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What's behind India's tide of sexual violence

TEDx speaker Meera Vijayann on how the yearning for sexual freedoms in her homeland has created a spiral of anti-women attacks

It was an ordinary Wednesday evening. I wrapped up work at around 6pm as usual and waved down an auto to drop me home. I live in Fraser Town, in a small flat tucked in the corner of a neighbourhood. The walk home is often a lonely one, a short distance from the main road through a dimly lit alley. The auto sped through traffic, and I held the seat, a little uneasy. The radio blared old kannada film songs, and I could barely hear myself over the noise. When we slowed down in the alley, he pulled up near the ditch, blocking my way. I shuddered. Then he turned around, and leaned over, uncomfortably close and looked at my breasts. “Good size, it’s very nice,” he sneered. He reached out to touch me. Terrified, I stumbled out of the auto, alongside the drain and ran.

My friends said I was “lucky”. 

I was. Five months after this incident, two Dalit (lower caste) girls were gang raped and hung from a tree in Badaun district, a rural part of Uttar Pradesh. The girls had gone out to the field to use a toilet, hoping to relieve themselves and return home. Instead, they were raped repeatedly by the men of the upper-caste Yadav community, strangled, and hung. Two of the men involved in the rape were policemen. In any other country, this would have been a case of national outrage. But not in India. Here, police misconduct in regard to women is commonplace and at times, even justified. When asked about the prevailing sense of lawlessness in Uttar Pradesh, a member of the ruling Samajwadi party, made a strange, whimsical comment that was telling not just of the apathy of the political leadership in the country, but the discomfort that people feel in discussing sex. He said that it was the media and television that should be blamed for breeding a culture of “vulgarity”. 

This wasn’t the first time that a politician has made an odd case against television polluting young minds. Access to cable television in the past two decades has opened doors to the world for ordinary Indian families. Music videos, reality shows, item numbers, movies, advertisements and soap operas – if there was a way to channel a sudden explosion of sex, skin and sin, it is on Indian television

India is a prudish country. It’s no secret. Although Indian society thrives on a misplaced sense of self-righteousness and morality, and continues to project Indian women as a beautiful, chaste people who are central to the home and society, much is up for debate. If India’s rapidly growing population, high incidence of crimes against women and phenomenal expansion of television media is to go by, one thing is clear: there is a fiery desire in Indian hearts. 

But the world away from Indian television presents the other side to the country’s insecurities. A society saddled with upholding tradition is also desperate to follow its aspirations. In a survey conducted by the India Today media group in 2013, 60 percent of Indian men admitted that they fantasise about women in revealing clothes. And 36 percent blamed revealing clothes for the higher incidence of rape. Not surprisingly, 77 percent of men said they expect their wives to be virgins. But with urban Indian women pursuing their own desires, weighing their choices and choosing to make a mark in the world like never before, some are prophesising a threat to Indian patriarchy. Challenging the very idea that desire belongs only to the mind of a man, Indian women are for the first time opening their eyes to sexual liberty.   

In cyber cafes, a trend that still exists from the 90s, young Indian men spend hours watching porn, limited by the realities of their social environments. One in five adults demand porn on his 3G Smartphone, according to an IMRB survey. Yet, what happens when reality strikes? Unfathomable rage. 

Of course, while television is introducing a normalcy to sex, it has also furiously perpetuated the objectification of women, feeding the voyeuristic desires of millions who are sexually frustrated and lonely. In cyber cafes, a trend that still exists from the 90s, young Indian men spend hours watching porn, limited by the realities of their social environments, feasting their eyes instead on foreign women they fantasise about. In fact, one in five adults demand porn on his 3G Smartphone, according to an IMRB survey. Yet, what happens when reality strikes? Unfathomable rage. 

As much as Indian men and women want sex, have sex, and desperately long for sex — as one does — sex itself is never up for open conversation. Sex is off limits, scary and ‘untraditional’. Admitting to pre-martial sex, or asking for sex education to be introduced in schools, can be highly controversial in India. In an India that is blinded and bound by dictum, ignorance and frustration is taking its toll. In 2007, at least 11 Indian states were considering or had banned sex education in an effort to ‘preserve culture’. In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court reinstated a ban on gay sex, signalling worse times to come. 

The price that India is paying for repressing the primary urges of its population, and denying its people a chance to let go of cultural captivity is proving costly. The number of acid attacks on women is rising. Around 80 percent of these attacks are a result of outrage that a woman has refused to reciprocate a man’s feelings. The number of domestic violence cases is rising, day by day. At least 31 percent of Indian women have been physically abused, slapped or punched in their marriages. Since 2012, there has been a six-fold increase in reporting sexual harassment, but conviction rates remain low. Most believe it’s the woman’s fault for ‘inviting rape’. In all the rape cases reported as of 2012, a shocking 98 percent of the victims knew their rapists. 

Sitting at home, I recollect that horrifying experience in the auto and think; my friends were right. I’m not a statistic. Not yet. As they said, I was merely lucky. 

Meera Vijayann will talk at TEDxHousesofParliament on Friday 27 June. Watch the entire event live online at