International

India develops a gun for women

Named after gang rape victim Nirbhaya, the Nirbheek is a small, lightweight revolver being marketed to Indian women

Nirbheek gun for women
The Nirbheek, a .32-caliber pistol, is being marketed as “India’s first gun for women.”

The brutal gang rape of a young woman on a public bus in Delhi in December 2012 — in which six men raped and beat her so severely that she died — enraged the Indian public, inspired mass protests across the country and catapulted the problem of violence against Indian women into the international spotlight.

One year and an updated rape law later, a state-run company is marketing a solution to the harassment Indian women have said they face on a daily basis — a small, lightweight firearm billed as “India’s first gun for women.”

The Nirbheek is a .32-caliber handgun made of titanium alloy. Weighing in at just over a pound, it’s the smallest revolver made in India, and “ideal to fit a purse or a small hand bag,” according to the Times of India newspaper, which first reported the story.

The gun was designed to be a hybrid of a Smith & Wesson and a Webley & Scott, the Times reported, and will come packaged in a maroon velvet case.

Because, after all, “Indian women like their ornaments,” Abdul Hameed, general manager of the Indian Ordnance Factory (IOF), the state-run manufacturer of the gun, told BBC News.

The name Nirbheek is a synonym of Nirbhaya, the pseudonym given the 23-year-old rape victim because Indian law protected her identity. Both Nirbheek and Nirbhaya mean “fearless,” according to the BBC.

The price tag? A whopping 112,360 rupees, the BBC reports, or the equivalent of $1,950. That’s significantly more than the average annual income in India, which is about $1,100, according to the country's Central Statistics Office.

The IOF has sold 20 of them so far in January, with “many more inquiries,” according to the BBC. (The IOF did not respond to Al Jazeera’s emails seeking comment about the gun, its price and how many had been ordered so far.)

A ‘marketing tactic’

But will Indian women buy guns to protect themselves?

Gun ownership in India is not tied to personal liberty the way it is in the United States, where the right to bear arms is a cherished right along with free speech. While there are an estimated 40 million privately owned guns in India, second only to the U.S. worldwide, a significant portion have been purchased illegally, and private gun ownership isn’t protected by law, according to GunPolicy.org, a clearinghouse of gun-related statistics maintained by Sydney University’s School of Public Health.

A 2012 story in The Guardian newspaper attested to anecdotal evidence that gun ownership among Indian women was on the rise, particularly among those trying to protect themselves against violence and street harassment.

But Indians Al Jazeera spoke with agreed that gun ownership, which in India involves purchasing a permit, would be prohibitively expensive for the poorer women who are more likely to travel on public transportation and would most need protection. As such, a gun marketed to Indian women may not be a practical way for women to protect themselves, and is likely an attempt to capitalize on the Nirbhaya story.

“I don’t think that it’s a solution. I think it’s a marketing tactic,” said Namrata Kotwani, 29, an attorney in New York City who grew up in Delhi and moved to the U.S. in 2002. “It’s a possibility that it could be a solution for some women, but I have trouble conceiving who it would be.”

Kotwani explained that many Indian women, who are “working the double shift, often in very manually challenging jobs,” are unlikely to have the resources or even the wherewithal to buy firearms. “Imagine any kind of average, every-woman’s life,” she said. “In that context, I don’t think (gun ownership) makes sense.”

Indeed, the Nirbheek is similar in appearance to models of the Smith & Wesson LadySmith revolver that was marketed to American women in the 1980s — except the Ladysmith cost around $750, roughly one-third the price of the Nirbheek, according to Mary Stange, a professor of religious studies at Skidmore College and co-author of the book “Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America.”

“They’re playing to a particular class level,” she said of the Nirbheek.

Stange said that American women are increasingly buying guns for self-defense, and that while some gun manufacturers make “fairly blatant attempts” to market guns to women based on fear, she doesn’t recommend brandishing one without the proper training.

“Just buying a gun as a security blanket and then sticking it in a drawer is not a good idea,” she said. “If you’re going to purchase an arm for self-defense, where you’re talking about potential lethal force … you should be able to responsibly use the gun.”

And then there’s the fact that the majority of rapes are committed by people who know their victims — nearly 75 percent of rapes in the U.S. fall under this category, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. In India, that number appears to be closer to 94 percent.

While Nirbhaya didn’t know her attackers and was in a public setting, most rapes don’t involve strangers and take place in enclosed spaces and rooms, where a woman would be unlikely to carry a gun, said Nikhil Mehra, a Delhi-based attorney for the Indian Supreme Court who was a member of the government panel charged with examining rape and sexual assault following Nirbhaya’s death.

“There are many steps that come before the use of guns,” he said, pointing to cheaper and more accessible solutions, such as carrying pepper spray or the creation of cell phone apps that could provide rape victims with information to help them.

Mehra noted, however, that even these options are out of reach for many Indian women.

The bigger problem, he said, is the need for better police presence on the streets, more arrests and prosecutions of rapists, better public infrastructure such as lighting and fighting the stigma that has traditionally been tied to reporting rapes in India.

Though Mehra said the stigma is starting to dissipate, he added that “one of the biggest problems was that victims would never speak up for fear of retributions.”

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