On family trips to Chennai, India over the course of thirty-some years, one of the most annoying aspects of my packing ritual has been figuring out what clothes to bring to India. Even as an adult female, I run my clothing selections past my mother, who is old-school Indian, quick to veto certain items like tank tops, which would be commonplace at American schools and workplaces, as “too revealing.”

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The purpose of dramatically curbing my clothing choices while in India was to cut down the leering that I’ve always seen as a mild form of sexual harassment that is pervasive in Chennai and common enough in America.

I followed my mother’s opinion about clothing to reduce the leers. How I dressed bolstered my feeling, and my mother’s, that I could make myself safer from the threat of sexual violence. I was a good girl and if the rest of the world knew that, nothing bad could happen to me.

Wrong.

Jyoti Singh Pandey and her male friend left a screening of the blockbuster Life Of Pi and boarded a charter bus in New Delhi that night. A gang of five men and a boy harassed Jyoti, asking her what she was doing out at nine at night. Both Jyoti and her friend were beaten with an iron bar and Jyoti was raped for forty-five minutes.

Jyoti, and her friend were “dumped naked” in the street. Jyoti’s friend carried her into the police vehicle himself because the New Delhi police claimed she was bleeding too much. At the hospital, they waited to be seen and Jyoti’s friend had to beg for clothes. Doctors discovered damage to Jyoti’s internal organs so savage her intestines had to be removed. She died sixteen days after the rape. Protests and rallies began and they continued daily for weeks. Police blasted protestors with water cannons and fire tear gas, but the people kept protesting.

Many Indian politicians responded callously, both to the crime and the subsequent protests. President Pranab Mukherjee’s son, Abhijeet Mukherjee called the brave women who had come out to protest in Delhi “highly dented-painted.” The rest of the world expressed shock and outrage.

Why Did This Rape Get So Much Attention?

Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American journalist born in Mumbai, has called the protests “India’s Arab Spring,” a claim that seems both catchy yet short on objectivity and real insight. These were unusually big protests, noteworthy for cutting across class and gender lines, but India has a history of protest. Zakaria did not respond to my request for a comment.

Why has this particular rape engendered such frenzy? According to Western media coverage, Jyoti’s rape happened because India is a “rape culture,” a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common, a patriarchal culture in which misogyny runs rampant. In this story, the victimized women in India have suddenly woken up to this fact. I don’t believe that this is a useful interpretation of what’s happened.

Jyoti’s rape has caught our attention because it was brutal. In its brutality, it is an exception, not a rule. Rape may be common in India, but rapes with this degree of savagery are not. We can all identify with Jyoti, a student coming home from a movie. Many of us can identify with a father who encourages his daughter’s ambition and spirit. What happened to her challenges the story that Indians have been able to tell themselves about rape.

India can’t blame this victim. The cultural myth has been that sexual violence doesn’t happen to good girls, that if women follow certain social rules, they will be safe. Jyoti’s rape exposes this myth, one that’s so pervasive it influences how I pack clothes in America, as a lie.

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An Israeli study of rape myths, by Yael Idisis, Sarah Ben-David, and Efrat Ben-Nachum titled “Attribution of Blame to Rape Victims among Therapists and Non-therapists” and published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law in February 2007 found that, “attribution of blame helps to reinforce the casual observer’s belief that the world is a safe, protected place, and that occurrences such as rape can be controlled.” The insensitive remarks that follow a rape have more to do with self-defense than callous misogyny. Believing that victims did not take precautions against attacker’s sexual impulses lets you differentiate yourself from them; it allows you to feel safer.

Are the Protests Meaningful?

Of note, Professor Raka Ray of the UC Berkeley sociology department, an expert on the women’s movement and the history of protest in India, connects these protests not to the women’s rights movement, but to the urban middle class driven by rage at the overall failure of governance “that emerged in Delhi in the wake of the Jessica murder case and even more so, the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement.”

Ray explains her more cautious interpretation of the protests, noting two disturbing features of them. First, many protestors treat “rape as a crime worse than death,” which is not the diminished stigma that the women’s movement in India fought for. Second, many of the protestors seem motivated by a lust for revenge. “Nooses abound,” she says.

In spite of her misgivings she also said, “I do think something has been pried open, and young girls in towns and cities across India are questioning their lack of safety and the equation between appropriate behavior and protection. For the first time, the [Indian] media is coming out as clearly rejecting the stance that in order to be safe girls must be indoors or not out at night. This is a very important development.”

Journalist Sonia Faleiro who grew up in New Delhi and wrote the critically acclaimed book about Bombay sex bars “Beautiful Thing,” was also pessimistic about the long-term effects of the protests. However, she agreed with me about the hope they offer and the astonishing effect of social media, saying,

“Social media was big in organizing groups of protests, but also in warning protestors of where police were getting aggressive, which roads were closed, subway stations shut down and so forth. It served to inspire, to mobilize, but also to protect those it brought together. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Like other Indians I’ve spoken to, she believes that this will bring about “specific, much needed changes in how the law looks at rape and how cops react to and address reports of rape.”

While some sources dismiss the impact of the protests, noting that protesters are by and large urban, educated middle-class Indians, when you look at the images, it seems like these protests cut across class lines. Notably, men are protesting, too. The older politicians are not necessarily representative of the direction India is going, only where it has been. There is a real opportunity here if young Indians who make up 2/3 of India’s population take up this cause over a sustained period. It seems unlikely that will happen if they look to the West for answers.

The impulse towards self-protection, the desire to distinguish ourselves from a victim and her rapists, is so strong cross-culturally, that even progressive magazines like Salon or Alternet, are quick to run op-eds that suggest what happened is unique to India. Indian-Americans have joined in, writing pieces about how India needs to change that suggest these kinds of events are commonplace in India but not in the United States. The implication is that Jyoti’s rape could never happen anywhere but India. This is again a kind of victim-blaming, a way for Americans to feel safer that doesn’t produce real, lasting, positive change.

A Comparison of American and Indian Rape Culture

To see America’s rape culture on display, you need only know about the Steubenville rape. Last August, a sixteen-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by two players on a Steubenville, Ohio high school football team known as Big Red. Boys urinated on her and dragged her around by her wrists and ankles. Rather than stop these appalling proceedings, viewers tweeted and posted using words like “rape” and “drunk girl” and “dead girl.” It took the work of a crime blogger, who got sued for her troubles, and the hacker “Anonymous” to bring this crime to America’s attention early this year.

Are Americans as willing as Indians are to identify with a victim of rape, to call her their daughter, to march for her? Four months after the crime, the New York Times covered it. The video of her rape has gone viral, but the “Occupy Steubenville” rally has gotten only a little attention and has not become an issue of the middle-class across America the way Jyoti’s rape has become an issue for the middle-class of India.

According to the FBI, there were an estimated at 84,767 forcible rapes reported to law enforcement in the United States in 2010 (54.2 forcible rapes per 100,000 female inhabitants). A rape occurs in the United States every 2 minutes, and 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail. A rape occurs in India, a country with a population four times the size of the United States, every twenty-two minutes.

A comparison of numbers might be reassuring to Indians and might produce incredulity on the part of defensive Americans, but it shouldn’t fool either India or America. The impossibility of persuasively comparing the two statistics lies in the enormous differences between the two cultures not just in matters of gender, but every other aspect of daily life except the frightening prevalence of negative attitudes towards women. These negative attitudes are especially on display toward women who dare to believe they are equal.

Reporting rapes is stigmatized in both countries. However, America has been a democracy for more than two centuries and a well-organized superpower for years. India has been a democracy for less than a century, has a much more open culture of misogyny, and seems to just be getting its sea legs. It’s clear that either rape or reporting rape or both are on the rise: rape cases in India have jumped almost 875% over the past forty years from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011.

India’s legal system is frankly a corrupt mess for all crimes, not just rape. Professor Ray says that the “rape laws in India are not bad. The problem is lack of access, insensitive police, and a still dominant narrative about the kind of person who gets raped. Thus, while the protestors are demanding that these cases be fast tracked, it is more important that the narrative be changed so that acquittals are more rare. In short, there is clearly an opportunity here.”

Creating a Better Society for Women

Based on statistics at least, there is no truly solid model for India to follow in the West; rather than eradicate victim blaming, the path in America and the U.K. has been mixed at best. In spite of the bluster of U.S. and British news organizations, just over two decades ago before rape shield laws were enacted, America, too, openly blamed victims. India must forge its own path at making life better for women.

Jyoti was somebody’s daughter, but these men are somebodies’ sons, too. Supposedly they were upwardly mobile rural men, but their class was irrelevant; in the Kolkata, Park Street rape, the rapists were smart, affluent men. At least one of the men that was charged in Jyoti’s rape was somebody’s husband: a woman who told a New York Times blogger she can’t believe he would rape someone. Regardless of race or class, this is exactly what we would all say about our husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers if asked.

In the West, research has found that rape is not about sex. While there is no one explanation for sexual violence, the Nicholas Groth typology offers three motivations for rape: anger, power, and sadism. He also notes that gang rape is sometimes seen as a punishment to women, where the perpetrators (like the ones in this case) do not believe what they have done is a crime at all. They think the women are asking to be punished by pursuing the same equal opportunities as men.

Parents, regardless of the discomfort it creates, need to talk to their sons. They need to make sure that their sons know regardless of class or clothing or behavior, women are equal in every respect, deserving of empathy, respect, and power over their bodies. While this reeducation starts at home, it needs to be reinforced in education, in police training, in expedient rape trials, and in what kind of defense attorneys are able to present at trials. No attorney should be able to present the legal argument with its embedded narrative that a woman “asked for it,” regardless of race, class, or prior behavior.

Save for the candlelight vigils of the Take Back the Night Movement that you can catch today on a rerun of the dated teen soap Beverly Hills 90210, the United States mainstream is relatively silent about American rape culture today, just as most of India usually is. Yet every second of every minute of every day in the world, women both similar to Jyoti Singh Pandey and nothing like her are getting raped. Bravo to the heroic protesters in India for expressing outrage at this terrifyingly ordinary fact about our world.

Anita Felicelli is a writer and attorney who lives in the Bay Area. She is the author of the novel “Sparks Off You” and other books.

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