New Internationalist

Praying for a new dawn after Delhi rape

Paying tribute to Nirbhaya on a march in New Deli. Photo: ramesh_lalwani, under a CC License.

So ‘Nirbhaya’, the one without fear, as someone aptly nicknamed her, died in a Singapore hospital on 29 December 2012, after an arduous two week battle for her life. The rape and murder of the 23-year-old student has triggered an unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger all over India. Probably, not since Gandhi’s assassination has the country seen mass mourning of this kind.

Nirbhaya, whose real identity has not been publicly released, died because she fought back. She first fought the men who were beating up her male companion. Enraged, they turned on her. She bit one of the attackers who then beat her up brutally, and mercilessly, with an iron rod. She fought bravely and fiercely for her life for two whole weeks, though her intestines and her stomach turned gangrenous from the pounding she had received. The name ‘Nirbhaya’ was truly made for her.

Her story has been on the news worldwide. Thousands have assembled to protest and demand justice. Some of the protests turned ugly because hooligans and thugs, both political and criminal, jumped on the bandwagon to take advantage of the crowds. They threw stones at the police and turned a peaceful protest into a violent, messy affair.

Our only hope now is that Nirbhaya’s death marks a turning point in India. That future generations of our women may walk their streets safely and securely, free from the fear of sexual molestation and rape. For two weeks now, the papers have been full of old rape cases resurrected while demanding justice for the victims.

I would like to share a letter I was inspired to write to the One Billion Rising campaign group. My first letter of 2013:

I pray on the eve of this New Year, for a new dawn for all our women, not just in India or Asia but everywhere in the world.

I pray that Nirbhaya’s death may not be in vain. She died because she was brave, because she fought back. May her spirit live in all of us.

Can we ask everyone, including the media and womens’ groups, to call her ‘Nirbhaya’ and stop using ‘gang rape victim’. She should be in the textbooks as an example to our children of bravery and heroic resistance. The image of those who raped her should inspire repugnance in our children towards the concept of rape, sexual violence and domestic violence. We need to begin campaigns in all our schools, on what constitutes disrespect to our girls and women. We need this taken to every village, every mohalla, every city, every basti and every middle class, elite school in the country. Inappropriate behaviour which includes sexist remarks, objectionable jokes should not be laughed away or ignored politely. We need to take sexual harassment, in all its forms, seriously.

I have had mail from dalit and adivasi friends asking why we, the feminist women and men of India, and our Prime Minister and high profile people such as Jaya Bachchan, do not weep copiously or hold candlelight vigils when they, India’s dalits and adivasi people, are routinely raped, every single day in our country. I have no answer. I can only hang my head in shame.

I think we need to introspect, really seriously, to look at our movements. Within us, in NGO’s and civil society groups, there are men who exploit the women within. Many of us know who they are. Yet the victims have wept bitter tears and are moved on. These men remain predators and choose new victims because they are apparently above reproach. Nothing happens because they are great leaders of mass movements or grass roots groups. Should they be allowed to continue, without shame? Abuse is generally hushed up; the boys’ clubs, close ranks.

We have screamed at the politicians and the policemen. And indeed, the wrath of India’s women should show itself if society is to change. But if a man from our family, our class, our set, rapes the domestic worker in our home or colony will we take action or buy silence by paying off the victim?

I believe that we are at an important crossroad in the history of our country and of the women’s movement. I pray that the struggle will continue and that we manage to create a better world for our daughters, our sisters.

May the One Billion continue to Rise.

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  1. #1 Vanya 03 Jan 13

    Every one of us has to ask now... am I part of the hurting or am I part of the healing....
    If violence against women is to be seriously addressed it has to be addressed at not only the legal level -(maybe you can mobilise fast track trials if that can be done without compromising innocent people) but it all goes SO MUCH DEEPER.. It belongs to every one of us.....There has to be a serious study on Sexuality and relationships here. There has to be a serious examination of WHY this happens....Can the ramifications of a patriarchal society be influenced? How is it possible to change such deep rooted patterns? Can we.. you, I, in some way, use this terrible event so that it has not happened for nothing, that it finally can create a sea change at cultural, social, educational and family levels.
    Interventions will not change things quickly at the adult level but it could be possible with the children. It would be relatively easy to ensure that every school has an investment in Non Violent Communication (NVC) with compulsory classes in relationship and adolescent training .. This could well be extended to all sections of society through self help groups, help lines for children & family counselling wherever possible.
    The reaction of outrage against the brutal & inhuman gang rape in Delhi is not just for this young girl.. It is accumulated grief and guilt from women's violation throughout the land for so many, many years. It is a deep and important voice which must be heard but around the edges of it I find a tenor of it which is chilling as it is sourced from the same roots of violence. Perhaps out of the fire feeding fire energy, a pure flame can rise which can start to look at healing the roots of violence rather than compounding it.
    We have to use this to make changes, now, before the whole of the movement is dissipated. Find the will to build a more compassionate society at this time when all of humanity is looking forward to a new age. It is possible. Let's do it Mari! Vanya from Earth Trust Nilgiris

  2. #2 Richard John Mason Muhammad Rafiq Abdullah 03 Jan 13

    Nirbhaya Nirbhaya Nirbhaya yes..... this is how this young lady must be remembered.....

  3. #3 Gillian 03 Jan 13

    Dear God I pray for this womens soul to be at peace with you. I pray for justice to be done... If only people knew you, they would not hold this hate and violence in their hearts... God Bless her family and friends... I am ashamed by human action when I read stories such as this.. and we call ourselves a civilised society.. breaks your heart.. :(

  4. #4 shoba ramachandran 03 Jan 13

    Mari, this is absolutely a brilliant piece of analysis. Thanks. It is so true that most of the civil society and NGOs keep talking and hearing of how the latter should be more involved in gender sensitisation. Who said that they are the be all and end all of gender sensitisation? If the women would really talk and not feel judged or fear the loss of their jobs, then there could be serious trouble. If all of them would reflect very honestly inward, then there may be a major revelation that there is a dirth of very sincere and committed NGOs who really ’Walk the Talk’. Could we all make a written declaration that at home we would question the various inequalities, the ’son stroke syndrome’, the inequalities in property division, stop calling relatives and cousins as ’brothers’ when parents are different and various other issues. There's a lot more to be done in schools, in public and private institutions and both women and men who are sensitised should not feel ashamed or afraid of exposing themselves when they see gender injustice. Sensitise the elders first so that the youth who have come out in hordes in this major movement do not feel disillusioned when they go back home, to their work places, and so on. This is a long struggle ahead but we will all take this up to see that women as much as men are free in at all times, everywhere even when there is no policing. We want to be free and fearless. Yes, ’Nirbhaya’ is the word for all of us. Thanks Mari.

  5. #5 Radha Mendruah 03 Jan 13

    Really liked this post of yours- it was very well articulated and resonated a lot with some of my thoughts. I feel one of the easiest and most important things we all can do is not to forget Nirbhaya and continue to be outraged- so the discussion keeps continuing and hopefully leads to a new mindset.

  6. #6 Aasha Ramesh 04 Jan 13

    Thank yiu Mari, indeed a wonderful piece for all of us to introspect. The need is to keep the struggle on as we mourn for Brave Heart and hundreds and thousands of other unsung brave hearts. Many who paid with their lives, while others who grappling with the trauma of violence,waiting for justice.

    I pray and hope with early justice being sought for the 23 year old, many windows of justice will open for the others too. May the new dawn of justice prevail and efforts of creating a violence free world for women and people strengthen as one billion rise for its realisation.

  7. #7 Cynthia Stephen 04 Jan 13

    Yes, Nirbhaya's death should not go in vain, and lone voices which have been crying out for gender justice are now joined by a sizeable cross-section of Indian society. The moribund justice system, the dead conscience, of the country has at last woken up to the reality of the brutal gender violence interwoven into our culture's DNA. As a gender trainer for about 20 years now, I find that younger men are more open to empowered women, though there is also a patriarchal backlash, especially against assertions by women from marginalised groups. Men now need to be understand that they have been a major part of the problem and now they need to choose to be a part of the solution. The need of the hour is not empowerment of women but sensitisation of men to the reality o women's lives. We have some resources which trainers can use for gender-sensitisation of men - call 080-26634845, 080-26635366 and ask for copies of ’Ripples of Change’.

  8. #8 Desiderata 04 Jan 13

    I admire the Indians of India.

    They united, to fight against this atrocity.

    I am South Africa (and Proudly so), however in my nation, children, as young as 3 months old and old women - up to 90 years old - are raped and killed.

    We just look away.

  9. #9 anita 04 Jan 13

    Thank you Mari for the wonderful and powerful writing. I feel very strongly that justice for Nirbhaya will come not only through stringent laws or tougher punishments but through reform in our attitude towards harassment of any kind, with each of us deciding not to 'ignore politely' or 'buy silence'.

  10. #10 Sharon Osbourne 10 Jan 13

    I once thought as a child and in a child’s mind I held on to things in a dreamlike state … where all things were filled with beauty, peace and joy. My idea of a India where there was turmoil and yet an ever present state of simple understanding of the human mind i.e. kindness, understanding, peace within each and every person to do every day simple acts of humanness.

    This article has not only stunned the world but the human heart and spirit. It leaves me on a personal level “fractured” both in my mind and the higher level I held India’s signifies to me. Mankind has sunk to a new low depravity.

    sharon osbourne

  11. #11 rob currie 10 Jan 13

    Thanks, Mari . . . a worldwide ’plague’ . . . have shared the situation there and your writings with the young (and not-so-young) women of Arenal who are in a permanent struggle against the same plague . . . Awareness is beginning to take place . . . a mentality change among men is something else . . . centuries of male domination/violence/impunity . . . Rob

    Arenal, Nicaragua

  12. #12 Gouthami 14 Jan 13

    I think we need gender sensitisation from a very young age - too often I find that women are treated the way they are simply because no one has thought differently. That is how it was and therefore that is how it will be. Unless we get the younger generation to think and question - is there a need for it to be this way? Is it just? - I dont think there will be a deep rooted change. In my experience, I have found that whenever I go for a gender sensitisation programme, there is change in the way the participants think - not just men, but also the women (myself included) who attend these sessions.

    My suggestion is that we need to have a half-day sensitisation session every year from class 8 to class 12 for all students. This should be done, not by teachers who already have a huge burden, but by specially trained gender experts - both men and women. I have hope in the coming generations - let us invest in them.

    Those of you who are part of alternative schools, should start immediately.


  13. #13 david cohen 18 Jan 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's letter to One Billion Rising
    stands as an example to me in at least two important

    1. The woman who was tragically raped and died stands
    out as a brave resister. She exercised her dignity by
    fighting. There was nothing passive or supine in her.

    2. My great influence Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel--
    he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and in
    anti-Vietnam War marches-- resisted collective guilt
    but said and wrote repeatedly tha ’each of us is

    Those of us who participate in social movements--
    and men have a special responsibility-- need to speak out,
    identify harmful behaviors in attitude and words as well
    as actions. Otherwise we are enablers.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    January 18, 2013

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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