January 30, 2013

Vigil Honors Rape Victim

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Correction appended

While throngs of protesters gathered around India’s parliament in protest of the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old female student, a group of 70 students, faculty and local residents met in Willard Straight Hall on Wednesday to commemorate the death and raise awareness of sexual violence against women.

On Dec. 16, 2012, a female student was violently raped by a group of six men on a moving public bus in New Delhi, according to The New York Times. The victim later died from internal injuries caused by the attack. The men, if found guilty, could face the death penalty, The Times reported.

The attack has sparked a debate about the treatment of women and the legal penalties of sexual assault in India, where, according to The Times, rape is common and conviction rates for the crime are low.

The vigil began with the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and a Hindi prayer song called “Aye Maalik Tere Bande Hum,” which was sung by mourners holding glow sticks in place of candles, which protesters have used to illuminate India over the past two weeks.

The event continued with speeches and poetry readings from students and staff, who urged the audience to “break the silence” and “take a stand against rape culture.” A few of those in attendance were so moved by that night’s proceedings that they spontaneously shared their thoughts and feelings with the audience.

Bani Subramanian, a visiting research fellow from Delhi, India, spoke about the importance of listening to rape victims’ stories and understanding their struggles.

“Everyone has something we tell ourselves to preserve our sense of distance from [sexual assult]. When you meet with people and you talk about things like this and you understand the cross connections, you often understand everything a little bit more,” Subramanian said.

Other speakers echoed this sentiment. Faaiza Khan ’14 said the audience needs to raise awareness and erase the taboo of openly discussing sexual assault.

“Whether these things happen in Pakistan, another part of India, or anywhere else in the world, the basic right of every human being needs to be respected,” Khan said. “If we acknowledge and then speak up about these atrocities and support others who do, you can bring justice to those who already been victimized and protect countless others from being so.”

Karan Javaji ’14, an organizer of the vigil, said he was pleased that those in attendance had such a strong emotional response to the speeches.

“Our goal was to get the conversation starting. Until now, there wasn’t any community discussion about these issues and we wanted to get that ball rolling so that in the future we can come up with more proactive actions,” Javaji said.

Subramanian said that the sexual attack in India has become a turning point for the way people view sexual violence against women. Although people tend to question the victim’s behavior in sexual assault cases, in this sexual assault case, people did not blame the victim, according to Subramanian.

Wednesday’s vigil brings first semester’s multiple sexual assaults and single attempted rape back into the spotlight. Amita Verma, director of the office of research integrity and assurance, called upon Cornell faculty and students to send an unequivocal message that sexual violence is just not acceptable in any circumstance.

“No means no…Cornell campus itself has seen so many incidents in the last semester and so its important for us to keep coming back together,” Verma said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Karan Javaji ’14 is a woman. In fact, Javaji is a man.

Original Author: Alexa Davis