After the death of the Delhi rape victim, the fight for women's rights must go on | Priyamvada Gopal

The collective outrage galvanised by the Delhi rape can help make visible a wider spectrum of sexual violence in India

The young woman who died on Saturday in a Singapore hospital, rendered there by an Indian government unnerved by her catalytic power, is unlikely to have aspired to the multiple campaigning names bestowed upon her. "Nirbhaya" (Fearless), "Jagruti" (Awakening), "Amanat" (Entrusted) or "Damini" (Lightning) mainly wanted, she said, "to live". Being gang-raped and eviscerated on privatised and poorly regulated mass transport is not how she would have envisaged the end of an evening with a friend at the cinema. As she lay dying, however, she became a rallying point for protests that have erupted across urban India and generated undeniably powerful collective outrage. Thousands of people, including young men, have taken to the streets to demand gender justice and equality from a state that is all too often experienced as indifferent to or even complicit in misogynist violence. While the president's son, MP Abhijit Mukherjee, did not help matters by describing women protesters as "dented-painted", a poem circulated by feminist campaigners asks trenchantly: "What clothes – pulled from what rack / Will prevent an attack?" After all, many of us have been molested on Delhi buses while in saris.

Even as residents of Delhi and other cities have come together in an unusual show of collective will to demand a political response, the protests – gratuitously compared by some to Tahrir Square – have raised difficult questions which Indian feminists and democratic rights activists will have to engage with in coming weeks. Some note that beyond holding the state and police to account, Indians have to confront deeply entrenched patriarchal views as well as a popular culture which, as in western countries, continues to objectify female sexuality, creating an environment where harassment and violence are regularised as part of the sexual game. Global misogyny invites global feminist solidarity without turning women's rights into a contest for cultural superiority. Without pandering to the predictable and false accusation that women's rights are an elite issue, any long-term movement arising from this tragedy will also have to think seriously about how the outrage that was galvanised by a brutal assault on a victim thought of as young and middle-class can also be directed at making more visible, and equally unacceptable, a wider spectrum of sexual violence. It encompasses domestic violence, the rape of poor women, "tribals" and Dalits, and sexual assault deployed by policemen and soldiers in conflicts in the Indian north-east, Kashmir and Chhattisgarh. In 2011, medical examinations indicated that Soni Sori, a schoolteacher accused of abetting Maoists, had had stones inserted into her vagina and rectum while in state custody. The public response to such reports has been largely muted but the current moment may yet foster a more widespread spirit of agitation against sexual violence everywhere.

While citizens of diverse affiliations have coalesced around the issue of women's safety, significant fissures have also emerged. One comes out of the demand, made even before the case turned into one of murder, that the rapists be given the death penalty, which is reserved in India for the rarest of rare cases. Progressive voices have been quick to distance themselves from a lynch mob mentality. But the division itself speaks to the appeal, for much of the Indian middle class, of strong leadership and, more selectively, for speedy justice that could involve riding roughshod over legal safeguards. In this light, the recent electoral triumph in Gujarat of the iconic strongman with prime ministerial aspirations, Narendra Modi, who stands accused of presiding over murderous religious violence that involved the mass rape of Muslim women, is sobering. So is the revelation that several wealthy elected politicians in Gujarat face criminal charges that include rape.

The frantic obsession with wealth accumulation in India, often euphemised as "development", Modi's selling point, has also widened a dangerous economic gap between the middle and working classes. It is not remotely to justify the recent brutality, in which the accused come from the ranks of the working poor, to suggest that any analysis of "rape culture" should include consideration of the ways in which growing class rage can get tragically displaced on to the bodies of women. Regarded as one the most dangerous places in the world for women, even as rape culture pervades the globe, India is also home to a strong tradition of democratic struggles for women's rights resulting in both progressive legislation and gradual social change in relation to dowry, criminal law, inheritance, health and workplace rights. Such struggles – and social justice – must now prevail.

Contributor

Priyamvada Gopal in Bangalore

The GuardianTramp

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