By Ron LaBuz, Ph.D.
Her name is Lehak.
Her name could be Fatima or Rafaela, Malina or Michelle, but her name is Lehak. As so many young women around the world, she goes to school, she has a wonderful smile, and she has dreams. An intelligent young teenager, she is a reader. Her father is so proud of her. He has good reason. She is an inspiration, a signal of what the world will be.
Lehak is from New Delhi, a huge city and the capitol of India. More than twice as many people live and work and play in the Delhi metro area as in New York City. A beautiful city of government and pride and monuments, it has India Gate, a national monument dedicated to war dead soldiers. There you can see Gandhi Smrti, the place where a saint lived the last days of his life and was martyred. Or, rivaling the most beautiful boulevard in the world, walk the Rajpath from India Gate to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the home of the president of India there on Raisina Hill. And see the wonderful temples, ancient sites, museums and cathedrals.
Lehak lives in this place, in India, in the largest democracy in the world.
Imagine a morning in December. A young girl reads the news. The dreadful news. So many people, tens of millions, read the news of a young woman’s torture. The night before, on December 16, a college student, the first person of her family to go to college, went to see a film with her boyfriend. On her way home she did an innocent thing, a thing that people do millions of times each day. She boarded a bus. Nothing seemed unusual.
There were five passengers and a driver. Her friend tried to protect her. He begged the six men to stop. They broke his leg, beating him and knocking him unconscious. She was alone. She defended herself but six men together were too strong. A 23-year-old woman raped repeatedly and attacked brutally, internally, with an iron rod. She was so broken. Much later a passerby found the naked couple on the road; they’d been thrown from the moving bus. At the hospital, doctors found only five percent of her intestines left inside of her. It is impossible for me to imagine her pain.
Lehak read the news. With millions of people in Delhi and throughout the world, she read and heard the news. The protests came quickly, at India Gate and Raisina Hill, on the Rajpath and in other places throughout India. What was the cause? Why did so many create placards to express their rage? Was it the brutality of this particular crime?
Lehak knows what every woman in India knows, though this knowledge is not limited to India this is where Lehak lives and this is where it happened. Lehak knows of eve-teasing, an Indian euphemism suggesting a woman is responsible when sexually harassed in a public place. Catcalls, suggestiveness, showing pictures, groping. The violations are common enough; fathers fear for their daughters and women must fear for themselves.
Lehak knows that rape is the fastest growing crime in India. It is often an unreported crime because the victim is re-victimized. There is police apathy and worse: A woman told she should marry one of her two rapists. A victim is asked again and again, in a police station, to recount the horror. Acid disfigures a woman’s face because she reported a crime. There is public shame and shame for the victim’s family. Lehak knows. She is a reader. She knows of fathers who commit suicide, of legislators and other powerful men who rape and are not charged. She knows of more gang rapes. She knows of women committing suicide. She reads about rape victims drinking poison, in court, after another delay in prosecution. After six years, the victim could take no more.
This time, this December, for a reason we cannot know, something changed. The young people of India shouted in the streets. Tens of thousands protested, marching in places where the government decreed there would be no marches. People were beaten by the police with lathi sticks, just as men and women marching with Gandhi two generations before were beaten. The police wore riot gear. There were stones thrown and fires started. There was danger in the streets.
Lehak saw the pictures of the protesters beaten to the ground with sticks. And she did the most amazing thing— this 14-year-old with her beautiful smile and her dreams. She asked her father if she could join the protesters at India Gate.
I am so moved by her courage and I imagine a father’s pride. I also imagine a father’s fear. What father is it that permits his 14-year-old daughter to go to such a place, a place where she could be beaten or gassed or could feel the cold and pain emerging from a water cannon? Lehak has such a father. He knows, as I do, that India has led the world before. Two generations ago, Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of ahimsa and satyagraha led to civil rights movements in America, South Africa, and elsewhere in the world. So it will be again. I know it.
India is changing now. There will be fast track courts to prosecute sexual crimes. There will be thousands of female police officers trained to work with victims, and there will be a new law, named after a victim, because her father will not be shamed.
Lehak did join the protests. Her father went with her to protect her. They felt the sting of the waves of water from the cannon.
Lehak inspires. She inspires her father. She inspires me – yes, to donate dollars to a cause, but more, to dedicate time and talent. Because it is not only the students of India who lead the world to change; it must be all of us, including those like me who are old enough to be her grandfather. My generation had its causes: miscegenation laws, racism, civil rights, Jim Crow. We had our bus. Rosa Parks was in it. And today we have an African-American president.
Lehak knows what we all know now, that the young college student assaulted so brutally died in a hospital 13 days after the attack. She could have been my student or your daughter or friend. She fought so hard to live. Her spirit was strong, the psychologists said, and many people prayed. But her body was too badly violated.
So here I am with Lehak— inspired by her action and in solidarity with women who demand justice and equality. We all have the responsibility to honor a woman’s death. There is no excuse for inaction. Do what you can. Do what you must.
In your days and in your dreams, join hands with Lehak and change the world.
Ronald Labuz, Ph.D., is a professor of art in the Center for Art and Humanities at Mohawk Valley Community College. The author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles and reviews, he has taught art history, graphic design and creativity courses at MVCC since 1981. His interests in human rights and gender equality were spurred by the teachings of his family and his mentor Dr. Warren Steinkraus, who was a professor of philosophy at SUNY Oswego inspired by the writings and actions of Mahatma Gandhi and fellow Boston University student the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This article first appeared in the YWCA Mohawk Valley’s Spring 2013 newsletter.