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.”
This time though, the tone was different. A sense of identification with the Delhi victim triggered an urban rage that cut through prudishness and the reflexive urge to blame the victim. Nilanjana Roy, a well known journalist and literary critic, combined incisive commentary with on-the-ground reporting and palpable emotion, making her blog one of the best reads on the subject. “That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us,” she wrote “The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper.”
The outrage was exacerbated by a fumbling political class, which kept quiet as
the protests swelled and then was out of sync with the public when it finally spoke. And the media hit the politicians hard. Indian TV’s fiercest interviewer, Arnab Goswami of the Times Now channel, often described as India’s answer to Fox News, tore into a Member of Parliament—Abhijit Mukherjee, who also happens to be the son of the country’s president—for his rather curious remark that the protestors were “dented, painted” women. “The matter will not end there,” Goswami said, after Mukerjee’s mumbled and apologetic response to his question of what “dented and painted” means. “The words are in the public domain. You will have to explain what you meant by dented and painted women.”
Over time, the media began to question the lack of gender equality in all spheres, from religion to the business culture, from the police to Bollywood, from archaic laws to archaic social structures. To some extent, journalists even examined their own consciences. “In the newsroom we discussed with our editors how women are always judged for their looks at the workplace,” says Ruchica Tomar, a TV anchor with Headlines Today, who also reported on the story for the BBC. “It wasn’t just about rape, but the deep-seated misogyny that encourages it.”
As a journalism student nearly a decade back, Tomar said she spent many of her evenings in the South Delhi shopping arcade where the victim had gone just before she boarded the bus where she would be raped. Inside that bus, she was raped and fatally injured—by six men who used iron bars to assault her and to beat her male companion. Like her, Tomar was an immigrant to Delhi from small-town India, a member of the first generation of women in her family to have left the safety of their hometown to make it on their own.
The incident was a slap in the face of the new Indian dream.
But in some ways the victim was not like Ms. Tomar. She was not part of the South Delhi middle class. Her father was an airport baggage handler earning $200 a month, about as much a south Delhi household would pay their chauffeur, struggling to put his daughter through school, where she was training to be a physiotherapist. The family was part of what Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, calls the virtual middle class, a section of low-income Indians who are connected to middle class dreams through cheap communication technologies like mobile phones, television, Internet and news sources.
It is this reality that is at least temporarily pushing the class- and revenue-driven Indian media to reach beyond its bubble in covering this story—beyond its traditional opinion-shaping audience of the relatively rich urban middle class.