As a co-founder of Narika, a Bay Area-based helpline for South Asian victims of domestic violence, I have come across many incidents of sexual assault against women in my community. It happens with numbing regularity.
But few things have struck a chord in me as powerfully as the news of the 23-year-old, female medical student's brutal gang rape on a Delhi bus Dec. 16 by six drunken men. The rape and her subsequent death last week from severe organ damage have traumatized the nation and touched off widespread outrage throughout the country. Even after her cremation on Saturday, thousands continue to take to the streets nationwide to demand the government take steps to stem violence against women.
So I ask myself, is India on the verge of a Feminist Spring?
For too long, women in India have been viewed as second-class citizens, always expected to walk a few proverbial steps behind their male partners. Not only in public, but in homes as well, violence against women is an all-too-common occurrence, both in India and among Indian communities here in the United States.
And while sexual violence against women happens everywhere, including countries like the Congo – labeled by the United Nations as the rape capital of the world – the horrific attack in India appears to have become the tipping point for a wider, Arab-style revolt against this historic injustice, one that is now spilling beyond India's borders.
Here, in San Francisco, some 70 social rights activists from all across the Bay Area and from every racial and ethnic stripe held a candlelight vigil outside the Indian consulate on Dec. 28 to show solidarity with protestors in India. Narika, Trikone, ASATA (the Alliance for South Asians Taking Action) and the Asian Women's Shelter co-sponsored what was meant to be a vigil but turned into a memorial service for the raped victim who died only hours earlier that day.
A sign held by one participant summed up the demands of those gathered: "Dear Delhi Government, Do Your Job."
But as Bay Area activist and journalist Papiha Nandy observed at Friday's event, whatever policies and laws are enacted by the Indian government to protect women, those laws must be backed by deeper cultural changes.
Following the attack, the six rapists were arrested and have since been charged with murder, rape and other crimes. Sonia Gandhi, considered India's most powerful politician, recently told protestors: "I want to assure you that your voice has been heard." She urged the country to scale back on New Year's Day celebrations.
Still, since the Dec. 16 rape another 20 have been reported in Delhi, dubbed the rape capital of India. Last year alone, 24,206 rape cases were reported nationwide, up by 10 percent from 2010. Activists say even that number is a gross underestimate as victims are often either too embarrassed or too fearful to complain.
What is especially galling for women in India is the attitude of the police toward rape victims. Many law officials and politicians seem to think that women who don't wear the traditional sari or the salwar kameez deliberately invite rape. One police officer recently told a reporter from Tehelka, the New Delhi-based hard-hitting, online weekly news magazine, that alcohol and opportunity are sufficient -- and just -- cause for rape. The reporter cites one male police sub-inspector as saying: "She is dressed in a manner that people get attracted to her. In fact, she wants them to do something to her."
A 17-year-old woman, gang-raped in Punjab in November, ingested poison and died last week after police allegedly told her to drop charges against the rapists and advised her to marry one of them.
It is resentment against such crimes – and the indifference of police and politicians – that is now exploding across India.
In late 2010 a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against that country's authoritarian regime. Credited with having kick-started the Arab Spring, Bouazizi's act was fueled by a population chafing against an oppressive government. That same sentiment was shared by many across the region and provided the tinder for what followed.
Tunisians described Bouazizi's death as the "drop that tipped over the vase." For Indians everywhere, the gang rape and murder of an innocent 23-year-old woman may be that drop.