A year ago, in Delhi’s dark December of 2012, 24-year-old Natasha Raghuvanshi was on Rajpath, occupying the streets with thousands of other angry young people, carrying with her the memory of being stalked, flashed at, and groped while returning home from college. Aswathy Senan, a 27-year-old Delhi University student, was there because it seemed to be “the last straw” — “the accumulated anger and helplessness” of many Indian women had reached “a breaking point”.
For several of the people who spilled on to Delhi streets in anguish at the gangrape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old woman on December 16 last year, the horrific violation of one woman was a reminder of their own encounters with sexism, patriarchy, and violence. It was also a warning: it could have been me.
The politics of that uprising was personal. From one of the first protests organised in Vasant Vihar by JNU students, a slogan of the 1970s women’s movement took wing, matching the cries for death (or castration) to the rapists. It said: Hamein kya chahiye? Azaadi.
“Perhaps the young people were anticipating the torrent of advice that always follows such incidents: that it was too late, or they were wearing the wrong clothes. They knew that the old script was about to kick in. And so they made it about freedom,” said Albeena Shakil, a DU teacher and a former students’ activist at JNU, who took part in the protests.
In the year that followed, the many unfreedoms of Indian women, long ignored by the political class, were red-flagged. The questions about women’s safety raised on Delhi’s streets have prompted new laws and a scrutiny of the patriarchal underpinnings of Indian life. The silence around sexual violence has been shattered.
A law intern wrote about being assaulted by a Supreme Court judge in a blog, “because the most difficult things... are also the most essential”. A Tehelka journalist insisted that her editor’s “atonement” for having assaulted her sexually was not enough, and that her fight was about asserting that “my body is my own and not the plaything of my employer”. In Kolkata, Suzette Jordan refused the tag of “Park Street rape victim” and revealed her identity, pushing back against the culture of shame that punishes victims of sexual violence.
In Delhi, the number of rapes reported more than doubled, from 590 in 2012 to 1,330 this year, suggesting either that more women