Are Women Safe In India?

The brutal rape and death of a young student in New Delhi is raising concerns about violence against women in India. To find out more about the challenges women face in the world's largest democracy, guest host Celeste Headlee speaks to a women's rights advocate and an Indian author.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is a little under the weather. Coming up, we discuss how the Latino population is changing in New York City and how those changes are affecting Big Apple politics. That's in a few minutes.

But first, a story that's pulled the world's attention to India. Police there have filed rape and murder charges against five men accused of the gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old student in Delhi. The case has drawn thousands of protestors into the streets. They're calling for an end to violence against women in India, and some advocates are hoping this will be a watershed moment for women's rights in that country.

To learn more, we've called on Mary Asha Lata. She's an advocate for Manavi, a South Asian women's rights organization based here in the U.S. Also with us is Sonia Faleiro. She's an Indian writer who recently wrote about this for the New York Times. And I also need to mention that this conversation may not be appropriate for all listeners.

Sonia and Mary, welcome to the program.

MARY ASHA LATA: Thank you.

SONIA FALEIRO: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Sonia, let me begin with you. You studied in Delhi. That's where this rape occurred. Were you surprised by this story or the details?

FALEIRO: No. Sadly enough, I wasn't surprised. As I mentioned in my New York Times op-ed, what was surprising was the volume of the response and the fact that it's continued. I mean, the rage of people hasn't been limited to a few hours or a few days. Even in this, you know, news cycle, unending news cycle, people are committed to seeing that something like this doesn't happen again.

HEADLEE: And, Mary, you're also from Delhi. You say you have also experienced harassment as a woman there. For those of us who've never visited, can you explain what it's like for a woman there?

LATA: I think it's not just me. When you say harassment, everybody, I guess, at one point or the other in their life in Delhi, they do experience sexual harassment in terms of, you know, cat calls or eve teasing, as it is called there, or when you get in your bus, the buses are so crowded that, you know, there would be men doing - you know, touching you. And so these things keep happening. It's like a part of life in Delhi.

HEADLEE: We've read a statistic that a rape occurs every 20 minutes in India, which is just startling. But we also have read that very few rapes are actually reported. Why is that, Mary?

LATA: I think it's just - you don't have that kind of - you know, that if I go to the police station and I report, you know, first of all, you would not be listened to, you know. And you wouldn't want to report it because there is so much stigma attached to it, as in, you know, any other country, too. You don't want anybody to know about it, because your family might support you, might not support you, and the police might not react in the way you would want to. So that's one of the main reasons you wouldn't want to go to a police station and report any such incidents.

HEADLEE: You know, Sonia, a lot of people in India now are trying to figure out who's to blame for what they call a culture of violence, or a culture of harassment against women. As you just heard, Mary mentioned that some people are blaming the police and inaction on rape charges. Some people are blaming politicians, and some people are blaming Bollywood, that Bollywood films actually glorify, sometimes, rape or violence against women. What do you think?

FALEIRO: You know, what we have in India right now is just this perfect storm where misogynistic and a traditionally patriarchal culture is butting heads - or, really, not butting heads with systems that don't work. So, you know, police, as Mary said, who just do not take down reports of sexual harassment or rape, a judicial system that doesn't function, that allows court cases to languish for years, and a society that essentially believes that the worst aspect of rape is the fact that nobody will want to marry the victim. And we've had several cases, prominent cases in the past couple of years, in which the victims have been forced by their families or very strongly encouraged by the judge proceeding over their court case to marry their attacker. That is seen as a solution to what has been done to her.

HEADLEE: And, in fact, a rape victim just within the past few weeks committed suicide because the police were pressuring her to do exactly what you said, to marry her rapist.

FALEIRO: Yeah, absolutely. And you know what we're having right now in India is this fact that the economy is booming, people are prospering, things are going very well for a large section of society. But our society isn't as enlightened and isn't moving forward as fast as the economy. That development is, frankly, unhinged, and we need to find a way to incorporate the economic and social development that we're seeing in India with the way that people think in a way that is appropriate and decent and humane towards women in our society.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about violence against women in India with advocate Mary Asha Lata and writer Sonia Faleiro.

Sonia, we've seen a lot of very high-level women politicians in India. There's a long history of women attaining positions of power there. Why has that not translated into a more respectful culture?

FALEIRO: Well, there are a couple of things to remember. The first is that women that you mention all come from political families. They come from power. Sonia Gandhi is the president of the ruling Congress Party, was married to the prime minister of India.

Indira Gandhi, who was the prime minister of India, was the son of - was the daughter, I'm sorry - of the prime minister of India. So they come from power, and their attitudes reflect social norms and social desires. And where we are in India - or at least where we were, prior to this, you know, high profile rape - was a situation where women's rights and women's concerns were not a top priority. And if they're not top priority for societies-at-large, then the political representatives of that society are not going to take them into concern, either.

So to say that just because we've had high level women politicians, we've had a laser-sharp focus on women's rights, is frankly and sadly incorrect.

HEADLEE: Although, Mary, this is turning into a lot of pressure on India's government to make changes, even though U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on the Indian government to make some changes. Can it be achieved at the government level? Is that all that needs to happen?

LATA: No. I don't think so. Government does play an important role. Laws play an important role, and the politicians do because they are the leaders. They are the ones who are supposed to lead the country, show them the direction.

And, referring to the previous question you just asked about women leaders in India and I would - also would want to point out that, right here in this country where we are right now talking about this...

HEADLEE: You mean in the United States?

LATA: Yeah. In the United States, there are so many women. You know, women's rights have been at the forefront. There are such good laws here, and just to take the case - the Christmas night gang rape in Philadelphia where something almost similar happened to a 22-year-old girl - young lady here in Philadelphia. And she was raped again by five men for five hours in her own vehicle, and that is so similar to what happened in Delhi.

The question is: What is it? You know, what is it that transcends national boundaries, religion, language, cultures? It's not something that is very specific or very peculiar to India or to Delhi. It is something - this issue of violence against women is something rampant all around the world, you know, in different ways.

HEADLEE: Well, then let me take that to you, Sonia. You started this conversation by saying you were surprised by the reaction. You weren't surprised by the brutality of the rape, but that you were surprised at the outrage over it. So what do you think is causing it? Why this reaction to this particular event?

FALEIRO: You know, I've tried to figure that out for myself, and I really don't know because, as we've discussed, there have been brutal rapes in India, just as there are brutal rapes, as Mary points out, and all sorts of rapes and sexual harassment across the world. But I think it was perhaps the various little bits of information that trickled out just after the attack and the victim was moved to a hospital - you know, the fact that she was young. She had gone to watch "Life of Pi" at an upscale mall. She was in this particular part of Delhi. She was studying to be a physiotherapist. Her family had sold their land so that she could have a chance at a better life - a life, frankly, that nobody in her family had had before.

So the kind of information that we received was of the sort that would appeal to women of different classes of Indian society. Everybody could look at that woman and find something in her that they could relate to. And, in a way, to me, it appears that it was her anonymity - the fact that we don't know her name, we don't know what she looks like - that allowed us to relate to her in a way that perhaps we might not have been able to do if we knew these details about her that have, so far, been kept out of the public eye.

HEADLEE: Mary, I have to ask you. If you have a daughter and you're in India, if you live in Delhi and you have a young daughter, do you tell her, avoid men's eyes? Do you tell her to dress without drawing attention so that she can stay safe? Or do you say, be proud and be the woman that you want to be?

LATA: I think I would, in spite of everything, say that to my daughter, that, you know, just be proud, proud of who you are, proud of your identity as a woman, because I myself was a daughter to my mother and I had lived in such circumstances, you know. And my mother has played an important role in this. She never, ever stopped me from dressing up in a certain way or, you know, going to certain places, so - and she encouraged me. She - I guess she's the motivating factor behind whatever I've been able to achieve today, in spite of whatever the society has been. So I guess I would do the same to my daughter, you know, and, in fact, I don't think I'm as brave as my mom, but I think I would do that to my daughter. Yes. I definitely would.

HEADLEE: Mary Asha Lata is an advocate for Manavi. It's a New Jersey-based women's rights organization for South Asian women. She joined us from Rutgers University in New Jersey. Also joining us, Sonia Faleiro. She's an Indian author whose book, "Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars," was published last year. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco, California.

Thanks so much to both of you.

LATA: Thank you.

FALEIRO: Thank you.

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