Is anti-rape underwear a step forward?

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Indian students invent anti-rape underwear

Three engineering students from India have developed underwear that provides electric shocks to men who sexually assault the wearer.

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This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to participate in an event for Daily Life's All About Women (presented at the Sydney Opera House). “Is Rape Culture Everywhere?” addressed what appears to be a rapidly increasing area of focus for me - rape, institutionalised sexual violence and the complicity of culture in excusing it.

Unfortunately, sexual violence is a crime still so deeply entrenched across all cultures (in some of which it is wielded more arrogantly, and to less state-based concern) that it cannot help but inspire debate, frustration, activism and fury in those groups of people determined to bring an end to it. Given the events of recent months, which have seen us at least reach an imagined state of Peak Rape if not an actual one, it is perhaps unsurprising to see greater numbers of people expressing the desire to do something, anything, to help prevent rape in tangible and meaningful ways.

Enter Manisha Mohan, Rimpi Tripathy and Niladri Basu, three engineering students from the SRM Institute of Science and Technology in Chennai, India. The three students were recently honoured in the Gandhian Young Technological Innovation Awards for a prototype of underwear (knickers and slip) designed to release up to 82 electric shocks and ward off would-be attackers. The students were prompted to design the underwear by the recent sexual assault and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey on a New Delhi bus, and a frustration with the dragging feet of the Indian legislature. “Lawmakers take ages to come up with just laws and even after that, women are unsafe," said Mohan and Tripathy. "Hence, we have initiated the idea of self-defence, which protects the women from domestic, social and workplace harassment."

Some of the components required.

Some of the components required. Photo:

Pandey's torture and subsequent death made international headlines for both its shocking brutality and its apparently arbitrary nature. Even in the wake of this, reports surfaced of the gang rape of a Swiss woman camping with her husband near a forest in India's Datia district.


Since then, Indian activists have been driving discussion on the systemic sexual violence prevalent in their country – every minute in India, two women are raped, and a recent Times of India survey revealed that 96% of Indian women feel unsafe after sunset in Delhi. The number of female tourists has fallen by 35%.

There's a collective frustration and anger arising in India over the prevalence of these incidents, and the casual ways in which rape survivors and victims are made complicit in their attacks. This is what rape culture looks like – a normalised system of social governance in which the victims of blatantly violent and degrading assaults (both physical and emotional) are mistrusted, blamed and expected to tolerate the environment in which they can rely on no safety. It differs from a broader culture of violence in that it is both overwhelmingly gendered and internalised as an unavoidable part of life – even while Pandey was dying in a Singapore hospital, prominent Indian spiritual guru Asarum Bapu claimed she was equally to blame. “She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop ... This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don't think so.”

The inventors, pictured above, say they have "initiated the idea of self-defence, which protects the women from domestic, social and workplace harassment."

The inventors, pictured above, say they have "initiated the idea of self-defence, which protects the women from domestic, social and workplace harassment."

It's the kind of archaic view in line with the crime of rape, which was traditionally used as a means of defiling men and their property. And while we may shudder at it in this case because of the visceral and particularly abhorrent nature of Pandey's murder, we aren’t immune from such judgments ourselves. In our efforts to come to terms with the fact that most rapists aren't the shadowed monsters we imagine them to be, we look instead to reasons why normal people might be inspired to commit unimaginable violence. Was it her clothes? Her manner? Did she say yes and then later experience a flash of regret, so much so that she felt she had no other choice than to enter a judicial system notoriously uninterested in delivering justice to the countless victims of sexual assault who enter it? And if she is telling the truth, what could she have done better to prevent this from happening?

And here we come back to the frustration of indifference; the unmitigated rage that comes from having the systematic use of violence to hold one group in check ignored and minimised by a wider culture that refuses to acknowledge the truth of its existence. We find engineering students in India devising undergarments for women to wear that might, in the unleashing of their power, hopefully buy enough time for the potential victim to run away (provided her attacker doesn't anticipate her intentions and force her through other means to remove her clothing).

We have South African activists, tired of being expected to fight against the tide of protracted sexual violence, creating devices whose intention is to wound and mutilate, arguing that, “I have been accused of all sorts, my all-time favourite being that I am the inventor of a most mediaeval device. My response, quite frankly, is that a mediaeval deed deserves a medieval consequence.” We read of women shackling themselves in modern chastity belts in the hope that they might discourage an opportunistic attacker, all the while acknowledging the intractability of sexual assault and its many methods. These are valiant attempts to return some kind of power and defence back to the women who are more often than not expected to shoulder the burden of rape prevention anyway.

But ultimately, they don't work. They're a frustrated response to the fact that, while we have largely managed to outlaw the more brutal means of grabbing power that were once historically practised by humanity, we've yet to do anything really significant to challenge the worldwide use of sexual violence as a means of controlling women. Worse, they may result in people doing less to combat violence, assuming that the solution has already been delivered via the means of arming oneself.

The other thing lost as we focus on the circumstances, whys and wherefores of how a rape or sexual assault occurred is the fact that it's a crime not inspired by sexual desire but power. It may range from the casual power that comes from believing your desires and rights to supersede those of another person, or it may stem from a misogyny concentrated in destructive rage. But it's about power, and the choice to wield it. The boys in Steubenville didn't use their fingers to rape Jane Doe for their own sexual gratification, but to humiliate her. As Germaine Greer pointed out in this piece on Saturday:  
 “What killed [Pandey] was not the penis of any of her five abusers, but the rusty L-shaped jack-handle that they used to penetrate her. When she was found, only 5 per cent of her intestines were inside her body.”

Rape is about power, not sex. If your intention is to demonstrate control and to punish, what do you do if you're denied access with your own tool? You simply find another.