A group of female engineering students in India has unveiled a new electrified bra to protect women from getting raped. The bra, according to reports, not only shocks the attacker the moment its pressure sensors get activated; its built-in GPS also alerts police and the victim’s parents to the location where the attack is taking place. The designers of the bra, which is called Society Harnessing Equipment, or SHE for short, eventually hope to connect it with smart phones via Bluetooth and infrared technology.
I am sure the female engineering students in Chennai who designed this piece of lingerie did it with the best of intentions, following the national uproar that was generated by the rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi last December, and several other well-publicized rapes that have occurred in the country since then. (Not to mention around the world—just this week in Brazil, an American tourist was gang raped for six hours on a mini bus in Rio de Janeiro.)
The fact that the engineers felt it necessary to design such a bra shows that Indian women have little faith in the sweeping rape law the Indian government passed last month to protect women against sexual violence. India has never had trouble enacting laws, just enforcing them. And as every Indian knows, any law can be bypassed by greasing the right person’s palm. Why should the rape law be any different?
And how can you blame women for not expecting much from the law? The practice of dowry (money or property brought by a bride to her husband at marriage) is still almost endemic in India, despite the fact that an anti-dowry law was passed in 1961. In 2010, there were 8,391 reported cases of dowry deaths—young women who were murdered or driven to suicide by their husbands or their in-laws for not bringing in an adequate dowry—according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Women’s rights activists say that for every dowry death reported, there are dozens that go unreported. Of the reported cases in 2010, only one-third of the perpetrators were convicted.
The majority of rapists, too, get off scot-free. And not just in India.
In most African countries, rape convictions are not common. Worse, affected women don’t get immediate access to medical care, and DNA tests to provide evidence are unaffordable. Which is perhaps why two years ago in South Africa, Dr. Sonnet Ehlers designed a female condom with “teeth” to it. Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line the inside of the latex condom and attach to a man’s penis during penetration. Once Rape-aXe,—as the condom is called—lodges in the penis, only a doctor can surgically remove it. While doing it, the doctor can summon law officials to arrest the man.
But if the electrified bra and the condom with “teeth” are meant to empower women, these inventions only show the state of women’s powerlessness—and their lack of faith in laws meant to protect them.
India’s new rape law, which, in addition to harsher sentences for rape and acid attacks, criminalizes “eve-teasing” which, as Lavanya Sankaran points out in a column in The Guardian, is a “coy and euphemistic name for the sexual harassment—the stalking, groping and lewd comments—that every Indian woman is forced to navigate every time she walks out of her home.”
The law also expands the definition of rape and clearly states that the absence of physical struggle doesn’t equal consent. And no longer will misogynist police officers be able to not register complaints and compromise survivors’ rights during investigations.
All of that sounds wonderful, but is the law really going to protect women? Not until there is a change in culture, beginning with the way mothers and fathers teach their sons to be men. After all, as Sankaran notes, social pressure in India is far more powerful than any law.
The solution is not to get women to buy a new high-tech kind of rape whistle. The mindset of men must change, and the change has to begin at home.
Viji Sundaram is New America Media’s Health Editor/Writer. Before joining NAM in 2006 Viji was a general assignment reporter with India-West, a national weekly published in San Leandro, CA. While there, Viji won eight journalism awards, five from the South Asian Journalism Association and three from New California Media.