Asha Mirje, a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader in western
Maharashtra state, questioned at a meeting on Tuesday why a
23-year-old physiotherapy student who was gang-raped on a bus in
Delhi in 2012 was out late at night.
The student died of her injuries and thousands of people took to the
streets in nationwide protests against the prevalence of rape and
sexual assault in the world's largest democracy.
A number of shocking incidents have since been highlighted in Indian
media, most recently the case of 20-year-old woman who said she was
gang-raped in a rural area of West Bengal in eastern India on the
orders of a village court last week.
Mirje, who is a member of the state women's commission, said in
reference to the Delhi assault: "Did Nirbhaya really have go to
watch a movie at 11 in the night with her friend?"
"Nirbhaya", a Hindi word meaning "fearless", has been widely adopted
by the Indian media as a name for the victim.
She also commented on the gang rape of a photojournalist who was on
assignment at a disused mill in Mumbai last year, asking why the
victim had gone to such an isolated place.
"Rapes take place also because of a woman's clothes, her behavior
and her presence at inappropriate places," she said.
Women must be "careful", she said, and think if they are inviting
Sexual violence has become a huge social and political issue since
the Delhi rape and India toughened laws on sex crimes in March last
year. Public anger over the poor state of women's safety in Delhi
was one reason that the ruling Congress Party was wiped out in local
elections in the city last month.
Mirje's party belongs to the Congress-led national coalition
government and her comments caused an immediate stir, with several
television reports pouring scorn on her.
"Every time such a statement is made by a public figure it justifies
rape," Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive
Women's Association, a lobby group, told Reuters.
"It's unconscionable that people in public posts make such remarks."
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Even members of her own party distanced themselves from her remarks.
NCP member of parliament Supriya Sule told reporters she was sorry
Mirje had made them and that they reflected her personal views, not
those of the party.
"She did make a mistake yesterday. She should not have said it," she
While Mirje is thought to be the first senior female public figure
to make such comments about the Delhi rape, other members of
commissions looking after women's affairs have made similar remarks
about less high-profile attacks.
"Mirje is reflecting what is a much larger problem. There are many
others who hold such views," Krishnan said.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, initially dismissed
a gang rape in her state in 2012 as a fabricated incident aimed at
tarnishing her government.
Assaults have tarnished the reputation of a country that has enjoyed
growing prosperity in the past decade and is modernizing fast.
Still, Mirje's comments were a reminder that conservative and
traditional mores are still deeply held by many of its 1.2 billion
people, women as well as men.
In the most recent case involving a foreigner, a 51-year-old Danish
tourist was gang-raped in the backpackers' district of Delhi last
month by men she asked for directions to her hotel.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)
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