By: Asna Ali
A vicious gang rape case in New Delhi has brought the problem of sex crimes in India back into focus. The details of this incident are horrific. A 23-year-old woman was brutally attacked on a bus while travelling with a male friend. She was raped and beaten so badly that she couldn’t survive, despite multiple surgeries to repair her body.
The Indian public is now out on the streets, demanding justice and change. Calls are being made for swift retribution with everything, from castration to death sentence, suggested as appropriate punishment for the attackers. The clamour for justice has grown so loud that government leaders have been forced to promise sweeping measures to ensure women’s safety in New Delhi, which is also known as the ‘rape capital’ of India.
Hundreds of rape cases are reported every year in New Delhi and other parts of India and the actual figures are thought to be much higher. A culture of shaming victims still persists, which scares off most victims from reporting rape crimes. Some brave souls who do decide to seek justice are often spurned by the police and ostracised by their communities. They are often portrayed as promiscuous to weaken their testimony and must relive their ordeal under intense and merciless scrutiny. A huge backlog in the justice system means that formal prosecution can take years to come about.
If this is starting to sound familiar, it is because the situation in India mirrors the one in Pakistan. In addition to having a shared history, both countries also have a rape culture that supports and enables offenders. The misogynistic belief that a rape victim must have somehow deserved what happened to her, perhaps because she was not a woman of ‘good character’, is part of collective mindset.
Even as many South Asian women become more educated and financially independent, their success and contributions to the community have not shaken some deep-rooted conservative opinions. A woman on the street is still an unsafe woman in many parts of India and Pakistan. Her very presence outside the confines of her house exposes her to assault and subsequent mud-slinging.
There are of course always exceptions but for many South Asian women, misogyny in its many forms is still a force they have to contend with on a daily basis. For some, it is daily indignities like vile comments on their choice of dress, an occasional catcall or leer. Others are violently assaulted and then forced to stay silent for fear of being ‘slut shamed’ for raising their voices against injustice. They are viewed as broken women, whose plight casts a pall on the honour of their families.
While victims of rape are expected to hide from the world, often their attackers roam free in search of new victims, confident in the belief that the law will never catch up. They are probably right. The existence of laws such as the Hudood Ordinances in Pakistan that resulted in rape victims being incarcerated for adultery; the propensity of our media to probe into the lives of victims while conveniently ignoring the accused; and a general reluctance, on both sides of the border, to even register rape cases, are all effects of persistent misogyny.
It is therefore, not far-fetched to imagine that after the initial fervour dies down, little will actually be done to protect the women of India. Unfortunately for them, they live in a region that has progressed in many ways but as far as women’s safety and rights are concerned, is still stuck in the Dark Ages.