A rape survivor in the Indian state of Gujarat is being asked to undergo a "purity test" that involves balancing an 88-pound stone on her head before she can live with her husband again.
Following the rape, the woman was reportedly denied an abortion and then forced to give up the child to the government. Both the husband and wife wish to live together again, but she isn't allowed to unless she passes the purity test.
The test, which is known as "agnipariksha" (meaning "test of fire"), is a cultural tradition in some of India's remote rural areas that requires women whose virtue has supposedly been tainted by sexual abuse or whose chastity has been questioned to complete this unusual and physically challenging stunt. It's unclear precisely how long she would have to keep the stone atop her cranium; her observers would await some sort of spiritual signal to show that she had passed.
The test originates from the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana, which applied it to Princess Sita after a rival suitor kidnapped her. Her husband Rama rescues her, but subsequently has doubts about her chastity under captivity. In the poem, Sita sits in a sacrificial fire to prove her purity, and is protected from the flames by Agni, the lord of fire.
A scene from the Ramayana: Sita undergoing the ordeal by fire watched by Rama, Laksmana and Hanuman. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
The woman, who hid her identity, told the news outlet India Today that after enduring the traumatic experience she lives in fear and is afraid to leave her home. She said that her attacker has threatened to kill her once he is out of jail. The situation is garnering attention in India following a decision by the Gujarat High Court to allow a 14-year-old rape victim to terminate her pregnancy, backtracking on an earlier dismissal of her petition.
These incidents serve as a reminder that retrograde views remain deeply entrenched in some quarters of Indian society, Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told VICE News.
"India has global aspirations and wants to project itself prominently on the world stage, but back home it continues to face challenges that have dogged it for years, including patriarchal mentalities that have damaging consequences for women," he said.
India has long struggled to fight rape culture. A brutal gang rape in 2012 that resulted in the death of a woman sparked a widespread discussion on violence against women and paved the way for fast-track courts and the strengthening of sexual assault laws. The government criminalized stalking, gave stricter punishments for repeat offenders, and specified human trafficking and acid attacks as offenses. There have been grassroots efforts to educate women and children, and a women's police department was created to encourage women to report and discuss rapes.
Still, more than two years later, rape remains a pervasive menace in much of the country. After the 2012 Delhi gang rape, the government created a $320 million fund to support the safety of women and protect their dignity, but it remains unclear how the funds will be distributed and spent.
In just the first two months of 2015, Delhi police registered more than 300 reports of rape. This number put the country's capital on track to more than double the number of rapes from last year, and reflects an increased willingness from women to report sexual assaults. In a Hindustan Times poll earlier this year, 91 percent of women said they hadn't seen any safety improvements since 2012.
Despite campaigning on women's safety, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who previously served as chief minister of Gujarat, has scarcely spoken on the topic since winning the election. When US President Barack Obama visited India earlier this year, he emphasized empowering women in society.
"Every woman should be able to go about her day — to walk the street, or ride the bus — and be safe and be treated with the respect and dignity that she deserves," Obama said during his speech.
Watch our HBO report on India's rampant rape problem:
Follow Aliya Iftikhar on Twitter: @aliyazeba