In an ashram perched high on a hill above the noisy city of Guwahati in north-east India is a small exhibit commemorating the life of India's most famous son. Alongside an uncomfortable-looking divan where Mahatma Gandhi once slept is a display reminding visitors of something the man himself said in 1921: "Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex)."
One evening two weeks ago, just a few miles downhill, a young student left a bar and was set upon by a gang of at least 18 men. They dragged her into the road by her hair, tried to rip off her clothes and smiled at the cameras that filmed it all. It was around 9.30pm on one of Guwahati's busiest streets – a chaotic three-lane thoroughfare soundtracked by constantly beeping horns and chugging tuk-tuks. But for at least 20 minutes, no one called the police. They easily could have. Many of those present had phones: they were using them to film the scene as the men yanked up the girl's vest and tugged at her bra and groped her breasts as she begged for help from passing cars. We know this because a cameraman from the local TV channel was there too, capturing the attack for his viewers' enjoyment. The woman was abused for 45 minutes before the police arrived.
Within half an hour, clips were broadcast on Assam's NewsLive channel. Watching across town, Sheetal Sharma and Bitopi Dutta were horrified. "I was fuming like anything. There was this horrible, brutal assault being shown on screen – and the most disturbing thing was, the blame was being put on the woman, who, the report emphasised, was drunk," says Sharma, a 29-year-old feminist activist from the North-East Network, a women's rights organisation in Guwahati. "The way it was filmed, the camera was panning up and down her body, focusing on her breasts, her thighs," says Dutta, her 22-year-old colleague.
When the police eventually turned up, they took away the woman, who is 20 or 21 (oddly, Guwahati police claimed not to know exactly). While NewsLive re-played pixellated footage of her attack throughout the night, she was questioned and given a medical examination. No attempt was made to arrest the men whose faces could clearly be seen laughing and jeering on camera. Soon afterwards, the editor-in-chief of NewsLive (who has since resigned) remarked on Twitter that "prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs".
It was only a few days later, when the clip had gone viral and had been picked up by the national channels in Delhi, that the police were shamed into action. By then, Guwahati residents had taken matters into their own hands, producing an enormous banner that they strung up alongside one of the city's arterial roads featuring screen grabs of the main suspects. Six days after the attack, the chief minister of Assam, the state where Guwahati is located, ordered the police to arrest a dozen key suspects. He met the victim and promised her 50,000 rupees (£580) compensation.
The damage was already irreversible. Most Indians know full well how tough life as a woman can be in the world's biggest democracy, even 46 years after Indira Gandhi made history as the country's first female prime minister in 1966. But here, caught on camera, was proof. And in Assam – a state long romanticised as the most female-friendly corner of the country, largely thanks to the matrilineal Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. The nation was outraged.
"We have a woman president, we've had a woman prime minister. Yet in 2012, one of the greatest tragedies in our country is that women are on their own when it comes to their own safety," said a female newsreader on NDTV. She went on to outline another incident in India last week: a group of village elders in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, central India, who banned women from carrying mobile phones, choosing their own husbands or leaving the house unaccompanied or with their heads uncovered. "The story is the same," said the news anchor. "No respect for women. No respect for our culture. And as far as the law is concerned: who cares?"
There is currently no special law in India against sexual assault or harassment, and only vaginal penetration by a penis counts as rape. Those who molested the woman in Guwahati would be booked for "insulting or outraging the modesty of a woman" or "intruding upon her privacy". The maximum punishment is a year's imprisonment, or a fine, or both.
As a columnist in the national Hindustan Times said of the attack: "This is a story of a dangerous decline in Indians and India itself, of not just failing morality but disintegrating public governance when it comes to women." Samar Halarnkar added: "Men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male."
Halarnkar then offered as proof a survey that caused indignation in India last month: a poll of 370 gender specialists around the world that voted India the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries. It stung – especially as Saudi Arabia was at the second-worst. But the experts were resolute in their choice. "In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour," said Gulshun Rehman, health programme development adviser at Save the Children UK, who was one of those polled.
Look at some statistics and suddenly the survey isn't so surprising. Sure, India might not be the worst place to be a woman on the planet – its rape record isn't nearly as bad as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, where more than 400,000 women are raped each year, and female genital mutilation is not widespread, as it is in Somalia. But 45% of Indian girls are married before the age of 18, according to the International Centre for Research on Women (2010); 56,000 maternal deaths were recorded in 2010 (UN Population Fund) and research from Unicef in 2012 found that 52% of adolescent girls (and 57% of adolescent boys) think it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife. Plus crimes against women are on the increase: according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, there was a 7.1% hike in recorded crimes against women between 2010 and 2011 (when there were 228,650 in total). The biggest leap was in cases under the "dowry prohibition act" (up 27.7%), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4% year on year) and rape (up 9.2%).
A preference for sons and fear of having to pay a dowry has resulted in 12 million girls being aborted over the past three decades, according to a 2011 study by the Lancet.
A glance at the Indian media reveals the range of abuse suffered by the nation's women on a daily basis. Today it was reported that a woman had been stripped and had her head shaved by villagers near Udaipur as punishment for an extramarital affair. Villagers stoned the police when they came to the rescue. In Uttar Pradesh, a woman alleged she was gang raped at a police station – she claimed she was set on by officers after being lured to the Kushinagar station with the promise of a job.
Last Wednesday, a man in Indore was arrested for keeping his wife's genitals locked. Sohanlal Chouhan, 38, "drilled holes" on her body and, before he went to work each day, would insert a small lock, tucking the keys under his socks. Earlier this month, children were discovered near Bhopal playing with a female foetus they had mistaken for a doll in a bin. In the southern state of Karnataka, a dentist was arrested after his wife accused him of forcing her to drink his urine because she refused to meet dowry demands.
In June, a father beheaded his 20-year-old daughter with a sword in a village in Rajasthan, western India, parading her bleeding head around as a warning to other young women who might fall in love with a lower-caste boy.
This July, the state government in Delhi was summoned to the national high court after failing to amend an outdated law that exempts women (and turban-wearing Sikh men) from wearing helmets on motorcycles – an exemption campaigners argue is indicative of the lack of respect for female life.
But the story that outraged most women in India last week was an interview given to the Indian Express by Mamta Sharma, chairwoman of the National Commission of Women (NCW), a government body tasked with protecting and promoting the interests of Indian women. Asked by the reporter if there should be a dress code for women "to ensure their safety", Sharma allegedly replied: "After 64 years of freedom, it is not right to give blanket directions ... and say don't wear this or don't wear that. Be comfortable, but at the same time, be careful about how you dress ... Aping the west blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen."
She added: "Westernisation has afflicted our cities the worst. There are no values left. In places like Delhi there is no culture of giving up seats for women. It is unfortunate that while the west is learning from our culture, we are giving ourselves up completely to western ways."
Her remarks caused a storm. As Sagarika Ghose put it in the online magazine First Post: "It's not just about blindly aping the west, Ms Sharma. It's also about the vacuum in the law, lack of security at leisure spots, lack of gender justice, lack of fear of the law, police and judicial apathy and the complete lack of awareness that men and women have the right to enjoy exactly the same kind of leisure activities."
The Guardian asked Sharma for an interview to clarify her remarks but our requests were ignored.
Maini Mahanta, the editor of the Assamese women's magazine Nandini ("Daughter"), believes the NCW chair's remarks are indicative of what she calls the "Taliban-plus" mentality that is creeping into Indian society. "In this part of the world, it's worse than the Taliban," she insists in her Guwahati office. "At least the Taliban are open about what they like and dislike. Here, society is so hypocritical. We worship female goddesses and yet fail to protect women from these crimes and then blame them too."
Mahanta explains how traditions still cast women as helpless victims rather than free-thinking individuals in control of their own destiny. Girls still tie Raksha bandhan or "safety ties" around their brothers' wrists as a symbol of their duty to protect them, she says. She complains, too, about the Manu Sanghita, an ancient Indian book that she claims preaches: "When a girl is young, she is guided by her father; when she is older, she is guided by her husband; when she is very old, she is guided by her son." She despairs of the cult of the "good girl, who is taught to walk slowly 'like an elephant' and not laugh too loud".
Even in Mumbai, India's most cosmopolitan city, women have been arrested and accused of being prostitutes when drinking in the city's bars.
Sheetal Sharma and Bitopi Dutta, the young feminists from the North East Network, complain that modern women are divided into "bad" and "good" according to what they wear, whether they go out after dark and whether they drink alcohol. "We are seeing a rise of moral policing, which blames those women who are not seen as being 'good'," says Sharma. "So if they are abused in a pub, for example, it's OK – they have to learn their lesson," adds Dutta, 22, who grumbles that young women such as herself cannot now hold hands with a boyfriend in a Guwahati park, let alone kiss, without getting into trouble with the moral police, if not the real police.
Many women agree the response from the Guwahati authorities shows they are blind to the root cause: a society that does not truly respect women. Instead, a knee-jerk reaction was taken to force all bars and off-licences to shut by 9.30pm. Club Mint, the bar outside which the young woman was molested, had its licence revoked. Parents were urged to keep a close eye on their daughters.
Zabeen Ahmed, the 50-year-old librarian at Cotton College in Guwahati, tells how she was out for an evening walk not long ago when she was stopped by the police. "They asked me what I was doing out at that at that time – it was 10.30pm or so – and they asked me where my husband was."
The fact that India has a female president – Pratibha Patil – and Sonia Gandhi in control of the ruling Congress party means very little, insists Monisha Behal, "chairperson" of the North East Network. "In the UK, you have had Margaret Thatcher – if you are being harassed by a hoodlum in the street there, do ask: 'How can this be when we have had a woman prime minister?'" she says.
Every Indian woman the Guardian spoke to for this article agreed that harassment was part of their everyday lives. Mahanta revealed that she always carries chilli powder in her handbag if she ever has to take public transport and needed to throw it in the face of anyone with wandering hands. Deepika Patar, 24, a journalist at the Seven Sisters newspaper in Assam, says city buses were notorious for gropers. "If women are standing up because there are no seats, men often press up against them, or touch their breasts or bottom," she explains.
In June, an anonymous Delhi woman wrote a powerful blog post detailing what happened when she dared not to travel in the "ladies carriage" of Delhi's modern metro. After asking a man not to stand too close to her, things turned nasty. Another man intervened and told the first to back off, but soon the two were having a bloody fight in the train carriage. Rather than break up the brawl, the other passengers turned on the woman, shouting: "This is all your fault. You started this fight. This is all because you came into this coach!" and "You women always do this. You started this fight!" and "Why are you even here? Go to the women's coach."
Speaking under condition of anonymity, the 35-year-old blogger says she had experienced sexual harassment "tonnes of times". "I hate to use the word, but I'm afraid it has become 'normal'," she says. "Like if you're in a lift, men will press up against you or grab you or make a comment about your appearance. It's because of this that I stopped travelling by buses and started travelling by auto rickshaws, and eventually got a car myself – to avoid this ordeal. When the metro was launched I loved it – it's an improvement in public transport, very well maintained, you feel safe. Then this happened and I was blamed."
By Thursday last week, the Guwahati molestation case had become even murkier. Police had arrested and charged 12 men with "outraging the public decency of a woman", and on Friday they charged journalist Gaurav Jyoti Neog of NewsLive with instigating the attack he filmed. Neog denies orchestrating the attack or taking any part in it, apart from filming it "so that the perpetrators can be nabbed". But police have forced him to give a voice sample, which has been sent to a forensic laboratory for analysis, to compare with the footage. The verdict is out on that case, but one thing is clear: 91 years after Gandhi urged Indian men to treat their women with respect, the lesson has yet to be learned.
• This article was amended on 24 July 2012. The original said brothers tied Raksha Bandhan threads around their sisters' wrists, when it is the sisters who put the threads on the wrists of their brothers.
In 1898, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody led a spectacular parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. A troupe of hundreds of performers—American Indians in traditional headdresses, cowboys in 10-gallon hats, and military men from Europe, the Middle East, and other countries who were known as the Congress of Rough Riders of the World in colorful regalia—marched down the broad avenue, accompanied by hundreds of horses, buffalo, and other animals.
The parade was designed to entice the public to attend performances of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which played across the country and Europe in grand outdoor arenas holding as many as 10,000 to 20,000 ticket holders. Between 1883 and 1913, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured every year from April through October, preparing a full program of entertainment: feats of horsemanship, marksmanship, and reenactments of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the Battle of Summit Springs, the Deadwood Stagecoach robbery, and an “Attack on the Settler’s Cabin.”
Cody and his partners marketed the Wild West program as an educational exhibition and experience, introducing audiences to the American frontier and cowboy life, American Indians, and later, internationally acclaimed military and equestrian teams. Ticketed patrons could visit the Wild West village, the camp where Cody and all of his performers lived at each tour stop.
Cody befriended many of the American Indian men performing with his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, but the daily programs depicted American Indians in the most stereotypical of situations, relentlessly attacking white American settlers or soldiers.
New York City art photographer Gertrude Käsebier saw the grand parade down Fifth Avenue and wondered if she might be able to capture a more intimate side of the performers. She was interested in the American Indians as individuals, not on-stage caricatures. Käsebier had grown up on the Plains, and her family had raised her to respect Native American culture and traditions. She wanted to photograph them like she would any of her usual subjects, capturing within each portrait the individual character of the men.
I first encountered Käsebier’s photographs while working in the photographic history collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which holds over 100 platinum photographs by Käsebier. I can tell you that her photographs are markedly different from those of other photographers of the era, especially Edward Curtis, who chose to photograph American Indians in dramatic Western settings, sometimes adding props or clothing he carried. Curtis’ body of work was intended to document the vanishing Indian.
Kasebier’s portraits, by contrast, are rich images of men in transition, individuals determined to embrace 20th-century opportunities and experiences far from their Western homes.
Many audiences were introduced for the first time to American Indians and their culture (albeit one filtered by white Americans’ sensibilities) through the Wild West performances. When the shows started, the U.S. government was still fighting what became known as the Indian Wars. In the decades following the Civil War, these conflicts that had started as a result of manifest destiny were exacerbated by United States push to reunify, and claim lands seen as rich in resources. Violent clashes resulted across the West from the late 1860s to early 1890s, with the eventual removal of hundreds of tribes from their native lands.
The 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee officially ended those wars, but audiences to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West remained fascinated with the “enemy.” The American Indian performers at Buffalo Bill Cody’s show—and its imitators—created a “safe” context in which to explore the complicated relationships between the American Indian, the government, and the American public.
Each year the show toured, several hundred American Indians welcomed the opportunity to play themselves, and the federal government’s agents on their reservations helped sign them up for Cody’s company. An Indian typically got paid $25 to $75 a month, with additional pay for extra tasks. Ironically, when traveling with the show, American Indians could wear traditional items and perform certain rituals that federal rules now forbade on reservations.
But the Indians faced challenges on the show, including being far from home for the first time and encountering new types of illnesses—not to mention the strain of two three-hour performances, six days a week. And they had to contend with marketing images promoting them as uncivilized but noble savages, even as many of the younger Indian performers were educated and fluent in English.
Käsebier wanted to capture this complexity. So she penned a request to Cody for a portrait sitting in her studio with the American Indian performers. On April 24, 1898, the last day of the three-week spring booking at Madison Square Garden, a dozen Sioux Indian performers arrived with their interpreter at Käsebier’s studio on Fifth Avenue.
The men were from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. They prepared for their photographs by meeting the night before in the Wild West camp to share their finest clothing and accessories. Chief Iron Tail, who was about 47 at the time and an elder tribal battle hero, represented bravery and respect among the group selected to visit the photography studio.
He joined the Wild West in 1889 before its second European tour, and he developed a strong friendship with Cody, with whom he often went on off-season hunting outings. He may have participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, which was sometimes recreated during Wild West performances.
Kasebier achieved exactly the kind of portrait she envisioned of Iron Tail: a relaxed and intimate portrait of a man, devoid of decoration or finery, without barriers, as she herself would explain it.
Chief Iron Tail, meanwhile, hated his portrait. When shown the Käsebier image, probably by the photographer herself, Iron Tail promptly tore the photo up, saying it was too dark. The usually reserved Sioux elder had strong convictions about his own image, and gained the satisfaction of one final bold profile portrait several days later wearing his full feather headdress. Each feather in his headdress, or war bonnet, represented an act of bravery over a lifetime, similar to the medals of a U.S. military soldier. He was more interested in presenting a vision of the warrior he once was—the warrior he portrayed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—than in embracing the vulnerable man in Käsebier’s first image.
And so, Chief Iron Tail got the image he desired, and Käsebier held on to her original effort. But she rarely exhibited the portraits of these men or published them. It was a very personal project, only shared with family, her peers, and the “Show Indians” photographed in her studio. The full set of prints and original negatives remained with her family until 1969, when her granddaughter, Mina Turner, donated the platinum photographs to the Smithsonian and the original glass negatives to the Library of Congress.
Both Cody’s spectacle and Käsebier’s more introspective portraits left a lasting legacy. Even though Cody’s show was controversial—some people complained about allowing the Indians to travel and perform, others about their poor treatment and wages—it seemed to fuel the efforts of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and reformers to pursue better treatment of all American Indians across the nation. Throughout the time Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was on Americans’ minds, groups battled in Congress over the rights of American Indians.
Käsebier’s portraits provide a poignant counterpoint to the Wild West Show. The intense gazes and the slightly bemused lip curls she captured (improbably enough) in her New York studio say a great deal about the transition, and ultimate fate, of these individuals. They are neither vanquished nor triumphant, but merely survivors, determined that their stories continue on into the new century.