India and rape hit the headlines around the world again this week, to the chagrin of Indian officials. However, this time it was their actions, not those of the rapists, which created the fallout.
The crisis was caused by the documentary India’s Daughter, set to be aired on International Women’s Day tomorrow by BBC4’s Storyville series, which features an interview with one of the men convicted of a fatal gang rape in New Delhi in December 2012.
While the focus of the controversy has been comments made by Mukesh Singh in which he blames the victim, Jyoti Singh, for being out at night and for fighting back against her attackers, the film is more about the aftermath of the rape — the huge street protests in New Delhi and elsewhere, the impact on Jyoti’s parents, the suspects’ parents and India itself.
The Indian home minister banning the film from being shown in the country and talking about taking action against the BBC and YouTube is a classic example of shooting the messenger. His actions only resulted in the BBC showing the film four days ahead of schedule and it being uploaded repeatedly to YouTube.
Watching the documentary, viewers can see why Indian officials might feel anxious, but not because of Mukesh Singh’s attitude. His excuses have been made by rapists the world over. More disturbing are interviews with two of the defense attorneys.
M.L. Sharma says “we [India] have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman,” while A.P. Singh declares that if his daughter or sister were to engage in premarital sex, he would pour gasoline over her and set her alight in front of the entire family. He also claims that scores of Indian lawmakers have been charged with rape or similar crimes, but have yet to be tried.
Misogynistic comments by the educated elite are harder to dismiss than those made by the poor and uneducated. India’s Daughter highlights the fact that attackers of girls and women are empowered by societies in which women are seen as second-class citizens.
Rape happens in every society, and not just to females. It is about power and violence, not sex. However, rape is just one in a catalogue of assaults against women aimed at subjugating them, depriving them of their rights and of a life equal to males. It begins with gender-selective abortions and genital mutilation, and includes name-shaming and verbal abuse, sex trafficking, acid attacks, domestic violence and murder.
Brazilian lawmakers this week recognized the extent of the problem by approving a bill to recognize femicide as an aggravated form of homicide. The bill covers cases where a female has been killed following domestic violence or gender-based violence, and includes increased penalties if the victim was killed in front of family members. It has yet to be signed into law [ editor's note: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed it into law on March 9], but it is a major step forward, and an example to other nations.
Ghopal Subramanium, a senior advocate for the Indian Supreme Court, who was also interviewed in India’s Daughter, took aim at those who would dismiss rapists as aberrations or monsters, or blame girls and women for being attacked.
“Nobody is a monster in that he is excluded from society; after all, any society that has these rapists has to take responsibility for them,” Subramanium said. However, his most telling words presaged the Indian home minister’s actions this week.
“When you do demand accountability, establishments feel highly threatened,” he said.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, Subramanium’s words hammer home some hard truths. Rape and female disenfranchisement do not happen in a vacuum. M.L. Sharma is wrong; there can be no culture if women are not part of it — an equal part.
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