My niece was just 4 years old when she turned to my sister-in-law in a packed movie theater in Mumbai and asked about gang rape for the first time.
We were watching the latest Bollywood blockbuster about vigilante justice, nationalistic fervor and, of course, gang rape. Four male characters seized the hero’s sister and dragged her away. “Where are they taking Didi?” my niece asked, using the Hindi word for “elder sister”. It was dark, but I could still make out her tiny forehead, furrowed with concern.
Didi’s gang rape took place offscreen, but it didn’t need to be shown. As instinctively as a newborn fawn senses the mortal danger posed by a fox, little girls in India sense what men are capable of.
You may wonder, “Why take a 4-year-old to such a movie?” But there is no escaping India’s rape culture; sexual terrorism is treated as the norm. Society and government institutions often excuse and protect men from the consequences of their sexual violence. Women are blamed for being assaulted and are expected to sacrifice freedom and opportunity in exchange for personal safety. This culture contaminates public life — in movies and television; in bedrooms, where female sexual consent is unknown; in the locker room talk from which young boys learn the language of rape. India’s favorite profanities are about having sex with women without their consent.
It is the specific horror of gang rape that weighs most heavily on Indian women that I know. You may have heard of the many gruesome cases of women being gang-raped, disemboweled and left for dead. When an incident rises to national attention, the kettle of outrage boils over, and women sometimes stage protests, but it passes quickly. All Indian women are victims, each one traumatized, angry, betrayed, exhausted. Many of us think about gang rape more than we care to admit.
In 2011 a woman was raped every 20 minutes in India, according to government data. The pace quickened to about every 16 minutes by 2021, when more than 31,000 rapes were reported, a 20 percent increase from the previous year. In 2021, 2,200 gang rapes were reported to authorities.
Indian men may face persecution because they are Muslims, Dalits (untouchables) or ethnic minorities or for daring to challenge the corrupt powers that be. Indian women suffer because they are women. Soldiers need to believe that war won’t kill them, that only bad luck will; Indian women need to believe the same about rape, to trust that we will come back to the barracks safe each night, to be able to function at all.
Reports of violence against women in India have risen steadily over the decades, with some researchers citing a growing willingness by victims to come forward. Each rape desensitizes and prepares society to accept the next one, the evil becoming banal.
Gang rape is used as a weapon, particularly against lower castes and Muslims. The first instance that women my age remember was in 1980, when Phoolan Devi, a lower-caste teenager who had fallen in with a criminal gang, said she was abducted and repeatedly raped by a group of upper-caste attackers. She later came back with members of her gang and they killed 22 mostly upper-caste men. It was a rare instance of a brutalized woman extracting revenge. Her rape might never have made headlines without that bloody retribution.
Ms. Devi threw a spotlight on caste apartheid. The suffering of Bilkis Bano — the defining gang rape survivor of my generation — highlighted the boiling hatred that Indian institutions under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, have for Muslim women.
In 2002 brutal violence between Hindus and Muslims swept through Gujarat State. Ms. Bano, then 19 and pregnant, was gang raped by an angry Hindu mob, which also killed 14 of her relatives, including her 3-year-old daughter. Critics accuse Mr. Modi — Gujarat’s top official at the time — of turning a blind eye to the riots. He has not lost an election since.
Ms. Bano’s life took a different trajectory. She repeatedly moved houses after the assault, for her family’s safety. Last August, 11 men who were sentenced to life in prison for raping her were released — on the recommendation of a review committee stacked with members of Mr. Modi’s ruling party. After they were freed, they were greeted with flower garlands by Hindu right-wingers.
The timing was suspicious: Gujarat was to hold important elections a few months later, and Mr. Modi’s party needed votes. A member of his party explained that the accused, as upper-caste Brahmins, had “good” values and did not belong in prison. Men know these rules. They wrote the rule book. What’s most terrifying is that releasing rapists could very well be a vote-getter.
After Ms. Bano, there was the young physiotherapy student who in 2012 was beaten and raped on a moving bus and penetrated with a metal rod that perforated her colon before her naked body was dumped on a busy road in New Delhi. She died of her injuries. Women protested for days, and even men took part, facing water cannons and tear gas. New anti-rape laws were framed. This time was different, we naïvely believed.
It wasn’t. In 2018 an 8-year-old Muslim girl was drugged and gang raped in a Hindu temple for days and then murdered. In 2020 a 19-year-old Dalit girl was gang-raped and later died of her injuries, her spinal cord broken.
The fear, particularly of gang rape, never fully leaves us. We go out in groups, cover ourselves, carry pepper spray and GPS tracking devices, avoid public spaces after sunset and remind ourselves to yell “fire”, not “help” if attacked. But we know that no amount of precaution will guarantee our safety.
I don’t understand gang rape. Is it some medieval desire to dominate and humiliate? Do these men, with little power over others, feeling inadequate and ordinary, need a rush of power for a few minutes?
What I do know is that other men share the blame, the countless brothers, fathers, sons, friends, neighbors and colleagues who have collectively created and sustain a system that exploits women. If women are afraid, it is because of these men. It is a protection racket of epic proportions.
I’m not asking merely for equality. I want retribution. Recompense. I want young girls to be taught about Ms. Bano and Ms. Devi. I want monuments built for them. But men just want us to forget. The release of Ms. Bano’s rapists was about male refusal to commemorate our trauma.
So we build monuments with words and our memories. We talk to one another about gang rape, keeping it at the center of our lives. We try to explain to our youngest, to start protecting them.
This is how the history of the defeated is recorded. That’s what it all boils down to: a fight between forgetting and remembering.
Vidya Krishnan is an Indian journalist specializing in health issues and is the author of The Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History.