Delhi rape: India looks within itself for answers
- 6 January 2013
- From the section Magazine
The rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi sparked outrage across India. But does a visit to a neighbourhood central to the story offer any clues as to where the country goes next?
A small lemon caught my eye as I reached the front door of the brick hut where the bus driver, one of those accused in this horrific case, lives with his brother.
It was hanging on a wire from the wooden door post - placed there last week, a neighbour said - as a charm to ward off the evil eye.
This tightly-packed south Delhi settlement of single storey dwellings is now under a cloud of shame - because four of the six arrested for the savage rape and killing of the young woman live here.
The case has also badly tarnished India's image abroad.
As ever, journalists reporting this story have come looking for symbols of the bigger picture - and this place has now come to signify the dark side of India many see as being behind this gruesome crime.
Most of its residents are migrants who have come to Delhi from impoverished rural areas, widely seen as the cradle of regressive attitudes to women, where figures show rapes are commonplace but rarely reported because of the social stigma.
Fitting perhaps that the district takes its name from a nearby shrine to a man born of India's untouchable castes.
And yet the narrative many have given this place didn't entirely fit. This is not a tumble-down slum for "just arrived" rural migrants, as some reports have suggested, the soil of the fields still under their nails.
Many residents have been here 20 years. It's far from comfortable living, but far better than many slum settlements I've seen - with solidly built stone dwellings, neat and brightly painted - and everyone has basic services like electricity, water and sewage.
"Don't think we're all like the accused," said another neighbour. "When you grind wheat to make flour, insects will come out with it too," she said.
All the children go to school every day. And as we were talking to neighbours I noticed three older boys listening. They all spoke perfect English, it turned out, and were doing business studies at a local college.
They would not have looked out of place among the many young people protesting over the rape in recent weeks.
Yes they knew some of the accused, but you should not assume we are all like them, they said. And it got me thinking about the many different realities to this story.
Along with many others, I have reported the middle class Indians, young and old who have been taking the lead.
The narrative has been - one I have gone with too - that these are the people standing up for a more liberal, open country. But there is plenty of evidence that India's wealthier, more educated classes can be just as sexist in their attitudes towards girls and women.
Every year, thousands of girls are aborted because of a traditional preference for sons - medical staff are bribed into revealing the sex of the child.
It is leading to an increasingly skewed ratio of women to men. And some of the worst figures are in rich south Delhi.
Just like in a small village, many middle class families also prefer a son to inherit their property. One of the many consequences of having fewer women is increased trafficking for forced marriage and prostitution - and so the cycle of abuse goes on.
And while India's Congress party-led government has condemned the gang rape and promised new fast-track courts to deal with it, no politician has addressed the wider cultural issues.
Yet something has also changed, in the questions people are asking, how they are acting.
During the week, I interviewed a woman who had survived a rape - and years after the attack is still struggling to get justice.
She joined the protests on the streets of Delhi too, where there were plenty of reports of men using the opportunity to grope women.
But she said she was also struck by how many young men intervened to protect her and her friends, forming a circle around them if anyone got too close.
Musicians and Bollywood film-makers are suddenly under pressure to justify songs and movies that portray women as sex objects.
Harrowing details from an interview the victim's friend has given about the attack and the way the authorities treated them may encourage even more soul-searching.
And one image sticks in my mind from these past weeks - an Indian man sitting at one of the protests with a candle at his feet, quietly showing solidarity with the brutally murdered girl.
And in front of him he had a placard which read: "Let us look at ourselves first."
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