I want to talk about the increasing sexual violence against women in South Asia, especially India. This week an entire nation is coming to terms with a brutal gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi – a city which has been termed as the rape capital of India for the last few years. And we are a society where sexual assault and sexual abuse of women is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Most of these crimes go unreported to protect the “honor” of the victims and their families.
But why does this horrific reality even exist? If a woman is assaulted, she is somehow blamed for “not dressing conservatively”, or the way she talked, smile, laughed, walked. She is blamed for going out to bars or talking to men. She is blamed for staying out late. She is blamed for “having loose morals”. It is somehow always the woman’s fault. And even if she is the “good, conservative, homely” girl, she is subjected to catcalls and lewd comments. And all of this is termed as “eve-teasing”. Instead of treating it as the crime of sexual harassment, we as a society give it a term that trivializes the criminal actions of grown men.
But again, why does this treatment of women exist? I have two important reasons for it – the ultimately veto power that men wield over women’s lives, and secondly the gender segregation in our conservative societies where men grow up seeing women only as that unattainable meat rather than fellow human beings. I will write about the second point later because it is a whole big topic. We self-righteously claim that women have equal rights under our constitutions or in our Scriptures. Only someone who has never read Scripture or drinks the Kool-Aid of Denial will say that Scripture treats women equally. And constitutions are just words on paper if the culture of the population is something else. I have seen women not go to school so that their brothers could. I have seen women eat leftovers after men, once they have served the tastiest of foods to their fathers, husbands, and sons. I have seen mothers fetch water for their sons and elder sisters cleaning up after their brothers. Parents yield the ultimate veto power over every aspect of the lives of their daughter. They get to decide what the girl will study, where will she study, where will she work. Some “liberal” parents give their daughters choices – with extreme limitations. Ultimately, most of those parents yield the most important veto power – who will their daughter marry. They do all of this with the following assurances to their daughters – “once you marry, you can do whatever you want”. And once she gets married, her parents give up all veto power over her life – which now transfers to her husband and her in-laws. The parents raised their daughter for one reason only – to give her away in “pristine” condition to her husband. If they do that successfully, they consider their parenting a success. Eventually, the same veto power transfers to the son. So for a woman, from the time she is born till the time she is put to rest, either her father, husband, or son decide every aspect of her life. The “modern” folks give her some choice where their own interests aren’t affected. But ultimately, nearly all of them have the final word over the woman’s life.
So in this type of thinking, culture, theology, and attitude, how will men ever learn to respect women? All these men have ever seen is the woman getting ordered around. All these men have ever known is that the place of a woman is in the house. And is it only men who are responsible for the conditions of women? Any woman from that part of the world would admit that other women put more restrictions and subjugate her independence. A man might have made the rules, but the mother, sister, friend or a mother-in-law enforces those rules. If a woman tries to break out of those rules, those same mother, sisters, and friends shame her for desiring to have her own voice and an independent mind. If a girl decided to do something against her parents’ wishes and was punished, instead of getting support all she hears is “well she made a mistake and hopefully she learns from this”. And then there are those women who agree that they are not treated equal, who agree that this is not the life they want, yet they live on a delusional self-sacrificial motto that says “my life’s goal is to please my parents even at the expense of my own happiness”. They might not agree the “choices” that have been put in front of them, but they will refuse “to go against parents”. Men are not giving up the power they have given to themselves and which women refuse to challenge. And the cycle continues for generations and centuries.
In societies that are becoming more open, more and more of these crimes are getting reported. In these societies where women are going to work out of the house, we see more of these crimes occurring in the streets, malls, buses, and taxis. The conservative response to all of this has been “the place of the woman belongs in the house”. Yet in those same conservative societies sexual abuse of women by family members is rampant. Many a women talk in whispers that this happens to “almost half the women”. But in these societies such truth barely, if ever, comes out. And the rare instances when it does come out, the girl is found dead in mysterious circumstances.
We ask what can we do to stop this violence against women? Maybe the first thing we should analyze is how do we treat women in our culture. We should look at how we treat our wives and daughters. We should look at the images of women we portray to our sons. Do we treat our women like fellow and equal human beings? Or do we treat her as some object or property who is not allowed to talk to men till after marriage. What message does that send to these young men? Their only idea of women is someone they don’t know, don’t understand and someone they can only have after marriage who will bear their babies. We can make laws that prescribe capital punishment for rapists. We can put more policemen in the streets. We can lock up our women. But this will only transfer this crime to inside the house like in some societies or just hide it under the carpet. Maybe we should take a deep, hard look into ourselves and just ask – “do we treat our daughters the way we treat our sons, or do we treat her as someone we have to protect and “save” for her husband and in-laws?”. Do we treat her as an equal human being, or do we treat her at a “step below men”?