9 October 2013
Rosheen Kabraji
(Former Chatham House Expert)


It is almost a year since the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi which made headlines around the world and triggered an outpouring of rage in India, and globally, regarding attitudes towards women and women's security

Changing social attitudes in India will be a long and arduous process. Since the attack, the government has taken some steps to strengthen existing laws, and a greater number of women have come forward to report cases of rape and harassment in recent months. Four of the accused were tried, found guilty and sentenced to death; the fifth man, accused of leading the attack, dies of apparent suicide before the verdict. The one juvenile charged has been sentenced to three years in reform prison, the maximum sentence allowed under Indian law. Despite the harsh sentencing, overall conviction rates remain abysmally low, and the vast majority of incidents remain unreported. 

In India there are significant regional variations regarding levels of security and people's attitudes towards violence against women. The parliamentary debate earlier this year on whether rape in marriage should be a crime exposed attitudes of both male and female parliamentarians. In a high proportion of cases of rape in which the victim knows the attacker, existing social taboos prevent the incident from being reported. Demands for the Delhi attackers to receive the death sentence brought the debate on the death penalty in India into focus, with many activists viewing the death sentences as a political tool which will do little to change a 'mob-like' mentality, let alone act as an effective deterrent against rape. In August a photojournalist was gang-raped while on assignment in Mumbai, a city that is generally viewed as safe for young women. This sparked similar protests. 

In neighbouring Pakistan, it has been a year since Malala Yousufzai, a teenage activist for education, was shot in the head by the Taliban. While Malala is now being promoted as a role model for girls all over the world, many in Pakistan are suspicious of this teenager's fight for universal education; the counter-narrative – fostered primarily by the militants who have threatened to kill her if she comes back to Pakistan – is that she is a product of the west and being manipulated to lure Pakistani girls away from traditional Islamic values. In June, militants blew up a bus carrying students to the only women's university in the troubled province of Balochistan. The battle for educating Pakistan's next generation continues.

Young South Asian women are increasingly being expected to adeptly manoeuvre in a quagmire of tradition, repression, modernity, and globalization. Alongside the female prime ministers, Fortune 500 CEOs, and Oscar winners lie honour killings, rape, sexual harassment, and female infanticide. High-profile incidents of violence against women underscore the necessity of empowering young women and men to speak above the cacophony of social prejudices. 

Across South Asia there is a need for more robust laws, and the political will, resources, and a change in cultural mindset to allow for the implementation of these laws and greater accountability. The challenge will be to sustain the momentum of these conversations and to ingrain a 'zero-tolerance' attitude across society. There also needs to be more efficient policing systems and less cumbersome judicial processes. Bolstering existing institutions that work to counter regressive widely-accepted cultural confines would also help in shifting attitudes.

South Asia's cities may not be getting that much safer for women, but the mainstream media and social media networks are now enabling young South Asians to engage with a global debate on women's security and education. Terrible events such as the Delhi attack and Malala's shooting have helped to ignite conversations and debates about regressive social and political attitudes in living rooms, street corners, school corridors and cafés to primetime television and national broadsheets. It appears, so far, that these debates and conversations will be sustained if not in the mainstream media then certainly through online platforms.

The ideas of women in South Asia continue to be contested no more so than by women themselves. While the voices are getting louder and the conversations more frequent, there remains a long way to go.