2014 has begun with a shocking spate of attacks against women in India. Earlier this month, a 51-year-old Danish tourist was robbed, beaten and gang-raped in the national capital after getting lost and asking for directions. In Haridwar, a holy city in the northern state of Uttarkhand, a 13-year-old Dalit girl, belonging to India’s “untouchable” caste, was gang-raped, tortured and killed. In West Bengal last week a 20-year-old woman was publicly gang-raped as a punishment, ordered by a council of elders, for her illicit relationship with a local man.
Brutal attacks on women are reported daily in India’s press. These reports come in the wake of the horrific Delhi gang-rape case, a watershed moment that shook the country’s collective conscience and forced Indians to confront the endemic problem of violence against women. Since then people the world over have asked what, if anything, has changed? Laws were reformed, fast-track courts were established, gender-sensitivity training was ordered for police officers and government funds were made available for victims. As Naomi Wolf notes, unrelenting media attention and more vocal advocacy by campaigners and survivors are reasons for optimism. But these latest attacks expose India’s continued failure to ensure women’s safety.
The community-sanctioned gang rape in West Bengal, which occurred in the state’s rural hinterland, took place beyond the reach of the state. As one villager, whose husband has been detained for allegedly gang-raping the victim, said, “This is our way. We don’t go to the police. If there is a problem, we settle it among ourselves.” Such village councils govern vast swatches of India, and mercilessly hand out punishments, including rape and murder, to women judged to have transgressed local mores.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Tackling “community justice,” and the moral and social codes that it enforces, poses complex challenges that encompass governance and law and order.
What has India’s government done to ensure women’s safety? Earlier this month a new handgun, manufactured by the state-run Indian Ordinance Factory, was unveiled. Small, lightweight, and easily concealed, the .32-calibre six-shot revolver is being marketed as the country’s first gun “for women,” and comes packaged in a bejeweled maroon case. “Indian women like their ornaments,” said Abdul Hameed, the factory’s general manager, to the BBC.
Engraved on one side is the word “Nirbheek,” Hindi for “fearless,” a tactless tribute to Nirbhaya, the name given to the Delhi gang-rape victim. The association has outraged many, who accuse the manufacturer of attempting to profit from the “frustration, fear and anger” that violence against women provokes. The guns are being sold as means by which women can empower themselves. But at more than 122,000 rupees ($1953; £1189), the gun comes at a cost that lower-class and generally lower-caste women, disproportionate victims of sexual violence, cannot afford.
Weapons are of little use in India’s public spaces, where armed security guards with metal detectors man the entrances to offices, shopping malls and markets. Private spaces are equally unsafe. As Mari Thekaekera, writing in The New Internationalist asks, will guns defend women in their homes, against attackers who are relatives or acquaintances?
This counter-productive, laissez-faire tokenism is familiar India. Last year, in a publicity stunt aimed at capitalizing on the gender-equality movement, the far-right Shiv Sena party issued 10,000 small blades to women in Mumbai.
Arming women raises a number of dangerous questions: Is the state advocating violence in the face of violence? Should the guns be used as a deterrent or for self-defense? And what happens if an owner shoots her attacker? As campaigners warn, using the gun for self-defense may leave women in a criminality trap: victims are often denied recourse, with shockingly low rates of prosecution and conviction for crimes against women. But should a woman defend herself with a gun, she is likely to spend the rest of her life in prison for murder.
In a country where women are raped every 22 minutes, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, Kaavya Asoka warns that arming women will give attackers yet another weapon to use against their victims. According to Gunpolicy.org, outside of the United States, India has the largest number of privately owned firearms in the world. A U.S.-based study by Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center found that “Women in states with many guns have elevated rates of [gun-related] deaths.” This is true of India. As Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of India’s Women Gun Survivors Network, explains, data from across eight states suggests “a person is 12 times more likely to be shot dead if they are carrying a gun when attacked.”
Ensuring the safety of citizens is a responsibility of the government, but the release of the “Nirbheek” handguns makes this responsibility an individual one. The guns represent a market solution to a social problem, one that fails to address “the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny” that fuels attacks on women. The struggle to end violence against women is not about making women safe on the streets, but about making the streets safe for women. As Nepram argues, guns enhance risks for female victims, making the state-sponsored guns an “admission of failure” on the issue of women’s safety.