In Delhi, according to the police, a woman is raped every 18 hours, on average. So it is worth wondering why the gang rape and murder of one 23-year old woman there is still resonating nearly three months after it happened.

It is also worth considering the role of India’s media in the aftermath of the brutal December 16 event, and the national self-examination it put in motion. The country’s flawed and burgeoning press not only reflected the public mood but set it, and may have helped change the discourse about gender in India.

It started with a small group of protestors in the heart of Delhi, who had read initial news reports. The Hindu, for example, began its December 17 story this way:

Brutally gang-raped by four persons in a moving bus in south Delhi on Sunday night, a 23-year-old woman is now battling for life at the Safdarjung Hospital here. The girl’s male friend was also assaulted, stripped and then thrown off the bus along with her near the Mahipalpur flyover in south-west Delhi.

TV news programs took the cue from the protestors and cranked up the volume. The victim had been sexually assaulted with an iron rod, and the female anchor on NDTV the following day led into a special focus on rape with this: “Words really are inadequate to describe the depravity, the brutality” of the crime. Angry protestors in central Delhi were soon tear-gassed by police, and that, too, was covered.

Soon the numbers swelled to thousands, egged on by outrage and television cameras in the biting winter of Delhi. TV news anchors skewered politicians on prime time. The young and the restless of India’s cities railed on the Internet, and used Twitter and Facebook to organize more protests. Formidable journalists and writers, many of them women, lashed out at India’s “culture of misogyny” in the pages of newspapers and magazines. In an essay for Outlook magazine, headlined “Breaking the Indian Penile Code,” Meena Kandasamy framed the problem this way: “The endless discourses of the elite point fingers everywhere: except at the real cause, which is the cultural sanction of rape in India.”

Largely due to such pressure, things moved quickly: The perpetrators were quickly arrested by a normally inept police force and the judicial proceedings moved to a fast-track court—this in a country where the conviction rate in rape cases is abysmally low. A high-powered commission suggested radical reforms for gender justice. The government approved the death penalty for rapists. And late last month, a headline from India’s annual budget was the establishment of a $200 million fund for programs for the safety of women—a tribute to the Delhi rape victim and called Nirbhaya, or “Fearless.” On March 11, the young man alleged to have been the leader of the pack that raped her was found hanging in his prison cell, from a noose made of bedclothes. The police said it was suicide, though his lawyer and relatives disagree.

It was part journalism, part activism, and it had the nation riveted. The foreign
media got into the act too, making the rape on a Delhi bus the one Indian story the world will remember from 2012.

In India, the media talks about sexual matters in hushed tones, reflecting a people caught between binding taboos and a fast economic adventure that is knocking impatiently at the door of orthodoxy. A young, tech-savvy generation (India’s median age is 25) is pushing to control the discourse—against an entrenched older group, essentially their parents’ generation.

Driven by a growing service sector, India’s urban growth has opened up economic opportunities for women, long treated as second-class citizens in an agricultural society. The struggle between villages and cities, between the old and the new India, and between old and new conventions in the Indian media—all were on full display in the coverage of the Delhi rape.

Quaint euphemisms abound in print, like “outraging the modesty of a woman,” for sexual assault, or “eve-teasing,” for sexual harassment. Indian society and media often focus on the “shame” of the rape victim, rather than on the crime. As Heather Timmons, editor of the India Ink blog in the global edition of The New York Times, pointed out, regular drawn illustrations for rape stories “almost inevitably” depict a “shamed woman. Sometimes, this woman also happens to be somewhat scantily clad.”
Indian law prevents the press from naming a rape victim, to “protect her reputation.”

Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Fellow with Swaniti Initiative based in Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @some_buddha