Indian-American women watching the handling of a gang rape and murder
of a young woman in New Delhi say that the public condemnation and
calls for better protections for women are long overdue.
Magoo, a bank vice president in the Detroit area who moved to the United
States in 2001 at age 20, says she was harassed by strangers in the
streets of Bombay.
MORE: India rape suspect's lawyer: Victim's friend 'responsible'
"It's about time that somebody talked about it," she said.
men have been charged with attacking the 23-year-old student and a male
friend on a bus as it was driven through the streets of India's capital
on Dec. 16. The woman was raped and assaulted with a metal bar and died
of her injuries.
The suspects' lawyer, Manohar Lal Sharma, said
his clients are innocent and were beaten by police and forced into
making incriminating statements.
The case has received significant
public attention, and women and men have organized protests in many
cities against what they say is a broken legal system that does not
bring enough rapists to justice.
MORE: India set for murder, rape charges in gang attack
Women at the protests have spoken
of rampant verbal abuse, gropings and rapes. They say investigators
often blame victims for behaviors that invite such attacks.
case of the Dec. 16 murder, the woman and her male friend were coming
home from a movie at a mall when they boarded a bus on which the
defendants were passengers. The woman's friend said he tried to defend
her but was beaten unconscious. The two were dumped from the bus after
Public condemnation in India has been outspoken. Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh has promised changes to improve police and
judicial handling of rape cases and to increase penalties.
Growing up in Mumbai, India, Magoo says it was not uncommon to be harassed in public.
see a bunch of guys follow you around, or call you names," Magoo said.
"No point in confronting them, because it's you and your girlfriend with
three or four guys. Even if you told them to back off, it won't make
On a visit to New Delhi two years ago, Magoo saw a
man force his way past a female police officer who tried to deny him
entry to the women-only section of the Delhi subway.
"He started cussing her out and he walked in anyhow," Magoo said.
She thinks the outcry in India is significant and could actually be the start of a new attitude toward women.
middle-class women are the ones that typically stand up for
themselves," Magoo says. "The more they raise their voice, the more they
can make some of these changes happen. ... It may take years but it's
going in the right direction."
Alka Kudesia, a board member at the
Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, agrees that the outcry may lead to
real change in laws and attitudes regarding how women should be treated.
She credits social media tools for making it easier for Indian women to
"People can make a change in our government and
political policy throughout the world because people can get their voice
out," Kudesia said.
Kudesia says women are gaining influence because they are increasingly earning more.
Upward mobility and education
to television and other media has increased consumerism among
middle-class families who were once satisfied with comfortable shelter,
enough food and clothes for the family, she said.
"Now people want
cars, vehicles, better education, vacation. People want more money and
that requires two paychecks," she said. "Women are more active in the
economy and politics. There are a lot of working women now."
New Delhi rape case comes after a string of other rapes in public places
in India that did not provoke such an outcry, says Poulami
Roychowdhury, a doctoral candidate at New York University whose research
focuses on law and gender violence in India.
The outcry this
time, she said, may have to do with the savagery of the attack and that
daughters are increasingly going off to college as the victim had done,
moving from her hometown to get an education.
"She may be emblematic of a hope that middle-class Indians have for upward mobility," Roychowdhury said.
Indian women have always worked outside the home, she said. But
middle-class women who are educated and have connections to political
players started entering the workforce in significant numbers only in
the past generation or two, Roychowdhury said.
"Now there's a
class of women in public space who have a greater ability to have their
voices heard," she said. "Women who were in public space before were
being sexually violated but didn't have that power."
Harassment found to be rampant
State Department's most recent human rights report on India, in 2011,
says rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and discrimination
against women "remained serious problems."
The report described
widespread sexual harassment, citing a survey released by the United
Nations Development Fund for Women and Jagori, a women's rights group.
The survey found that two-thirds (66%) of women in Delhi, the district
of the capital, had been sexually harassed between two and five times in
2010; more than 40% of incidents of harassment and molestation occurred
in broad daylight, and nearly 45% of women believed that "the police
will do nothing" if approached, it said.
A previous survey, in
2010, found that 88% of female employees in the information technology
and outsourcing industry had faced some form of sexual harassment at
work, most (66%) at the hands of a superior.
Verveer, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for global women's
issues, says the popular reaction in India and subsequent government
response is an encouraging sign that change will occur.
seeing people in the streets saying we really have to do better in all
of our society, that's a positive thing," she said. "Everything that's
happened since has been an effort not to cover up, not to say there's
nothing we need to do, but on the government's part and organizations
and average citizens to say 'we need to do a better job.' And that's
Roychowdhury says she is not sure whether the attack will lead to lasting action.
this lead to another law on the books that doesn't get implemented and
nothing happens, or will this lead to real change? I have no idea,"
Indian law requires one-third of seats in the
national Legislature to be reserved for women, and women are taking part
in politics throughout the country at all levels. The United States
funds projects in India to train to judges and law enforcement on
women's issues, strengthen women's rights groups and support efforts to
change cultural norms that allow such violence against women to persist.
State Department in 2011 directed a $50,000 grant by the Avon cosmetics
company to the Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi, for a pilot
program to help female victims of violence "combat violations of their
rights." Another Avon grant was directed to a street-theater program
designed to change attitudes of men and boys toward women and violence
in 50 Indian villages.
"You need to work at the top -- governments
have a responsibility, there are serious law enforcement issues that
need to be addressed -- and you need to work at the grass-roots level,"
Verveer describes the problem as an epidemic that
affects all countries to varying degrees, including the United States.
Her main message is: "This is not a cultural matter, not a private
matter, this is a criminal matter."