Women become targets in clash of old and new

Women become targets in clash of old and new

The young lovers met at a secluded spot in Ghaziabad next to a field of wheat at the edge of this sprawling suburb of New Delhi, where the timeless India of mustard fields and bullock carts abuts the frantically rising apartment towers of the budding middle class. They went seeking solitude, but instead found themselves at the violent cusp of old India and new.

There, according to the police, five drunken young men from a nearby farming village accosted the couple last month, beating the young man and gang-raping the woman. It was the latest in a series of brutal sexual assaults and gang rapes of women in India’s booming capital and its sprawling suburbs.

In each case there has been an explosive clash between the rapidly modernising city and the embattled, conservative village culture upon which the capital increasingly encroaches. The victims are almost invariably young, educated working women who are enjoying freedom unknown even a decade ago. The accused are almost always young high school dropouts from surrounding villages, where women who work outside the home are often seen as lacking in virtue and therefore deserving of harassment and even rape. “If these girls roam around openly like this, then the boys will make mistakes,” the mother of two of those accused in the rape said in an interview, refusing to give her name.

It is a deeply ingrained attitude that has made New Delhi, by almost any measure, the most dangerous large city in India for women. The rate of reported rape is nearly triple that of Mumbai, and 10 times higher than Kolkata, according to government records. A survey completed last year by the government and several women’s rights groups found that 80 per cent of women had faced verbal harassment in Delhi and that almost a third had been physically harassed by men.

Sweeping social changes

The attackers often do not see their actions as crimes, the police said, and do not expect the women they attack to report them. “They have no doubt that they will get away with it,” said HGS Dhaliwal, a deputy police commissioner in New Delhi who has investigated several such cases. India’s economy is expected to grow 9 per cent this year, and its extended boom has brought sweeping social change. The number of women in the workforce has roughly doubled in the past 15 years.

Law enforcement officials say that the rate of violent crime against women has actually dropped in Delhi in the past four years, owing to more aggressive policing efforts, measures like women-only train cars and laws that require companies that employ women on late shifts to chauffeur them home. But a vast majority of crimes against women go unreported, the police and women’s activists say. The clash between the increasingly cosmopolitan city and its traditional surroundings is worsening, they say. “There is a lot of tension between the people who are traditional in their mindset and the city that is changing so quickly,” said Ranjana Kumari, a leading women’s rights advocate.

“Men are not used to seeing so many women in the country occupying public spaces.”
In few places is that conflict as evident as here in Ghaziabad, which sits at the eastern edge of New Delhi, a metastasising mega city. The farmland where the young couple met represents an invisible but indelible dividing line. There is no question to which side the young couple belonged. The man was an engineer at a high tech company with a salary good enough to afford him a motorbike and a laptop computer.

Their attackers lived in the village of Raispur, less than a mile from the tidy complex where the young man shared an apartment with his parents, but they belong to an altogether different India. None of them managed to graduate from high school. The narrow lanes of their sleepy village are redolent of cow dung; every home, it seems, has a few cattle or buffaloes, many of them living in pens within residents’ houses. Unlike the growing ranks of professional women in the city on their doorstep, the women of Raispur live hemmed-in lives, covering their faces with shawls in front of strangers and seldom roaming beyond the village. Seema Chowdhury, 20, the sister of one of the accused men, graduated from high school. But when she tried to enroll in college to become a teacher, her brothers refused to allow it. Young women who wander too far face many dangers, they argued. “I wanted to do something in my life. But they thought it was not a good idea,” she said.

Unimaginable freedom

In comparison, the young woman who was raped here had unimaginable freedom. She had a job as an accountant at a garment factory and her own cellphone and e-mail account. Using those, she carried on a secret romance with a young man she met online despite the fact that her parents had arranged for her to be married to someone else, according to the police. Vijay Kumar Singh, a senior police official here who investigated the rape, said that on February 5 a young man came into his police station to report that his cellphone and laptop had been stolen.

When the young man claimed they had been snatched near some isolated farmland at the edge of the city, Singh became suspicious: it was an unlikely place for a robbery. He pressed for details, and eventually the young man admitted taking his girlfriend to the secluded area so they could be alone, and that five men had beaten him and raped her. Based on the description, the police quickly identified one attacker as a village tough named Tony from Raispur with whom the police had tangled before.

When they picked up Tony, who goes by one name, he was still drunk, Singh said. “He was so shameless that he narrated the whole thing without any sense of remorse,” he said. Tony later denied that he had raped the woman, according to the police report.

Tony had apparently assumed that the rape victim would not come forward because the shame would be too great. Singh feared that he was right. “I realised from the beginning that the girl would not help us,” he said. The police arrested the five young men and charged them with rape and robbery. They tried repeatedly to get the young woman to come forward. The city’s police chief sent her an e-mail asking her to cooperate and offering to protect her identity.

She sent a curt e-mail reply, the police said: “The police will not be able to restore my honour.” The police approached her father, and he urged her to cooperate, said Raghubir Lal, Ghaziabad’s police chief. But the next morning her brother found her trying to hang herself, Lal said. The police decided to stop pressing her to cooperate.

Singh, the officer who first investigated the rape, said that with no physical evidence or victim’s testimony, the rape charge would not stand. The police and women’s advocates say that successful convictions are central to changing attitudes that tolerate sexual assault.