“Nirbhaya,” or Fearless, the 23-year-old physiotherapist who succumbed to fatal injuries after being brutally gang-raped on a bus in Delhi, is posthumously one of 10 women that the U.S. State Department will award its International Women of Courage Award on International Women’s Day. The sheer violence and depravity of Nirbhaya’s attack sparked nationwide protests, drawing thousands of women and men to the streets of India demanding that the government do what it is supposed to do: keep its citizens safe by not only making and improving laws to protect its people, but actually enforcing them.
The public outcry has left no choice but for the Indian government to respond. However, just like Americans, Indians too are captive to government policies that are driven more by politics and less by prudence. Sexual assault laws have been tightened, definitions of assault expanded and penalties raised (though the laws have yet to be ratified) — prudence. Marital rape has not been outlawed and armed forces officers and parliamentarians charged with rape would still enjoy virtual immunity and impunity — politics. $186 million has been allocated for a fund meant to improve the safety of women and another $186 million for a women’s only bank — politics, at least according to many women’s advocacy groups in India who have calculated the funds to amount to a whopping investment of Rs. 8 per woman for security and another Rs. 8 per woman for banking finance.
In addition to policy changes, there has been much buzz about the need for social change. Political leaders, religious figures, activists, lay people — all have had some “wisdom” to share, and amplify through the media, as to why they believe rape has spiked in India. Rape happens because of short skirts, Bollywood and Westernization. Rape happens because of fast food. Rape happens because women don’t remind rapists that he is symbolically her brother while saying no. Among all the pontificating madness and faulty equations, I finally found a public proclamation of genuine wisdom, even though it emerged from an unlikely source: a politician.
While calling upon the nation to “reset its moral compass” in his televised address on the eve of India’s Republic Day, President Pranab Mukherjee said, not only of the Delhi bus gang-rape, but of the inequities and dangers faced by women throughout India, “There is a law of the land. But there is also a higher law. The sanctity of a woman is a directive principle of that larger edifice called Indian civilization. The Vedas say that there is more than one kind of mother: birth mother, a guru’s wife, a king’s wife, a priest’s wife, she who nurses us, and our motherland. Mother is our protection from evil and oppression, our symbol of life and prosperity. When we brutalise a woman, we wound the soul of our civilization.”
While President Mukherjee, a lifelong politician who holds a largely ceremonial post in India’s parliamentary system of democracy, is no saint, I’m certain, his address actually echoed the message of one of India’s greatest saints of modern time, Swami Vivekananda. Well over a century ago, Swami Vivekananda, Hinduism’s first ambassador to the world, had much to say about the dismal status of women in then colonial India. Sadly, the problems he saw then remain today, if not having worsened, and his call to action still needs to be heeded. Swami Vivekananda lamented, “It is very difficult to understand why in this country [India] so much difference is made between men and women, whereas the Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious Self is present in all beings. You always criticize the women, but say what have you done for their uplift? Writing down Smritis etc., and binding them by hard rules, the men have turned the women into manufacturing machines! If you do not raise the women, who are living embodiment of the Divine Mother, don’t think that you have any other way to rise.”
Swami Vivekananda also said, “The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women.” By that measure — and to carry his analogy further — both the country of my birth and that of my ancestors are still in deep freeze. In America, a woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes; in the U.S. military, the Pentagon estimated that 19,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact, including rape, occurred in 2010 alone. With this record, indeed, the State Department should also recognize the countless women in America who are showing exceptional courage. After all, isn’t America part of the globe? According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, a woman in India is raped every 22 minutes; a child every 76 minutes. Around the world, one-in-three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. All of these statistics are a bitter dose of reality, likely even more bitter because of underreporting due to social or other stigma.
Once assaulted, being the victim of an attempted assault, or even knowing of a nearby assault changes a woman’s life forever. Constant glances over her shoulder, even when running in broad daylight; clutching keys on the approach to her car in a dark parking lot; feeling apprehensive when approached by strangers or men known to her — all become a heavy burden in her daily reality. For how long can we tolerate this kind of violence and fear of violence for half of our planet’s population? For how long will we tolerate it?
To my Hindu mothers and sisters in India and around the world (and my fathers and brothers too): For too many centuries, sometimes under the guise of culture and tradition, sometimes with the excuse of blaming foreign cultures, we have allowed the essence of the Vedas and the essence of womanhood to be muddied by society’s bullies. We need to not only remember, but bring back to life what Swami Vivekananda reminded us not so long ago:
“In what scriptures do you find statements that women are not competent for knowledge and devotion? In the period of degeneration, when the priests made the other castes incompetent for the study of the Vedas, they deprived the women also of all their rights. Otherwise you will find that in the Vedic or Upanishadic age Maitreyi, Gargi, and other ladies of revered memory have taken places of Rishis through their skill in discussing about Brahman ... All nations have attained greatness by paying proper respect to women. That country and that nation which we do not respect women have never become great, nor will ever be in future...”
“Arise! Awake!” my sisters and look to the past for the peace and justice that is our right — that is our future.