The stage at Lincoln Center was dark. A young Indian woman sat with her back to the audience. She described how, four years ago when she was just 24, a male friend brutally raped her. With a voice that sometimes cracked with emotion, the woman recounted the callousness of police investigators and a defense lawyer who suggested she just marry the man who had raped her. At court, she recalled, the defendant slapped high-fives with his lawyer when the judge decided against her.
But the woman, identified only as Divya to protect her identity, was ultimately unbowed and appealed the verdict. The case is now making its way through India’s Supreme Court. “I seriously don’t like the word ‘victim,’” she said to great applause in the packed theater. “I think we’re survivors, not victims.”
Divya’s story was the powerful introduction on Friday morning to a discussion at the Women in the World Summit about rape and sexual assault.
In December a 23-year-old student, now known as Nirbhaya, or “the fearless one,” was brutally gang-raped on a New Delhi bus after coming home from seeing the movie Life of Pi with her boyfriend. Her resistance reportedly so infuriated her attackers that they disemboweled her and threw her off the moving bus. Nirbhaya died 13 days later of her injuries.
The case caused uproar and protests in India, and prompted soul-searching about the country’s appalling conviction rates when it comes to sexual assault. According to Nightline co-anchor Cynthia McFadden, who moderated the discussion, 600 rape cases tried in New Delhi resulted in only one conviction.
While acknowledging the broad scope of the problem—from “entrenched cultural bigotry” to lax law enforcement and institutional resistance—the panelists all expressed hope that the case might provide a tipping point and possibly a psychological shift in how rape is viewed in India. The father of Nirbhaya now wants his daughter’s name known publicly, said Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of the Indian magazine Tehelka, who wrote a piece about the case for Newsweek.
“The silence has finally been broken,” Chaudhury said. “That’s the most crucial —the shame has shifted from the survivor to the perpetrator.”
The prominent Indian television journalist Barkha Dutt agreed, saying that one of the most important things that has resulted from the case is that others have come forward to tell their stories of how they were raped. Dutt quoted one survivor who had told her: “Why should my face be hidden? The men who did this to me, they should have their faces hidden.”
Ravi Kant, president of the NGO Shakti Vahini, said that, in addition to blaming the victim, a big part of the problem is institutional discrimination and a lack of proper police procedure.
“Sexual autonomy is something people are not comfortable with,” agreed Chaudhury. “An autonomous woman is seen as fair game. Either you’re a slut or a goddess. And that misogyny … is not endemic to India.”
Also on stage was noted Indian-American human rights activist Mallika Dutt who blamed a “global crisis of masculinity.” “It’s time to look at men, and, as Tina Brown said yesterday, lean on them, and say ‘enough is enough.’”
Drawing a parallel to the Steubenville, Ohio, case in the U.S., Mallika Dutt pointed out that at the heart of both cases is the idea that women are somehow second-class citizens. “We never say ‘male violence against women.’ We say ‘violence against women’ as if it just happens, coming out of this ether,” she said. “Let’s start naming this stuff.”