Female Artists Rap To Break The Silence Around Rape In India


“We’re now known as the land of rapes.”

That’s how “Rap Against Rape,” written by Mumbai-based artists and singers Uppekha Jain and Pankhuri Awasthi, begins. The three-minute performance indicts a host of offenders in India — “laywers who will kill,” “politicians who ban our will” — and calls out hypocrisies in a culture “of rampant misogyny” in which “a girl who’s been raped, has to hide her face / And then that same society makes a porn star their celebrity.”

Kicking off the rap with the allegation that India is perceived globally as the rape capital of the world is, to say the least, a pretty bold move. “It’s a creative expression to get people to sit up and take notice,” said Jain. (She and Awasthi spoke with ThinkProgress by phone in a joint interview.) “When you hit people with something that is not nice to hear, you’re breaking through the noise. And our second line goes into, ‘did you ever wonder how this took shape?’ We want people to think: what are they doing, perhaps, that has contributed to a negative perception of Indian women across the world which is, in many instances, untrue?”

“We wanted to shock people, and we wanted to force them into introspection,” said Awasthi. “Because if you don’t shock them, they won’t be interested in listening.”

Those tactics are working: since it was posted two weeks ago, the video has been viewed over 500,000 times.

The two women met three years ago while working on a play together and have been tossing around ideas and scripts for a YouTube channel for a while. “We knew that we wanted to address social issues that are prevalent in India in a very engaging and unique manner so that we can really break through the noise and speak to the youth,” said Jain. “This is a topic that is very close to both of our hearts: women empowerment. It’s something both of us have worked on individually in the past. So when we decided to launch our channel, we thought: what issue is burning within us? So we decided to tackle that through free verse.”

Awasthi stressed that they wanted to shake a culture of silence around sexual assault and harassment. “That’s the reason we did it on YouTube. It’s where you can exercise absolute freedom of speech. There wouldn’t be anyone censoring out what we want to say. You can really be true to who you are. You can opine freely.”

“It came from our hearts and from things that we see around us constantly, things that we feel really passionately about,” said Jain. “Let’s stop tip-toeing around these issues. India tends to be very puritanical, I would almost say, when it comes to issues like rape. So we are in 2015 and it’s really about time. India, in so many ways, is at the forefront economically as a developing nation, yet we are still held back by a lot of these issues that we don’t talk about.”

It only took Jain and Awasthi three days to produce the video: one night of writing, one day of shooting, one day of editing. “We’re doing it just the two of us,” said Jain. “Just two women who are ready and willing to speak out against atrocities that are happening here and giving a voice to others who may not have a voice.”

As is befitting some of the lyrics in their rap (“I’ll wear what I want – even if its mini / It’s only a dress / Don’t for a second think it’s a yes”), Jain and Awasthi chose to be “dressed in the video the way we’re usually dressed,” said Awasthi. “We didn’t want to alter our appearance to fit a certain mold of how a woman in India should be dressed. We’re urban women, we dress to whatever the trends are, so, like it or not, this is how we’re going to be. And no one should dictate to us how we should present ourselves.”

“Just two women who are ready and willing to speak out against atrocities that are happening here and giving a voice to others who may not have a voice.”

 – Uppekha Jain

Jain and Awasthi wanted to raise awareness about violence against women, although they were quick to clarify that when it comes to the statistics revealing the number of reported rapes in India, “reported is the key word,” said Jain. “What India is experiencing right now is a dramatic change. Whereas many of these issues, decades ago, have been suppressed, and there was really a social stigma. It was never conducive to report these cases of rape, either to the police or socially.”

Jain moved to India from Toronto, Canada four years ago. “I would have to be a proponent of India in the sense that, there are parts of it that aren’t safe, and there are parts that are quite safe for women. People need to recognize that India is such a diverse land: rural areas have their problems and metro areas have their problems, but the more people we have talking about them the better.”

A handful of particularly graphic and high-profile sexual assault cases in India have made headlines far beyond the country’s borders, contributing to the perception of India as “the rape capital of the world.” In a 2012 incident that sparked international outrage, a 23-year-old woman was raped by five men on a public bus and later died from her injuries.

The bus driver, Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted in the gang rape case and sentenced to death by hanging, is appealing his sentence, as are three others; he told the BBC earlier this month that the assault was “an accident” and “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night,” he told the BBC. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal.”

Women are especially unsafe in the very places they should feel safest: the number of women sexually assaulted by their husbands is 40 times the number of women raped by a male stranger. But those women have no recourse; marital rape is legal in India. A 2014 study by the United Nations Population Fund and the International Center for Research on Women found that 75 percent of men “expected their partners to agree to sex” and more than half “didn’t expect their partners to use contraceptives without their permission.” The study also found the following:

60 percent [of men] admitted to using violence to assert their dominance over their partner if she wanted to step out of her traditional roles or was unable to meet the expectation of bearing a son. In fact, more than half — 52 percent — of the 3,158 women surveyed talked about experiencing some form of violence during their lifetime, with 38 per cent suffering physical violence, including being kicked, beaten, slapped, choked and burned, and 35 percent were subjected to emotional violence, including insults, intimidation and threats.

Both Awasthi and Jain attested to having experienced harassment while out in public. “When you have makeup on, and you’re dressed up, it’s definitely something you experience every so often,” said Awasthi. “We live in Mumbai, which is one of the best cities here. But even so, there’s a lot of catcalling. If you’re taking your own transportation — if you’re driving your own car — you’re safe. But if not, you’re privy to these kind of things. If you’re dressed up and looking good and heading out on your own, I don’t know how safe you are.”

Yet as Awasthi points out, reporting of assaults is on the rise, which is a good thing, even while it contributes to the sense that there are significantly more rapes in 2014 than there were 10 or 20 years ago. And India actually has a relatively high conviction rate for rape.

“Many of the issues that we’ve brought up in our video are not just isolated to India,” said Jain. “It’s not just an India-specific problem. I think that’s the message, and why the things we’re talking about really resonate with everyone. So I hope everyone takes it upon themselves to fight for women’s rights and gender equality.”

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress