NEW DELHI — The images looped over and over again on television screens, provoking outrage across India.
On July 9, a teenage girl in Guwahati, in the northeastern state of Assam, stepped out of Club Mint on the crowded G.S. Road after an evening out with her friends. Part of what happened next was recorded by a television crew that arrived on the scene after receiving reports of an assault.
A group of 10, perhaps 15, men surrounded the girl, beating and stripping her for the next 20 minutes. By the time the television crew and the police showed up, the mob had grown to about 40 men. There was an immediate demand by the public that the girl’s attackers be found and prosecuted. After questions were raised about the television station’s recording and broadcasting of the assault footage, two of its reporters resigned on Tuesday.
The widespread anger over the incident — and sympathy for the girl — are genuine, and yet few seem to recall the outcome of a similarly horrific case on New Year’s Eve 2008 in Mumbai. Two women were alleged to have been attacked by 14 men as they left the Marriott Hotel with their friends. When the police arrived, the mob assaulting the women as they lay pinned down on the ground had grown to more than 50 men. In the years since then, victims of such attacks may receive more public support, but not necessarily more justice. The suspects in the 2008 case are free on bail, and the case has yet to be resolved.
Rape and sexual assault are among the fastest-growing reported crimes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Rape also has a plunging conviction rate, with only 26.5 percent of reported rapes successfully prosecuted in 2010. And the response from the authorities across India has been strikingly obtuse. As public anger grew over the Guwahati attack, the police responded by declaring that bars in the city should shut down by 10 p.m. The announcement was widely seen as an attempt to distract attention from their own shortcomings in handling the case.
After a woman was raped in Kolkata this year, the police directed bars to stop serving drinks after 11:30 p.m. After a female journalist was shot and killed some years ago while driving home, Delhi’s police chief suggested that women should not drive late at night without proper escorts. And after the rape of a woman in Gurgaon, a city near Delhi, some months ago, the municipal administration suggested that women should not work after 8 p.m.
These responses shift blame away from the men responsible for the crime. But they also reveal a continuing tension, as traditional communities and groups attempt to process the changes that have accompanied India’s modernization. In many discussions of sexual assault and rape in the news media and elsewhere, the issue is often framed as one of how far women’s freedoms should extend. What kinds of jobs or working hours are considered respectable for a woman? Can a woman go to a bar or restaurant with friends without inviting censure or sexual advances? If a woman is out in a public area after dark, is she, to use a term that often crops up, a “loose” woman? The question of how much freedom a woman should have, and who should control that freedom, underpins the debate over sexual violence.
Three days after the attack in Guwahati, the local village council in Aasra, a small village in Baghpat District, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, issued a set of decrees. Most village councils in Uttar Pradesh are dominated by men, and their pronouncements are taken seriously. (In the past, village councils have even been known to endorse so-called honor killings.) A few have banned young women from wearing jeans or using cellphones. The Aasra council went further, banning women under 40 from using cellphones, visiting local markets or appearing in public with their heads uncovered.
Baghpat epitomizes some of the strains that beset urban and semirural India in a period of rapid transition. Its population has only 858 women and girls for every 1,000 men and boys — an imbalance extreme not just by national standards, but by those of Uttar Pradesh, the state with the greatest gender disparity. It has slightly higher levels of female literacy than the national average, but few women in the paid work force. This suggests a tension in a community modern enough to educate women, but traditional enough not to want them to seek jobs. Girls walk an average of 2 kilometers, or 1.2 miles, farther than boys do to get to their schools, because there are fewer schools for girls.
Cellphone penetration in Baghpat is high, though, and phones are widely used by women. Nongovernmental organizations have successfully used text-messaging campaigns to improve women’s health care. Baghpat is a district on the razor’s edge of development: Economic improvements widely seen as desirable have had the side effect of empowering women.
What the village council edicts reveal are the social stresses in many parts of India, as conservative communities seek to curb the freedoms for women that something as simple as the introduction of cellphones can bring in its wake.
Discomfort with women’s freedoms runs deep, and unites urban and rural areas alike. Back in 2008, when the 14 men accused in the Mumbai assault case were brought to court, some political parties defended them, on the grounds that the honorable men of Maharashtra State, where Mumbai is located, could never have committed such a crime. The courts have yet to issue a final ruling. Though mind-sets are changing, equal rights and safety remain just out of reach for many women, from Guwahati to Baghpat.