India is the world's biggest democracy and has one of its most dynamic economies. Yet, as the brutal rape of a woman in its capital has revealed, it is also a country of contradictions. While Western mores, fashions and trends are increasingly being embraced, society remains deeply and firmly patriarchal, with men domineering from the boardroom to bedroom. Unprecedented protests have erupted in the wake of the tragedy, but the imbalance between the sexes will remain as long as there is a refusal to allow equality.
Sex crimes and violence against women are commonplace on the Indian sub-continent. Women complain, but their voices go unheard in a male-dominated society where victims are too often seen by police, judges and politicians as having done wrong. Laws that are supposed to protect are mocked as offenders go free on the grounds that they were titillated or provoked. The gropings, assaults and rapes are consequently more often than not endured and go unreported.
But the fatal attack on the 23-year-old physiotherapy student on December 16 is different. The middle-class woman was gang-raped and sexually assaulted on a bus in New Delhi by six men from a poor district. Politicians, not realising the symbolic significance of what had happened, were slow to react and when they did, their lack of concern and bias was so apparent that outrage could only grow. Even if the victim, rushed to Singapore for expert medical treatment for her injuries, had not died, they would have had to answer the demonstrations by acting forcefully.
The suspects have been arrested, charged with murder and if found guilty could face the death penalty. It is a far cry from what usually happens in rape cases; a teenage girl killed herself last week after police reportedly pressured her to marry the man who had violated her. But while attention has now been drawn to the plight of women, it will not be a harbinger of real change unless the deep-seated prejudices at all levels of Indian society are also affected. Men have to allow genuine equality and until that comes about, there will not be justice for women.