July 2, 2014 | 12 Comments

Nirbheek Pistol (Ordnance Factories Board)

From the curators: On December 16, 2012, a brutal incident of sexual assault occurred in Delhi, India. A young woman, traveling home on a bus after watching a movie with a friend, was beaten, gang raped, and thrown naked into the street. The young woman, who later became known to the public as Nirbhaya (or “fearless”), died two weeks later as a result of her injuries; her male companion was also severely beaten but survived. The vicious attack drew widespread condemnation and quickly became the center of public attention and news coverage around the world. In response to this charged climate, the Indian Ordnance Factory—a sub-branch of the Indian government’s Ministry of Defense—developed a lightweight revolver called Nirbheek (a synonym for Nirbhaya). The pistol was marketed specifically for women, and its makers claimed the design would guard against sexual assaults. Since its release in January 2014, however, numerous objections have been raised in response to the design—not least over the inference that women must protect themselves from the status quo rather than agitating for protection under the law, changes in policy, and more progressive cultural attitudes. Such atrocities are endemic globally, and it is estimated that the majority of such attacks remain unreported or unprosecuted. (The trial that eventually brought Nirbhaya’s rapists to justice was a rare case in India at the time.) Despite the controversial design intervention, almost two years after Nirbhaya’s death the legacy of her ordeal remains uncertain.

From the branches of a mango tree, in its spreading shade on a hot May morning in a north Indian village, the bodies of two teenaged women hang. They were abducted, raped, and hanged by their necks until they died. The men arrested for their rape and murder, including two policemen, are from their own village, from a locally more dominant caste than theirs, although they all belong to a set of intermediate castes that, in the alphabet soup of Indian bureaucratese, is termed OBC—Other Backward Classes.

Meanwhile, routinely, Dalit women are raped, often killed, in villages—largely by OBC men, higher than Dalits in the caste hierarchy, economically more powerful, though “backward” themselves. “Dalit” literally means “oppressed,” but it’s a political identity militantly taken on by the former “untouchable” castes.

Rape is a way of teaching Dalits their place—since they seem to be in danger of forgetting.

Women—whatever their class, whatever their caste—seem to be in danger.

Of forgetting their place. Of facing sexual violence.

From men whose houses they clean, men they meet at parties, boyfriends, men who offer to help tourists, organized “rioters” during well-planned inter-community violence, husbands, relatives. From strangers in gangs. (A man doesn’t have to be physically stronger than a woman if he is many and she is one.) India reports, on average, over 22,000 rapes a year. This figure doesn’t include rapes by policemen of women and transgender people—hijras—in their custody; nor rapes by Indian armed forces with legal impunity in the large parts of India under Extraordinary Laws, where democratic rights are suspended.

Almost as beautiful as that shade giving generous tree on a summer morning in Katra Shahadatganj is the delicate gun designed especially for women. Small, lightweight, fitting easily into a lady’s purse, with a polished handle. It nests in a maroon velvet case because, as the manager of the factory that makes the gun said to a journalist, “Indian women love their jewelry.” The gun is named after the young paramedic who was raped and brutalized in Delhi in December 2012, whose courageous, but eventually fruitless, struggle for life brought thousands out on the streets in protest.

“Nirbhaya”—Unafraid Woman—this was the pseudonym given to her by a newspaper, since she could not be named under rape laws. The gun’s name, Nirbheek, means “unafraid.”

A sleek weapon appropriately feminized, named Unafraid, for use by the woman Afraid of rape from strangers. For would you pull that gun on your boyfriend, on a policeman, on your uncle as he creeps into your bed at night?

Its cost is higher than the annual income of most Indian households. Could you afford this gleaming sinister ornament if you were that young paramedic whose father is a loader at Delhi airport, or if you were one of the teenagers hanged to death in Katra Shahadatganj?

(Talking of gleaming sinister power: the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues said the U.S. was “horrified” at recent incidents of violence against women in India, Pakistan, and Nigeria. She has written to the Indian Prime Minister, asking him to take immediate action to combat violence against women. Presumably in our perfectly equitable world, in which one in five women in the U.S. have experienced rape, a Nigerian official can write to Obama asking him to take immediate action to ensure justice in the Steubenville and Torrington rapes, the violent victim-blaming reactions to which have horrified the rest of the world.)

Cheaper than the gun, not beautiful like the mango tree, but its design smart as a whip, is an app—the Vith U App. At the touch of a button on her phone, a woman can send alerts to designated receivers: I’m in danger. Please follow my location.

Endorsing the app on television, the intoxicating eyes of a leading Hindi film star seek out your deepest fears:

“I’m an actress, celebrity. Encircled by security, but still afraid. The criminal may not be a stranger, it could be anyone. In hotels, in elevators, in washrooms, you cannot take your safety for granted.

Design to enhance fear. The sharp awareness of that delicate bulk in your handbag; the sense of that smart program embedded in your smart phone.

To feel afraid always. So you can feel safe.

How about design to make you unafraid? Spaces, institutions, minds—unraveled and made over. Design that recognizes the intricate intimacy between life and risk, for to live is always to risk something valuable. Design to galvanize that thoughtless step into the unknown. Design that animates your careless laugh as you map the world with your stride.


What does "design to make you unafraid" look like?

  1. July 4, 2014, 3:11 pm

    Yogesh Saggar

    Shitty design

    It’s a shitty design. Pin wheel gun with capacity of 5 bullets??!!! Do you people think that a woman under attack by multiple assailants can be so focused that she will be able to retrieve a revolver (it’s a bloody revolver not a pistol) with that many snags in design without tangling it in her purse and use all the 5 bullets judiciously ?? You guys know how much practice it takes to be that proficient with a handgun. Besides I’m not even sure of what kinda calibration or bore this thing is being offered in. Nirbheek my ass!!

  2. July 15, 2014, 5:03 am


    It is a classic, what do you want ?

  3. July 15, 2014, 2:17 pm



    This is a cool project.

  4. July 16, 2014, 10:42 am

    georg wachberg

    disturbing images

    as many i have seen my share of atrocities but two things went under my skin in recent months. one was the two women hanging on that tree in india. the other was people in africa being burned alive by villagers. two haunting pictures. i don’t know what design can do about that though …

  5. September 7, 2014, 4:17 pm


    Designing objects

    A really incisive post. I feel that the problem comes when we design objects as solutions to a larger problem. The design lens needs to be applied to social processes and systems. Once we examine the design that creates violence, we begin to think of designs to enable freedom..

  6. December 5, 2014, 11:16 am

    Rebecca Bell

    Respond rather than Impose

    An incredible and moving piece that throws out questions that go to the core of crucial issues around relationships to gender inequality in our society. In terms of how design responds to these issues, obviously the fundamental political, economic and class-related problems need to be addressed on a governmental and daily level. But if design is going to be incorporated into this conversation, which it inevitably should be, the philosophies and aims of organisations like Design Against Crime (part of University of the Arts, London) come to my mind. Particularly ideas like designing products and services that are ‘fit for purpose’ and contextually appropriate, as well as “Evolving and developing products, services and environments via an iterative process related to the problem-oriented approach in crime prevention and user-focused approaches in design, extended to encompass abusers and/or misuser” (DAC website). Speaking with victims and abusers for understanding, working from within everyday contexts outwards rather than imposing inaffordable, high-risk design that isolates women yet again, would be one small (ideal and complex but possible) step design can take.

  7. January 6, 2015, 7:56 am

    Ben Nicholson

    Designing at the Edge of Death

    Because the Nirbheek Pistol features so prominently as the instrument that catalyzes the discussion surrounding Design and Violence, it is important to be informed on the attributes of this particular revolver. Arguments based on ignorance of the design and the varied use of firearms are the Achilles Heel of the intellectual community when it comes to discussing guns, and does nothing to foster real debate. I might get a little technical here for general readers, but without a short background of the design history of the Nirbheek, the discussion will not be as rich as it could be.

    The Nirbheek Pistol has a long and noble lineage dating back to 1869. Its essential design is based on the Smith & Wesson No. 3 ‘Schofield’, chambered for the mighty .44 center-fire cartridge. Smith & Wesson’s Schofield’s top-break design was a vast improvement on the slow-to-load .45 cap & ball Colts: the barrel flipped forward and the empty cartridge hulls were kicked out with the patented star-ejector, and reloaded in a fraction of the time of a Colt. When the chips were down, this design development made a very big difference: good design in a firearm means the difference between life and death, not something that is going to happen with the latest bagel slicer, unless you cut through the palm of your hand.

    When the Smith & Wesson design patents expired, the British reworked the Schofield in 1887 to make the massive Webley .455, which was initially designed with a short 4” barrel. The .455 was resized in 1932 to become the smaller frame caliber .38 Webley Mk IV, and police departments throughout the British Empire extensively used the revolver. There was a saying “The sun never sets on a Webley Mark IV”, hence the link to India.

    The Nirbheek is the little sister to these venerable 19th and 20th century revolvers, and apart from the titanium frame and diminutive .32 round, not much seems to be new, design wise. A quick You Tube check will demonstrate it to be an underpowered nostalgic throwback to the darker moments of the British Raj, and four times more expensive than it should be at $2,000. In the US, $500 can get you a decent used Savage 1907 in .32ACP. The Savage was an innovative design for the time: it won’t snag on clothing and is both small & elegant, especially if you are into Art Deco. If classic revolvers are your thing, the 1902 Smith & Wesson Ladysmith is another option, beautifully scaled but a tad underpowered in .22 Long.

    For Americans who want a new gun that offers the same personal protection available to their Indian sisters, the place to start would be websites such as The Well Armed Woman or BuzzPro’s ‘Top 10 Concealed Carry Guns for Women’. A finely designed new pistol that is quantitatively and qualitatively far superior to the Nirbheek can be had for under $500.

    If in the market, be careful when choosing the right caliber of a gun: anything smaller than a .380 or 9mm round is a little light and may cause more problems than solve them. Next to consider is that there are many excellent designs for hollow point ammunition, but don’t forget that HP ammo is not legal in the US Army, or any other army for that matter, due to ethical reasons determined by the Geneva Convention. Paradoxically, HP ammo is perfectly legal for US law enforcement and US residents (civilians and Legal Aliens alike) in most states.

    For those with access to You Tube, and a healthy respect for the citizens of the Red States, check out “Girl Shooting S & W 500 Magnum”. As you will see there is really no need to go small with a handgun, for there are plenty of options out there. Like any designed object, especially a tool, it is key to learn how to use it correctly, otherwise you will probably do more damage to yourself than to others, both emotional and physical. BTW more Americans are killed with hammers each year than with an AR-15.

    Design & Violence is a pretty complicated subject when it comes to firearms and, strange though it may seem, they are not necessarily synonymous. When slouching down for a night with a bag of chips, a glass of Chardy, and a catalog from the MoMA Store to browse, don’t forget that the US Army is out there making sure that all is quiet on the Home Front. Everything is linked together, so enjoy this particular version of the status quo while it lasts. As has been proven in Syria and elsewhere, things can go pear-shaped in a New York minute!

  8. February 8, 2015, 4:05 pm

    Ben Nicholson

    Update on Nirbheek History

    In talking with the Master Gunmaker at Webley & Scott, it turns out that the Nirbheek is an almost exact copy of the Webley & Scott Mk.IV .32. It had a 3″ barrel and is known as the “Baby Break Top” and was produced in Birmingham, England before WWII, mainly for sale in India.
    For those in the market for the American equivalent of the Nirhbeek, specifically designed for women, they might look at the Sig Sauer P328 LADY or EDGE in .380 ACP. The EDGE has a stainless steel slide with a very sassy Ti-PVD coated rainbow finish and costs about $700. Like the Nirbheek, it is a diminutive version of a classic, in this case the Colt 1911.

    P238 Lady – Rosewood grips, a red CeraKote-finished alloy frame and an engraved, Nitron®-finished slide deliver smooth-shooting style.
    P238 Edge – Features matte Ti-PVD-coated stainless steel slide, aluminum frame and black G-10 grips. PVD controls.

  9. June 20, 2015, 12:18 am

    Martin B

    Hey you

    The poor quality of the official ammunition available in India means that any semi automatic pistol will be prone to jamming, which will slow you down considerably in a defensive situation. A revolver may misfire, but a simple squeeze of the trigger will bring another round under the hammer in quick smart time. I understand a .357 magnum may be legal in India as it is officially UNDER the .38 ammunition limitation. Many people enjoy shooting the old Webleys, and if it ain’t broke… Also, suggesting off body carry does not make sense tactically. A concealment holster means the gun will be on your person when you need it, not stuck in a purse that has been snatched by a robber who is now armed when you’re not!

  10. April 7, 2016, 2:16 pm

    Kripa shanker dubey

    Brought a rivalvar

    32 bore rivalwar

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    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point. You obviously know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

  12. November 21, 2016, 3:45 am

    micael constancia

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