused has dragged on for five years. Many feel the case will never be resolved. Chamberlain’s theory is that people judge Keeling’s willfulness to drink in bars as a beacon of trouble. You asked for it.

I’m not writing this to scare you. But it is scary. The tips of my fingers sting from writing these words, for I’m scared too.

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When I’m scared, I try to seek stable ground. How to do that in this situation is tough.

I lived in India for five months. I visited Rajasthan as well.

In her brave words, Connie wrote: “The sorry excuse that sexual repression is just a coverup for sexual AGGRESSION and I’m sick of the lot who are sexist, ignorant, and sexual predators.”

She’s right. So right. The excuse is sexual repression. The sickening reality is sexual repression. There are backward attitudes on sexual mores for men and women.

Virginity is revered for both sexes. If a man visits prostitutes, he is still marriageable. If it’s discovered a woman is not a virgin, she would be untouchable.

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Men and women are virgins to an old age compared to North American cultural norms. Sometimes as late as 27 years old.

In Kashmir, for example, if a boy and girl were seen together, and they were not related, people would gossip in the most nasty way imaginable.

I was lucky during my time in India. I experienced living with an Indian family for a few months and then ventured off on the backpacker routes. I saw the duality.

During my time with the family, I noticed a protective atmosphere among the women. A beautiful community among them.

When I left to pursue solo travel, what I witnessed was a world filled with men. And a sexual tension so thick, it choked me at times.

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Men and women don’t casually socialize with each other. Are not at ease around one another. At times it seemed they lived in separate dimensions. It’s that sense of viewing women as otherworldly, to objectification, and eventually as detached ‘things’ to bend at will.

That’s when everything breaks down.

I don’t profess to have all the answers. This is what I saw. How I felt.

Excuses. Perhaps I give more. Connie is just. Something hopefully will change. Has to.

At least they started with law. A lower parliament court passed new laws on punishment for rape, including stalking and intimidation. Longer jail terms have been implemented for all cases and the death penalty for a repeated offence of rape. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

At least the media is focusing on the issue with full force, with fair and well-written stories to keep the spotlight on what’s important.

At least the Indian people rose up, with clenched fists and raised voices. To demand that violence against women end.

At least women like Connie Hum keep traveling, despite those heart sinking setbacks. That her honesty can educate others. To love India, but hate the mindset. The misogyny.

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I hope, what I truly wish, is that we can change those minds. To realize women are your sisters, mothers, friends and lovers.

Within all this, India is fantastical. She has a mystique that digs her hooks into you and never lets you go. I even think of her to this day, and I haven’t been there since 2010. She weaves a spell of landscapes, legends, myth and modernity. A developing nation that’s trying to catch up with the sophistication of its ambitions.

Don’t let rape stain Mother India for you. I won’t let it for me.

Resources:

1. A BBC article explaining the newly passed Indian rape laws.
2. The UN Sexual Violence Against Children and Rape Statistics.  The U.S. have an alarming 84.767 as of 2010, but India had only 22,172.  Yet hundreds of rape cases are dismissed by corrupt police or go unreported in India.
3.  New York Times piece from author Sonia Faleiro on how the New Delhi case caused a spark.
4. Terrific documentary by Al Jazeera on the challenges Indian women are facing in a changing society.
5.  Ms. Magazine op-ed on what it means to be female in India.