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Across Caste and Religion, Indian Women Share Sense of Powerlessness Over Rape

December 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A brutal gang rape in New Delhi may help force a sea change in India, a thriving democracy that is also a very conservative society based on a diversity of old traditions. Ray Suarez talks to Miranda Kennedy, author of "Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India," about the taboos of coming forward as a rape victim.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on all of this, we turn to Miranda Kennedy, who lived in India from 2002 to 2007 as a reporter. She’s the author of “Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India,” which looks at the lives of women in that country.

Miranda, as we have been discussing, sexual violence against women in India is widespread, everything from being groped in a public place to the kind of horrific gang rapes that have made the news. What do the women that you talk to in your reporting over the year make of their own predicament?

MIRANDA KENNEDY, Author, “Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India”: Well, I think the sense of powerlessness among women in India is something that goes across caste and across religion. It is widespread.

And there is a frustration about it. As Julie said, there is a deep vein of frustration in the country. And I think that is what we are seeing, that this one case has sparked off. You know, this citizens protest didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s not a new issue.

There has been sexual violence against women in India for many, many decades. But I think the sense of a new feeling of kind of liberation about being able to take to the streets and say something about it is why we are seeing so much action right now.

RAY SUAREZ: When a woman overcomes her own misgivings, pressure from her own family, and actually goes to the police, what happens? Are the accusations investigated? Are the accused tried?

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Well, this is one of the biggest problems, Ray, because, first of all, it has to be said that the vast majority of rapes are not reported in India, as all over the world, but especially in India, because it is a huge taboo.

There is a cultural no-no against it. It can ruin your life. If you are raped, you will not get married. You could be thrown out of your village. So that is the most important thing.

But if you do have to get up to go to the police, as both of these women that have been discussed tonight did there to do, you could be humiliated, as the younger woman was, the woman who committed suicide earlier this week.

She was humiliated, and often they are humiliated sexually in the police station. It is completely unacceptable. And then the police will not push it through. And the second big hurdle that women face if they do dare to come forward is the judicial process.

You know, India’s judicial process is notoriously slow for everything, including rapes, but everything else.

So if here the outside would be, you know, a year, but most cases are gone through in a few months, in India, you’re talking several years. So why would you dare? Why would you do that? Why would you ruin your life if nothing is going to happen?

RAY SUAREZ: All the nations of South Asia have had female prime ministers. All have female cabinet secretaries. They have had female party leaders, potential governors.

How come they haven’t taken up the cause of the widespread and under — widely understood cruelty against women in their countries?

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Well, all elected governments are — are — their hands are always tied by the mores, the social mores and cultural constrictions of that country, of their own country.

And India is a thriving democracy, but it is also very — it’s really conservative. And there are many traditions which would prevent those kinds of things from happening.

So, I think it’s great that we have female leaders right now. The head of the governing party in India is a woman. But that doesn’t mean that she can make her only issue that of women’s issues, if the rest of the government isn’t going to follow along.

India’s government is very constricted in many ways from what it can do. And, so, unfortunately, this hasn’t been made a big case, a big issue of yet so far.

But I actually think that this could be the time. I think that this case could give an opening.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, news from Singapore of the young woman’s death after the gang rape broke during the middle of the night in the India. So, Indians in their millions will awake to the news that the woman has died.

Have we crossed a threshold? Is this an issue that simply can’t be put back in the bottle and forgotten?

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Well, you know, I think that probably when it comes to the street protests, the death, the tragic death of this woman, is going through mean that the protest will peak today.

And it’s possible that after that, the protests will dribble off and, you know, this case may be forgotten. This woman’s name may stop being the top of the news. She obviously will. But I think that this case is a watershed moment. I think it can be a watershed moment.

There’s other — there’s many other cases actually in India of other social issues where civic protests have led to big change. And the amount — I mean, we had Delhi shut down. Central Delhi was shut down. Tens of thousands of protesters all over India have been taking to the streets.

There is real fury and a kind of coming-together about this issue. And so I’m hopeful that we are going to have more than just commissions of inquiry, as Julie mentioned. I’m hopeful that we’re going have some major change.

RAY SUAREZ: Journalist and author Miranda Kennedy, thanks for joining us.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Thanks, Ray.