International Women

The Parallels Between Newtown and Delhi

When America and India experience crimes of sickening violence, they respond in very similar ways.

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Only two days after the horror of Newtown prompted a national outcry about gun violence in America, India went through a similar soul searching. A 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi was gang raped for an hour on a moving bus by six men who penetrated her with iron rods before tossing her out on the street. Though the men will be tried in a fast-track court beginning this week, the outcry is well underway – thousands of women have been demonstrating against her attack, the brutal police response to the protests and finally her death on December 26th at a Singapore hospital from multiple-organ failure.

As horrific as the violence was in both Newtown and Delhi, neither were unheard of in their respective countries. Just as the United States has seen a rash of school shootings in recent years, so has India experienced a wave of rape. According to the India National Crime Records Bureau there were 24,206 rapes reported in 2011, only a quarter of which ended in convictions. It bears mentioning, of course, that the United States has its own problems with rape culture. The Department of Justice reported 188,380 instances of rape and sexual assult in 2010, though many believe these crimes are more often reported in the West.

There are many similarities in the ways in which each country has responded to its horrors. The Indian media has seen an outpouring of intensely personal anecdotes from female writers and commentators about their experiences with sexual violence. Similarly, after the Newtown shooting, personal anecdotes filled the media, many of which went viral, such as “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.”

Both crimes outrage our sense of safety. Just as students should be safe at school, women should be safe to be out in the public sphere in cities all over the world. The victim in Delhi was with a male friend, modestly dressed and in a decent neighborhood at only 8.30 in the evening. Women have long been told that if they only lived by certain rules, they would be safe – don’t go out late, don’t dress provocatively, don’t go out alone.

Some say that a fear of the underclass lies behind the outrage this attack has caused in the middle class women in India’s cities (the attackers were allegedly slum dwellers and villagers.) Arundhati Roy, a prominent author and activist, pointed to the ubiquity of rape culture across all rungs of society, perpetrated by the army, the police and in the drawing rooms of the middle and upper classes where it is rarely reported.  

Newtown prompted debate about policy solutions—one side clamors for gun control, while the NRA would rather focus on the violence in popular culture in America, in movies and video games. Similarly, many in India have argued for a two-pronged solution— to fix the broken criminal justice system, which often lets off rapists with a slap on the wrist, and also to fix the culture of misogyny that causes an estimated 90 percent of rapes not to be reported at all. The cultural critique has led to an online petition against Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh, whose lyrics glorify sexual violence against women. 

Typically, politicians have struck the wrong note with the public, their remarks only reinforcing how cemented their attitudes are.  In the U.S., the public has recoiled at comments by Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee that the attack was due to “godlessness” in schools. In Delhi, President Pranab Mukherjee’s son suggested that the protesting women were unladylike.  Meanwhile, Sushma Swaraj, from the opposition BJP party, said that even if the victim survived, “she will have to live her entire life like a living corpse,” a common negative perception of rape victims that drives down reporting of crimes.

But many point to comments by politicians and artists like this as merely a symptom of a culture that needs policy to lead the way in social change.  

As one blogger fed up with sexual harassment in the city and talk of a long-term solution put it: “You need a brutal deterrent, employed continuously and consistently in the short term to let them know we mean business.”


Nida Najar is a journalist based in Delhi who writes for the New York Times.

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