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Rape in India: Wall of silence around victims is slowly crumbling

British filmmaker Leslee Udwin's documentary on the 2012 Delhi gang rape case is, sadly, a portrayal of the mindset of many men and even some women in India.

In the documentary India's Daughter, convicted rapist Mukesh Singh blames women who were raped, suggesting that no decent woman would be out on the streets at night.

Similar remarks are also made by his defence lawyers A. P. Singh and M. L. Sharma. Mr Sharma says there is no place for women in Indian society, while Mr Singh declares he will think nothing of burning his "unmarried daughter or sister… if they behaved improperly".

Such comments have unfortunately been made much too often in India. They come from men and even women in different sections of society and they are heard in both private conversations and in public.

I was sitting in a lawyer's office once where a debate was going on about gang rape. In a somewhat shocking conclusion, three men and a woman concluded that the woman was mostly responsible for the rape. They had little by way of logical arguments to come to this conclusion.

Such mindsets have also led to extreme situations like the parents of a five-year-old rape victim who shockingly had to move away from their home because some neighbours actually blamed the child for the rape.

Still, the documentary did leave me angry with a feeling of disquiet, as it does every time I hear misogynistic comments that are aimed at suppressing women's rights and undermining the contributions they make to society.

Those who hold such views that feed a rape culture need to be publicly slammed. In a reflection of the mood in the county, the Delhi Bar Council is exploring disciplinary action against the Delhi gang rape defence lawyers for their comments in the documentary.

Rape or sexual crimes are of course not restricted to India, nor is the tendency to blame the victims. Questions like what a victim was doing in a bar at night are raised not only in India, but also in the West, including the United States.

But in India, rape cases arouse more anger perhaps because women face daily harassment more frequently than those in other countries.

And because in India, social changes are taking place slowly - more women enter the workforce and make decisions on everything from what to wear to who they marry, challenging patriarchal ideas.

Every case of sexual assault is now widely reported and gets much more attention than probably in most other countries in the world.

The street protests that broke out after the Delhi gang rape was not only an explosion of anger and frustration against the attack, but also against every sexist comment or catcall faced by women for just walking down a street.

As a young woman told me during the protests, any woman who has used public transport in India has at least one story to tell of being groped on a bus.

Eve-teasing, a term used for sexual taunting, remains a serious problem and takes away from a woman her right to just walk down the street in peace.

Popular culture also reinforces ideas that are detrimental to women.

When a Priyanka Chopra or a Katrina Kaif make provocative gestures or do hip thrusts on screen during a song-and-dance sequence, she is doing her job as a performer. But it reinforces ideas of objectification of women as sexual objects.

In many movies, the hero's pursuit of a heroine who at first is reluctant to reciprocate may seem like harassment. But for many uneducated and illiterate Indian men, they see this as normal behaviour that they mimic as they watch their favourite movie stars woo women.

But what is changing in India since the Delhi gang rape is that the wall of silence around sexual crimes is slowly crumbling. And the message is going out that it is not okay to make a sexist comment while passing a woman on a road.

While many sexual crimes still go unreported and eve teasing remains a common problem, more women are reporting rapes or sexual crimes. Whether it is a young journalist filing a case of sexual harassment against a senior and well-known editor or a poor rape victim in a village who makes a police report.

But what does strike me in the BBC documentary is the dignity and progressive thinking of the victim's family.

They, for me, hold the spark of change that is taking place - though very slowly - in Indian society, where more women are being educated and encouraged to join the workplace.

As many spoke out in public about how the documentary should not be shown because the family of the victim would be upset, the parents themselves were very clear that misogynistic attitudes towards women should be exposed.

They sold ancestral land to educate their daughter, setting an example for others in the country.

Given the poverty and illiteracy levels in the country, the only way to challenge regressive ideas is by educating women and encouraging them to join the work force.

While fast-tracking cases of rape in Indian courts and sensitising men are important steps, education would increasingly marginalise elements who are already facing a losing battle in trying to keep women in the house.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg