ZAPPING ATTACKERS

04.10.13

‘Anti-Rape’ Lingerie Creator Wants to Protect Women From Sexual Assault

Students in India have developed lingerie that would deliver electric shocks to ward off sexual offenders. Isabel Wilkinson talks to one of the creators to find out how it works.

Last week came news of “anti-rape” lingerie, a high-tech garment developed by three engineering students in India who were fed up with the culture of rape in their country. According to reports, the lingerie was designed to help women ward off unwanted sexual advances by detecting the touch of an aggressor and delivering 82 electric shocks. The garment also would be smart enough to contact the local police station as well as the girl’s family to let them know she was in trouble.

But the idea of an “anti-rape” bra raised more questions that it answered: how would the garment know the difference between an aggressor and a loved one? How could a woman make sure she didn’t get shocked herself? How would it transmit a message to family? How could a garment so seemingly complicated ever be produced for a mass audience—and actually be affordable?

I caught up with Manisha Mohan, 20, an engineering student at SRM University in Chennai and one of the creators of the project. Along with two friends at the university, Mohan was inspired to create the anti-rape lingerie as a reaction to the brutal Delhi gang rape at the end of last year—what she calls “a retaliation against menaces in society.” It took them three months to develop the lingerie, which they call “Society Harnessing Equipment (SHE).”

The garment itself is unimpressive: it’s a plain white nightgown lined with a polymer. It is fitted to the body and can apparently be worn with a dress, skirt, or pants. The students say studies have shown that aggressors often reach first for a woman’s bosom, so they have rigged the bra-area of the garment with a circuit of sensors “calibrated to detect pinching and squeezing.” Mohan says that once a pressure censor is activated, the garment sends out an electric shock so strong that, Mohan says, when she tried it out it left burn marks on her skin for weeks. (The side of the garment that touches the skin is insulated so that the wearer doesn’t feel any of the shock, she says.)

“It should reach each and every woman in the villages. I want to make this a safer world without gaining profit.”

So how does this machine know the difference between an unwanted sexual predator and, say, a boyfriend? Mohan explains that a woman can switch on an electric switch attached to the waist of the garment when she feels she is in potential danger. “When I know that there is no harm, I switch it off,” Mohan says. “But when I’m moving out of my office late at night, I could turn it on.” When the garment is in “on” mode, the sensors would be able to detect force from pinching or squeezing and unleash the shock.

It may sound implausible, but Mohan says the garment is outfitted with a GPS device that can be programmed by the wearer to send an SMS alert to parents or a spouse when she is in trouble. It also will send an alert to the nearest police department.

Mohan says she and her collaborators are in the midst of rolling out the garment to ready it for sale. (They still have to figure out how the material of the lingerie could be machine washable.) It may seem like a complicated piece of machinery to be sold cheaply across India, but Mohan has high hopes. “Most of the women who are raped are not the ones sitting in palatial houses,” she says. “I don’t want it to be given out to brand. It should reach each and every woman in the villages. I want to make this a safer world without gaining profit.”

The garment is laudable: both innovative and socially conscious. And let’s hope it can serve to protect someone from sexual violence—even if it isn’t practically scalable across an entire country. But, as one fantastic group of Indian activists pointed out at the Women in the World Summit last week, fighting a culture of rape in India is systemic—and it can’t be solved with a single shockwave.