I heard you fought to protect yourself. I heard that your fight back caused them to get more violent and brutalize you further. I heard you never gave up. I heard you said you wanted to live.
As I write this I clench my thighs together because the torture you were subjected to could have happened to any woman. I am so sorry that our worst fear became your reality. You didn’t live but you have brought so many of us to life—apathetic bystanders of all kinds have begun to care and participate. Your presence in this world has changed all our lives forever. Yet, I am left with a sense of loss and pain that you were sacrificed at this altar so our complacent spirits could be resurrected.
At 23, I am sure you had other dreams. Maybe you wanted to be remembered for what you did of your own free will rather than what was done to you. Maybe you just wanted to live simply, laugh with your male friends, wander with your girlfriends, watch TV with your family, become a medical professional who served all people regardless of how they valued women. At 23, you have come to symbolize our struggle—the collective and individual desperation we all feel. In my small way, I want to honor you by writing about breaking the silence.
Silence = Death. This slogan was used by holocaust victims, the gay community adopted it and now we, Indian women like you, have to embrace this message. Enough. No more silence. Rape is death and let no one tell us differently. It kills a way of life. It often kills a spirit. You did not let them murder yours and all of us stood in solidarity with you. Women all over this country have risen and shouted out. Some men have joined the chorus, and now we have found a collective energy. We cannot lose this momentum, this commitment, this chance at another life. You have given a voice to those of us who feel our screams like yours in that bus have never been heard. We are the ones who have stayed in homes where we are beaten and raped by men who either gave birth to us or ones we married. We are the women who have been molested in front of a whole crowd and found not one who would bear witness. We are the ones whose teachers have taught us life lessons by betraying our trust.
As our tribute to you, we are not going to be shamed into keeping quiet and holding ourselves responsible for the violence we endure. I must break my silence before I ask others to do the same.
I was 15 years old and walking with two male friends in the lane behind my house when I was attacked by seven men. Other than with a trusted few I have spoken about it only once—at a gathering hundreds of miles from where it occurred. After 25 years, you have given me the courage to bring this home and say it out loud here. It was 9:30 at night and we wanted to take a break from studying for the board exams. I had a bounce in my step, I threw back my head as I laughed, I felt at home in my body. Maybe that is what evoked their rage. It was not desire. It was an act of aggression. Their words were mean, their actions terrifying. I was very lucky that their ringleader lost his balance as he rammed his bicycle into my abdomen for the second time. It created an opening that let me flee. The split second break in that menacing circle saved my life. I wish your bus door had swung open too. I know you would have been saved from this savagery and you would have lived.
Your father may have been like mine. He believed in your right to be equal. He sold his land in order to educate you in a culture that only approves of land being sold for a son’s future or a daughter’s dowry. Mine too broke tradition by insisting I not stay silent and take back my power. He and my grandfather put me between them and took me out that very night looking for the perpetrators. They insisted I take this action so that I would not be afraid to walk the streets I grew up in. We never found them. I am like hundreds of women who have endured this and far worse. We have all fought our internal battles and some brave ones have taken bolder steps. Because of the men in my life who supported and celebrated me, I did not walk away feeling less than. I want every woman to live in the company of such men. Sadly, many do not. However privileged and emancipated I may feel, I am also well aware of my vulnerability—a vulnerability that makes us different from men. We live out that vulnerability every day and are constantly told to protect ourselves—stay out of harm’s way. I see that logic when we are taught to avoid playing with fire. How do we avoid sharing our world with men? How is it that they don’t get the message that their unwanted attention burns? Who is telling them that there are no excuses? None of it is acceptable—not the leering on the streets or the unsavory office banter, not the pinching on the bus or the groping at protest rallies. It always starts in a “small” way and only escalates when the perpetrator sees his actions endorsed or excused.
As a culture we are still preaching to our girls not to push the boundaries and protecting our boys when they overstep them—we give them a pass for making a pass. It creates a type of entitlement that is so deeply ingrained that what they cannot get they destroy. I am tired of hearing that if we as women circumscribe our lives further, kill our individuality more, suppress our natural desires, stop believing in the right to live as we choose and stay locked up, we will be safe. Imprisoning us isn’t the answer and is no longer possible. Women like you are the change that Gandhiji spoke of and this fight for independence is causing men to find beastly forms of suppression.
The entire nation is mourning your loss—a woman we did not know. Your power is far greater than what those men expected it to be. May your passing bring with it a change that sweeps across this country and makes it a place where other women like you can ride buses and make it home alive.
This article first appeared in The Hindu