Protesters march for women's safety in India on New Year's Eve

Protesters in India's major cities demanded safety for women in the wake of the death Friday of a 23-year-old woman who was gang raped in Delhi.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Demonstrators burn an effigy depicting rapists during a protest in New Delhi December 30. The body of a woman whose gang rape provoked protests and rare national debate about violence against women in India arrived back in New Delhi early on Sunday and was quickly cremated at a private ceremony.

Groups of protesters in India's top cities of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata rang in the new year with candle light marches and protest songs to demand safety for women in the wake of the death Friday of a 23-year-old woman who was raped and brutally assaulted in a bus in the capital.

The protests were called "Take Back the Night," emphasizing that women had the right to be out in the city in the night. Men are generally more visible outside the home in India, particularly at night time. The rallies come in the wake of comments by several politicians that the increase in rape was caused by women wearing make-up or mini-skirts.

The female victim remains unidentified in media reports, but her story has transfixed India for the past fortnight. Calls have intensified for reforms of the police and judicial system which rarely punishes rapists. Analysts point out, however, that legal reform can only go so far without changing underlying cultural attitudes that keep women from full public participation.  

The protest in the cities tonight aimed at starting to change the culture, and in the case of Delhi, pushed back on speech controls by a government that has been slow to empathize with the popular outrage. Rally organizers here did not take police permission, which is not easily forthcoming for areas not demarcated for protests. Police presence was light, in contrast to police crack-down on protesters a week ago.

"This is a turning point in which a new generation is redefining the contract between the state and the citizen as also between the genders," says political commentator Shuddhabrata Sengupta. "It is great that while many of the protesters are angry, ... they refused to be blackmailed into calling for capital punishment."

In Delhi, around 200 protesters, men and women alike, gathered at the cinema complex where the deceased woman had gone to see a movie with a friend before boarding the bus in which she was raped and assaulted. They marched from the cinema complex to a prominent mall a kilometer away. Not far from here, the bus stand where she had boarded the bus became a memorial with wreaths and candles.

The protesters chanted slogans to the beat of cymbals demanding azadi, or freedom, for women: "Azadi in the night, in the day, in the mall, in the bus, in the train, in pubs and offices and in the Parliament too; azadi to love and marry, and to not marry, from moral policing, to choose our partners, to dance, to not follow dress codes, to not be raped."

One of the organizers, Rakhi Sehgal, says, "Our effort is to give the message that the night belongs to us. We want to be able to walk the streets in the night without fear of sexual harassment." She said that police patrols in the night should be increased. "Currently, if a policeman sees us on the road he asks us not if we are fine but what we are doing out so late. That needs to change," she said.

Although the protests were small in size amid the crackers that welcomed the new year, some new year's parties were cancelled, including by India's defense forces. Many neighborhoods across Delhi and its suburbs held candle-light vigils and marches since the woman's death.

Bangalore-based artist Jasmen Patheja has ran the Blank Noise Project against street sexual harassment since 2003, which has, among other interventions, held midnight events to reclaim the street.

Ms. Patheja, who participated in a similar protest today in Kolkata, says, "Something is changing. I feel it. Reports on sexual assaults earlier would come with warnings for women to 'be careful' and blame. But now we're at a tipping point when many are unlearning such warnings and asserting our rights."    

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