A Year After the Delhi Gang Rape, Women Fight Back

Dec 05, 2013 at 12:03 PM ET

Roughly a year has passed since four men and a teenage boy gang-raped a 23-year-old student in Delhi, penetrating her with a metal rod, then dumping her body by the side of the road. The woman later died, and the perpetrators have since been sentenced to death, save for the juvenile who was given three years in a reformatory home—a verdict widely condemned as being too soft.

Nevertheless, a yellow, accusatory spotlight continues to linger on this sprawling city, and after nearly 12 months of protests and headlines, the question remains: Has the culture of silence and brutality that’s long plagued India, leading rape victims to feel shame and embarrassment rather than anger and injustice, finally begun to wane?

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It’s hard to know for sure, but there are hopeful signs. Because of legislation that passed last year, the definition of rape is no longer confined to intercourse, but also includes oral sex and fingering. But perhaps more importantly, in recent months, three women have chosen to speak out against prominent men in power, to come forward despite the assumptions and ramifications, and say what often goes unspoken: That they were raped, violated, assaulted, touched against their will.

In November a young journalist in her 20s went public with accusations that Tarun Tejpal, 50, the former editor-in chief of prominent news magazine, had forcibly tried to finger her and kiss her vagina in an elevator at a posh hotel in Goa, where he was hosting Robert De Niro and other celebrities for an intellectual gabfest.

The young woman was one of Tejpal’s employees and his daughter’s best friend. She later wrote to the magazine’s managing editor, a woman named Shoma Chaudhary, demanding an apology from Tejpal and the creation of a commission to look into his behavior among other female employees. Chaudhary, usually a stalwart of women’s causes, settled for Tejpal saying sorry and stepping down for six months—an offer he made in a letter.

That letter leaked to the media and the sordid saga went viral, eventually resulting in Tejpal’s arrest on rape charges and Chaudhary’s ignominious resignation. (Chaudhary denies that she was trying to cover anything up, but in her resignation letter wrote, “I accept that I could have done many things differently.”)

Far from being vilified, as is often the norm in these sorts of matters in India, the woman has been largely praised for speaking out, lauded as a hero.

“Perhaps the hardest part of this unrelentingly painful experience,” she wrote in a letter to the Hindustan Times, “has been my struggle with taxonomy. I don’t know if I am ready to see myself as a “rape victim,” for my colleagues, friends, supporters and critics to see me thus. It is not the victim that categorizes crimes: It is the law. And in this case, the law is clear: What Mr. Tejpal did to me falls within the legal definition of rape.”

It’s quite rare for someone to take on an employer in this manner, let alone a powerful man—an action that could have meant losing her job and brought on various forms of intimidation and harassment. This may have played on the woman’s mind, which is maybe why she first suggested an internal inquiry first.

Yet she wasn’t the only woman who has recently spoke out against a man in power. In a blog post several weeks ago, Stella James, a 22-year-old law intern, accused a former Supreme Court judge of sexual harassment at five-star hotel. The incident allegedly occurred in December 2012, right around the time that the Delhi rape protests intensified.

“For my supposed diligence,” James wrote, “I was rewarded with sexual assault (not physically injurious, but nevertheless violating) from a man old enough to be my grandfather. I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say that long after I’d left the room, the memory remained, in fact, still remains, with me.”

The judge, later identified as AK Ganguly, 66, denied the charges. But James has since said that her case wasn’t unique, that the same judge had harassed three other girls. Her revelation, followed by a media firestorm, has led India’s Supreme Court to set up an internal inquiry into the allegations, though some have called for a criminal complaint to be filed with the police.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court said there was prima facie evidence supporting James’ claim, but that it was up to her to press charges.

What has shocked the country most about the case against Ganguly is the age difference between him and his accuser, but that shock was nothing compared with the dismay many have expressed since August, when a 15-year-old girl came forward and accused the powerful and beloved Hindu guru Asaram Bapu, 72, of kissing her, taking off her clothes and demanding oral sex while he was naked in a closed room—all on the pretext of exorcising evil.

The girl, whose name hasn’t been released, has stuck by her story, despite invoking the wrath of his many followers. (Incidentally, Asaram Bapu advises them to renounce sex and runs a campaign against Valentines Day.)

All these men are innocent until proven guilty. But for many Indians, it’s quite extraordinary to see powerful men behind bars instead of watching them subvert the judicial and state machinery with their power and wealth.

Roughly a year after that horrific crime, it’s hard to be hopeful and find real signs of change, especially when an estimated 60 percent of sexual crimes go unreported and all too often the women are blamed. Even in the Delhi rape case, some wondered: What was an unmarried woman doing out at night with a man?

But signs of hope do exist. A journalist, a law intern and a 15-year-old girl have spoken out and given voice to the pain and trauma that so many before them have been forced to suffer in silence.