Rape is about violence and domination. It is not – not – about sex. Now that details are emerging about the horrific attack in Delhi, anyone who thinks otherwise is being willfully blind. Beating a man and a woman into bloody unconsciousness with an iron bar is not sex. It is violence. And ramming that iron bar into a woman’s vagina so forcefully that it destroys her internal organs, requiring a multiple organ transplant as her only hope of survival, and ultimately killing her, is not sex. It is an especially hideous murder, carried out by violent criminals who were so certain they could get away with it that they even drove their rape bus through police checkpoints during their crime!
And where did they get that idea? They have had it all their miserable lives. They got it from a long-standing cultural and legal atmosphere that devalues women, making them easy targets for violence.
Brendan O’Neill, writing for The Telegraph, laments that there is something of a double standard in our perception: the UN Secretary General has called upon India to make reforms to protect females, while similar crimes that have occurred in Western countries like Britain merit no reaction from the international community. So why is India singled out for a crime committed by run-of-the-mill dregs of society? Because, O’Neill complains, other such crimes are not seen as “…indicative of British culture in general, as a sign that British society and all those who inhabit it are rapacious and repulsive, but the Delhi gang rape is being treated as the logical end result of the allegedly depraved culture and attitudes of India…”
Well, yes. When women are attacked in a Western country, they actually have a pretty good chance of obtaining justice; Indian women do not. Despite Mr. O’Neill’s defense of India, and despite the fact that we know most Indian men are not depraved criminals, there is a real, undeniable cultural and legal atmosphere that really does promote a sense of audacity or invulnerability among such criminals as the Delhi rapists. Women are seen as lesser creatures, and too few crimes against women are even investigated, much less actually punished.
Consider that Indian women are sometimes subjected to disfiguring, crippling and sometimes fatal acid attacks by men who they wouldn’t sleep with. That it is not uncommon for new brides to be burned to death by their in-laws over dowry issues (more than 8000 of them in 2010). That lovers or spouses from different castes are often assaulted and killed by relatives for “honor.” That wives are quite commonly abused and even killed by their husbands.
This is about culture, not law; laws exist, they are ignored, and therefore more laws will not help. The caste system is outlawed in the Indian Constitution, but it still thrives, and still inspires honor killings – which are too often dismissed as accidents or suicides, or just go uninvestigated and unpunished. Dowry was outlawed in 1961, but many women still can’t marry without it – and it still gets them killed. Fewer than 10% of those cases are even investigated. Acid attackers too often receive little or no punishment.
Well, rape and sexual assault are illegal too, but just like these other culturally-ingrained crimes against women, little is done to help the victims or punish the perpetrators. In fact the victims are often blamed for what others do to them, and their families are shamed. “They should not be out at night.” “They should not be dating.” “They had loose morals.” The goons who raped and murdered the Delhi woman and assaulted her boyfriend knew that. Women have legal rights on paper, but they are not enforced in reality, and that is a direct result of culture, attitudes, and beliefs. As Seema Anand writes, many poor and uneducated women do not even know such laws exist at all. We can bet that poor and uneducated men don’t, either.
No, not all Indian men are depraved criminals. But some of them are, and yes, in a culture where bride-burning and honor killings are routine – and carried out by otherwise ordinary citizens who go unpunished – where are the social or legal deterrents against rapists?
To prevent not only another Delhi rape and murder, but the thousands upon thousands of other crimes annually committed against Indian women, legal protections have proven insufficient. Only a profound and permanent cultural shift can improve women’s rights in India.