Sometimes photographs — even ones that go viral — aren’t worth a thousand words. Here’s what they won’t tell you.

June 15, 2014 5:00AM ET
by Neha Dixit, aljazeera

In a village called Badaun in the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh in India, two teenage girls, cousins, were gang-raped and hanged from a tree. One girl wore a bright orange tunic with purple pants; the other wore dark green. The silver embroidery on their clothes reflected the rays of the sun. Five men, including two police officers, have been arrested. Two others are absconding. When the girls’ families went to the local police station to report their daughters missing, the officer refused to register the complaint until angry protesters forced them to do so the next morning, May 29, when the bodies were discovered.

The girls, 14 and 15, had gone to the peppermint fields a 10-minute walk away at around 9 p.m., to relieve themselves as they always did. They were from a lower, landless caste, while their attackers were from the dominant landowning caste — the same as the recalcitrant police officer.

A horrific image of the two girls’ still-hanging bodies went viral, despite Indian media laws that prohibit revealing the identity of rape victims. But behind the photograph of this rape and rape in India in general is a plethora of forces — misogyny, caste prejudice, poverty and more. What follows is an attempt to explain some of them.

1. The caste system

In India the caste hierarchy originated with Hinduism and spread to other religions. Landowners usually belong to the upper caste, while the landless and workers come from the lower castes, a majority of whom are considered “untouchables.” They are not allowed to enter temples, sit, eat or share common resources such as wells and roads with the upper castes. Dalit is a broad term used for the so-called “untouchable” community in India.

Despite a reservations system in government institutions for those belonging to lower castes since India gained independence in 1947, they have struggled to overcome a long history of oppression. Land reforms, a top priority during the freedom struggle, are a long-lost dream. They were meant to break up large feudal landholdings and divide surplus land among the poor, landless lower castes. Lower-caste women are still subjected to sexual atrocities by the dominant upper-caste employers. Casteism is so entrenched in certain sections of society that a judge dismissed a case of rape against a Dalit by a group of upper-caste men on the grounds that “an upper caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower caste woman,” as happened in the widely debated Bhanwari Devi case. A lower-caste social worker, she was gang-raped by upper-caste men in retaliation for her public opposition to child marriage.

2. Migration

According to the 2011 census, 30 percent of the Indian population are migrants. Because of an agrarian crisis, a rising population and urban-centric development policies, the tide of mass rural-to-urban migration is surging. With skyrocketing rents and inadequate infrastructure in the cities, migrants are forced to live in ghettos and slums devoid of basic amenities like water and electricity. A lack of community support allows for more instances of brutality against women.

Migrant women primarily work as daily wage laborers, construction workers and domestic help, often in exploitative circumstances, which leaves them vulnerable to sexual abuse. Migration can also lead to the trafficking of women for commercial sex exploitation or forced labor. According to by a widely publicized report by a former top cop, P.M. Nair, 75 percent of the victims of trafficking are tricked into it by the promise of a lucrative job. Migrant women are quick to take the bait and are instead sold off at brothels or to placement agencies. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 100,000 trafficked children were rescued from domestic work in 2011–12, a rise of almost 27 percent from the previous year. The figures could run into several hundred thousand if women above 18 are included in the data. The National Commission for Women receives complaints of eight cases of murder of household help every day from all over the country. Most are sexually abused before they are killed, according to the same report. The Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act, which mandates decent working conditions for domestic workers, has been pending in parliament since 2010. With no legal framework for proper wages and a suitable work environment, housemaids economically dependent on employers can end up as sex slaves without the means to report abuse to the police.

For migrant men who come from rural areas where the woman’s place is in the home, this works the other way around. According to a 2010 International Labour Organization report, the female workforce in the Indian capital, New Delhi, doubled from 1995 to 2010. The graph is still moving upward. This gives working women not only socioeconomic independence but also more visibility and participation in public spaces — traditionally a male prerogative. Rape then becomes a weapon to reclaim power. The December 2012 survivor popularly known as Nirbhaya was gang-raped in a moving bus at 9:30 at night by five migrant men.

Indian university students at a protest in New Delhi in December 2012.

Indian university students protest the New Delhi gang rape in December 2012.
Raveendran / AFP / Getty Images

3. Public spaces

In India, most public spaces are occupied by men. In a patriarchal society, many consider women out in public spaces to be either for male consumption or defiant creatures who need to be taught a lesson through sexual harassment. A 2011 survey conducted by Jagori, an Indian women’s empowerment group, shows that 42 percent of women in Delhi were harassed both physically and verbally while waiting for public transport.

Similarly, 50 percent of women in Delhi found the lack of access to clean and safe toilets a hindrance to their accessing public spaces. Even in big cities like Mumbai, for instance, there are half as many public toilets for women as for men, and most of them close at 9 p.m., unlike the men’s toilets, which are open all night. The two girls in Badaun were raped when they had gone out to the agricultural fields to relieve themselves. The government funds doled out to construct toilets under the sanitation campaign in Badaun were instead used to construct rooms in people’s houses. The villagers said that constructing a rain-proof roof over their heads, which they could not otherwise afford, was a bigger priority than constructing a toilet. According to a 2013 report by Water Aid America, 300 million women and girls all over India defecate in the open. A large majority belong to the poor lower castes in rural areas, who cannot afford a toilet. A recent study, “Danger, Disgust and Indignity,” suggests that in 2013, 400 women and girls in Bihar, another northern state, were raped when they had gone out to defecate.

Members of the All India Democratic Women's Association after a May 31 protest in New Delhi against the gang rape of two teenage girls.

Members of the All India Democratic Women’s Association after a May 31 protest in New Delhi against the gang rape of two teenage girls.
Altaf Qadri / AP

4. Moral policing

On Jan. 24, 2009, 40 activists of a Hindu right-wing group entered a pub in Mangalore in southern India andassaulted women for consuming alcohol. This anger is in line with a patriarchal society in which the bodies of women are the repositories of culture and family “honor.”

The Rashtra Sevika Samiti, a powerful Hindu women’s group, claims that Indian women “are not feminists, we are family-ists,” and motherhood must be a woman’s ultimate goal. They regularly counsel victims of domestic abuse to compromise instead of breaking the family structure. Similarly, caste-based village councils, known as Khap panchayats, have banned women in the northern states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh from using cellphones, getting educated or choosing a marriage partner. They issue frequent diktats of honor killings and gang rapes against those who defy them, or they impose a socioeconomic boycott on the woman’s entire extended family, which can be reversed only after a heavy penalty.

Indian acid attack survivor Sonali Mukherjee adjusts her headscarf in 2012. When Mukherjee rejected the advances of three of her fellow students, they responded by melting her face with acid. But rather than hide herself away, the 27-year-old applied to appear on India's most watched TV quiz show — and walked away a millionaire.
Indian acid attack survivor Sonali Mukherjee adjusts her headscarf in 2012. When Mukherjee rejected the advances of three of her fellow students, they responded by melting her face with acid. But rather than hide herself away, the 27-year-old applied to appear on India’s most watched TV quiz show — and walked away a millionaire.
Sajjad Hussain / AFP / Getty Images

Acid attacks on women by jilted lovers are an extension of these beliefs: Women who use their agency against the male order must be punished. According to Acid Survivors Trust International, a U.K.-based organization that works to end acid and burn violence, 1,000 acid attacks take place every year in India. In some rural and tribal areas, women who turn down sexual advances or challenge patriarchal norms are paraded naked, tied to a tree and lynched. Nearly 200 women are killed every year after being branded “witches.”

5. Sex education

The newly elected government, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, is opposed to sex education. In 2009 a parliamentary committee, headed by BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu, recommended that “there should be no sex education in schools” and said sex before marriage is “immoral, unethical and unhealthy.” In 2007, Harsh Vardhan, now the minister for health and family welfare in the new government, said, “The curriculum prepared in the name of sex education is so much obscene and filthy that the teachers, lady teachers feel shy reading it.” He went on to say that if it were to be introduced, girl students would drop out of school.

Sex education is largely seen as a Western-influenced practice that would pervert Indian morality. Yet sex ed is vital for juvenile boys, who may have distorted notions of sex and consent through pornography. In a recent case, a 14-year-old boy sexually assaulted a 6-year-old girl in Ghaziabad district, bordering Delhi. The girl sustained several injuries. He was booked for rape and assault.

In India, showing pornography to a child is a criminal offense. Bhuwan Ribhu, the national secretary of the childhood advocacy nonprofit Bachpan Bachao Andolan, who interviewed to the 14-year-old-boy, says that he committed the assault after watching pornography on his mobile phone, and that such incidents have increased in the past five years. “Pornography is readily available over the counters in the form of DVDs and on the cellphones,” he says. Ribhu thinks there is a lack of awareness about sexual crimes among children. “Children are not informed about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’… There needs to be a massive drive at the school level, to educate children.”

The National Crime Records Bureau reveals that last year, 1,316 juvenile boys were booked for rape. In the Nirbhaya gang-rape case, the brutal act of inserting a rod into the victim’s vagina was committed by a 17-year-old — a juvenile.

6. Property rights

Despite the passage of the Hindu Succession Act of 2005, which provides equal inheritance rights to ancestral and jointly owned property, it is not strictly enforced, depriving women of their rightful inheritance. According to sociological research, this is partly responsible for the widespread problem of sex-selective abortions in India. It is estimated that 700,000 unborn girls are killed in India every year through sex-selective abortions; India has a sex ratio of 940 females to 1,000 males.

Rita Banerji, author of “Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies” and a women’s right activist, links the unequal sex ratio to property rights. She says, “Even in the colonial times, it is the rich landlords in Punjab who had the most worrying sex ratio … As higher education amongst women rises, the sex ratio falls, because [the] patriarchal order does not approve of wealthier women or women controlling family wealth.”

In conservative northern Indian states such as Haryana, the low sex ratio (879 females per 1,000 males) often results in young girls from poor families being trafficked as brides and used as sex slaves by the male members of the family.

Poor implementation of women’s property rights renders them financially dependent on their families. In incestuous rape cases, for instance, women are unable to leave because too often they depend on their rapists to support them. India still does not recognize marital rape.

7. Sectarian violence

Hindu-Muslim communal riots during the partition of India in 1947, and the 1992 riots after the Hindu right demolished Babri Masjid, an ancient mosque in Uttar Pradesh (also the state where Badaun is located), set a gruesome precedent for systematic rapes. Women’s bodies were used as proxies for combat to establish the supremacy of one religion over the other. In 2002, when the now–prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, close to 2,000 Muslims were killed during riots. The number of acts of sexual violence has never been pinned down. Women were gang-raped, their bodies were mutilated and then burned, to destroy the evidence. In one of the most horrific attacks of that period, a pregnant Muslim woman had her belly slashed by Babu Bajrangi, the head of the Hindu right-wing group Bajrang Dal. He then allegedly took out the fetus, holding it aloft on a sword.

Last September, too, sectarian violence broke out in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh. Though only seven cases of gang rape were officially registered, hundreds of women were gang-raped, sodomized and brutally assaulted. While women are the immediate victims of rape, the act serves to suppress the communities to which they belong — caste, nation and religion. Thus the rapists threaten not just the women but, through them, their entire community.


A group of women stand naked outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force in Imphal on July 15, 2004, to protest the killing of Thangjam Manorama, a suspected member of the insurgent group People’s Liberation Army.
A group of women stand naked outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force in Imphal on July 15, 2004, to protest the killing of Thangjam Manorama, a suspected member of the insurgent group People’s Liberation Army.
 AFP/Getty Images

The origins of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) lie in colonial times. It was introduced by the British in 1942 as an ordinance to suppress the Quit India movement by freedom fighters. It is currently imposed in the seven northern states, including Jammu and Kashmir, which borders Pakistan. The act allows armed forces in disturbed areas to use force or to fire without warning, even if it causes death; search premises without warning; and arrest people without warrants. Most important, it provides legal immunity to armed forces for all their actions. In 1991, 53 women were allegedly raped by army personnel during a search interrogation operation in Kunan Poshpora village in Kashmir. The Indian government called the accusation “baseless” in the face of criticism from a number of international human rights watchdogs. No one from the army was ever charged.

Such misuse of AFSPA by army personnel against women is commonplace. In the northeastern states, the first such case to be reported in the media was in 1974, when a teenage girl from the state of Nagaland committed suicide after being raped by an army officer in front of village elders and left a note blaming the army. Cases like that never made the national news, however, until 2004, when a group of 30 outraged old women in the state of Manipur marched naked through the capital, Imphal, to the army headquarters with a banner reading “Indian army, rape us” to protest the rape and murder of a young girl, Thangjam Manorama, after she was picked up for interrogation by the Indian army.

The protest made international headlines, and in its wake a committee was formed to evaluate AFSPA; it recommended that the act be made more “humane.” The promised amendment in the law is still pending. In March 2012, the United Nations asked India to revoke AFSPA, calling it undemocratic and draconian. In the newly elected BJP government, a former army chief was appointed as the minister for seven northeastern states under AFSPA.

9. Politics

Women are very poorly represented in the Indian political system, making up only 11 percent in parliament. There is a women’s reservation bill that was passed by the upper house of the Parliament in 2010, but it has been pending with the lower house ever since. If passed, it would ensure a 33 percent reservation for women in parliament.

People gather at the tree where the victims of the Badaun gang rape were found hanging.
People gather at the tree where the victims of the Badaun gang rape were found hanging.
 Burhaan Kinu / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, then, sexist and misogynist remarks by parliamentarians and political leaders never fail to lace debates around gender violence. A minister from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Babu Lal Gaur, from the BJP, said while discussing Badaun, “Rapes are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.” The head of the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, said, “Boys commit mistakes. But should they be hanged for it?” Abu Azmi, a Samajwadi Party leader from the state of Maharashtra, said, “Under Islam, rape is punishable … any woman if, whether married or unmarried, goes along with a man, with or without consent, should be hanged.” Twenty-one percent of the newly elected parliamentarians have serious criminal cases against them, including crimes against women.

10. Laws and reforms

Following the December 2012 gang rape and subsequent mass protests, the Justice Verma Committee was formed to review rape laws. Among its recommendations were police reforms and rehabilitative measures for survivors. The committee also insisted on the need for gender sensitization of the police, dominated by male officers and governed by archaic colonial laws, and for the recruiting of more women officers. In September 2012, a low-caste woman from the northern state of Haryana was gang-raped. In April 2013, she was imprisoned for 10 days on charges of perjury. She had withdrawn her statement against the rapists because of an economic boycott by the upper-caste council on her family. Her family members worked as agricultural laborers. With no financial help from the government, she and her family, who were dependent on the upper-caste landowners for their livelihood, had to withdraw the case in exchange of employment. According to the National Commission for Women, a rape survivor receives up to 200,000 rupees (US$3,350) within a period of one year of filing a police report. This amount is too little and comes too late to fight a never-ending legal battle against rapists. The conviction rate in rape cases across India is an abysmal 26 percent.


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