An INDIAN female politician and activist has said rape victims may have invited attacks by their clothes and behaviour – once again fuelling the national debate over a series of incidents of sexual violence against women.
Asha Mirje, a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader in western Maharashtra state, raised the question at a meeting on Tuesday of why a 23-year-old physio-therapy student gang-raped on a bus in Delhi in 2012 had been out late at night.
The student died of her injuries and thousands of people took to the streets in nationwide protests against the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the world’s largest democracy.
A number of shocking incidents have since been highlighted in Indian media, most recently the case of a 20-year-old woman who said she was gang-raped in a rural area of West Bengal on the orders of a village court last week.
Ms Mirje, a member of the state women’s commission, said in reference to the Delhi assault: “Did Nirbhaya really have go to watch a movie at 11 in the night with her friend?”
“Nirbhaya”, a Hindi word meaning “fearless”, has been widely adopted by the Indian media as a name for the victim.
She also commented on the gang-rape of a photojournalist, who was on assignment at a disused mill in Mumbai last year, asking why the victim had gone to such an isolated place.
“Rapes take place because of a woman’s clothes, behaviour and her presence at inappropriate places,” Ms Mirje said. Women should think whether they were inviting assault, she said.
Sexual violence has become a huge social and political issue since the Delhi rape and India toughened laws on sex crimes in March last year. Public anger over a lack of safety for women in Delhi was one reason the ruling Congress Party was wiped out in local elections in the city last month.
Ms Mirje’s party belongs to the Congress-led national coalition government and her comments caused an immediate stir, with several television reports pouring scorn on her.
“Every time such a statement is made by a public figure it justifies rape,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, a lobby group, said. “It’s unconscionable that people in public posts make such remarks.”
Even members of Ms Mirje’s party distanced themsleves from her remarks. MP Supriya Sule said she was sorry Ms Mirje had made them and that they reflected her personal views, not those of the NCP.
“She did make a mistake yesterday. She should not have said it,” Ms Sule said
While Ms Mirje is thought to be the first senior female public figure to make such comments about the Delhi rape, other members of commissions looking after women’s affairs have made similar remarks about less high-profile attacks.
“Mirje is reflecting what is a much larger problem,” Ms Krishnan said. Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, initially dismissed a gang-rape in her state in 2012 as a fabricated incident aimed at discrediting her government.
Assaults have tarnished the reputation of a country that enjoys growing prosperity and is modernising fast. Still, Ms Mirje’s comments were a reminder that conservative mores are still held by many of its 1.2 billion people, women as well as men.
In the most recent case involving a foreigner, a 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang-raped in Delhi last month by men she asked for directions to her hotel.