FREMONT -- Worldwide rage unleashed by last month's brutal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi who died on Saturday highlights a frustration that has been building for years over sexual harassment and violence on India's streets, says an East Bay woman who works with South Asian women who are victims of domestic violence.
"It's not one incident," said Preeti Shekar, executive director of the organization called Narika. "This has been happening for a while and this was the tipping point."
Hundreds of Bay Area residents expressed similar anger during a candlelight vigil held Tuesday night at the Fremont Hindu Temple.
Lakshmi Moorty, a Santa Clara woman, drove nearly an hour to attend the ceremony honoring the victim of the brutal Dec. 16 attack, in which six young men used a metal rod to fatally assault a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a moving bus. The woman's boyfriend also was beaten but survived.
"This incident has moved me so much, I haven't been able to celebrate anything during the holidays," said Moorty, a 69-year-old retired mathematics professor. "It has created a movement of awareness of safety for women, and it's not going to be stopping."
Divyashree and Mohit Gupta, a Santa Clara couple, said that India's laws need to be strengthened. They said they are dismayed that more than 600 rapes were reported in 2012 in New Delhi but resulted in just one conviction.
"That shows how weak the law is in India," Divyashree Gupta said at the vigil. "We want some action to be taken so that a crime like this is never repeated."
Six men have been arrested in connection with the attack, and five of them are expected to be charged with murder. The sixth suspect is younger than 18 and Indian authorities reportedly will give him a bone test to identify his age.
Shekar is demanding a multipronged effort to prevent future such attacks. An entire cultural shift is necessary to change India's attitudes, which she said have allowed the treatment of women as second-class citizens to become deeply entrenched.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, 260 men in the past five years have been nominated for political office in India despite the fact that they are facing charges of crimes against women. Six state-level members of parliament are facing rape charges and two at the national level have been charged with crimes against females, the newspaper reported.
"Million of girls have been dealing with this behavior for years," Shekar said.
She said an Indian tradition of aggressive flirtation in which men make cat calls to women as they walk by -- called "eve-teasing" -- creates a predatory environment.
"The term 'eve-teasing' does a disservice because it trivializes harassment," she said. "Acts of violence frequently start in these places."
She pointed to an Indian pop culture staple as a contributing problem: Bollywood movies. Those films, which have millions of fans worldwide, feature lighthearted musical scenes where men playfully -- but persistently -- pursue women through song and dance. Shekar notes that men in India sometimes will sing a line from a Bollywood song to catch a woman's attention. The proliferation of pornography on the Internet may be fueling sexually violent attacks, she said.
"We need to talk about how the culture portrays women and the impact it has on women and their safety," she said. "We need to ask why we are not creating societies that are safe for men and women."
Indian authorities have begun instituting changes, such as starting a 24-hour phone hotline for New Delhi women in distress and setting up a task force to review and monitor female safety in the city, BBC News reported.
Activists hope that is just the beginning. The Fremont vigil was the second Bay Area gathering held in support of the victim in less than a week, and a third is planned Saturday at Lake Elizabeth in Fremont's Central Park.
"It's great to see this kind of civil society mobilizing in India," Shekar said. "I hope the anger people are feeling will bring momentum toward lasting change."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.