Rape in India, and the Low Status of Women

The unnamed Indian woman who was gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi and had to be sent to Singapore for medical treatment has died and her body has been cremated back in Delhi, provoking further protests throughout India.

Aljazeera English reports

Rape is always about power, not sex. India is a highly patriarchal society. In some parts of India, women’s literacy is half that of men. Marriages are for the most part arranged, and a majority of young men has never been on a date with a woman or have a framework for interacting with strangers of the opposite sex. Because of the high value placed on a bride’s virginity (especially in traditional milieus) and the dangers to a girl’s future if there is a taint on her honor, rape is often not reported, and the men who rape are counting on this reticence to go public.

Sometimes caste hierarchies are at play – low-caste women are at greater risk of being raped. (Classical Hinduism recognizes 4 castes, though there are many sub-castes; members high-ranking castes such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas often can mistreat Shudras and Dalits with impunity. In short, the problem of rape is in part the problem of a highly unequal society where women are low status and often somewhat segregated and disadvantaged. Economist Amartya Sen estimated that because girls are less valued and less well taken care of when ill, there are millions of missing girls in India – girls who died from relative neglect compared to what their brothers got. There is also a growing problem of families aborting daughters once the sex of the embryo is known via ultrasound. In India, typically the bride’s family must provide the groom with many expensive gifts, so that marrying off the girls of the family is extremely expensive and poor fathers and mothers would like to have high-value sons instead.

There is little doubt, as well, that poor police work and unsympathetic police are part of the problem. When I lived in India, I heard horror stories of police actually themselves raping young women who went to them for help. That is something that can be reformed.

But the larger challenge for a rising India, which will be one of the great powers of the 21st century, is to elevate the status of women.

12 Responses

  1. When I went to India this spring, there was an article in the India Times about a case like this every other day. Sad as this is, I could help but wonder why this particular case has sparked such attention.

    As you mentioned, rape is about power. There was quite a brilliant commentary in one of the Indian papers in March on one case where the authors hinted at other power struggles involved. It mentioned people living in the country surrounding New Delhi who didn´t mind getting rich on the rise in value of their properties, yet still demanded to keep absolute partiarchal power on their families in a medieval fashion. The raped and killed girl had committed the crime of crossing their land to go out and have fun in New Delhi, accompanied by her brother in a taxi (she also worked in the city). Apparently, the men in those communities see this kind of behaviour as one single provocation, and the autor asked sarcastically how they can expect to benefit from the blessings of the 21st century without making any concessions to it.
    What made this case remarkable was the public furor that ensued when the Government “reacted” by suggesting a curfew and work hour regulations for women… it showed that, despite women working like men and getting the same education as men are commonplace in Delhi now, the conviction that they are otherwise not entitled to have a life outside of their home is still widespread.

    And this is, in my opinion, what the current uproar in India is about: sadly not about the millions of exploited poor women who have no chance of escaping their patriarch ever, we can´t help those much at the moment. It´s rather about the clash of lifestyles, the medieval clan-style that doesn´t give men much more freedom either, contrasting with the Indian version of educated Individualism.

  2. I would suggest a moratorium on Indian nationals being allowed to enter or to stay in the U.S. until the South Asian nation can get its stuff together. In my own experience, many of the “traditions” are imported along with the brain trusts/drain from some of the “advanced” nations. This is not a new thing but something that needs closer scrutiny, especially when economic survival is dependent on the flow of resources to and from, back and forth. Trade might be curtailed or eliminated accordingly.

    “In India, typically the bride’s family must provide the groom with many expensive gifts, so that marrying off the girls of the family is extremely expensive and poor fathers and mothers would like to have high-value sons instead.” Of course, this is sort of like indentured servitude in which the terms of marriage are dictated by financial incentives. The man’s family stands to become quite a bit wealthier from the payment of a dowry* whereas the woman’s family gets to bear the burden of the whole marriage scam/scheme/skim. It would be an interesting to illustrate the effects of an imbalanced population wherein the outsized numbers of men would have to share relatives’ spouses in order to fulfill some sort of reproductive urge/obligation. This might not bode well for the sterotypical “sacred cow” in that women might just usurp the position of adoration, making the women more literally “cash cows.”

    *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowry#India
    link to en.wikipedia.org

  3. Unfortunately, the above post about India applies in spades to the Muslim World as well. There is nothing more odious than Islam’s laws governing rape, which have been in Pakistan’s legal code (the Hudood Ordinances) since 1979, and which are recognized by others as well.

    In Islam, a woman who brings forth a charge that she has been raped must produce four male witnesses to the rape (as if rape were a spectator sport!) to testify on her behalf. If she cannot produce four male witnesses, she herself can be charged with adultary.

    There are other elements in Shar’ia Law that reflect the low status of women. Women may only inherit half of that inherited by a male sibling, and Shar’ia courts require the testimony of two women to equal that of one man. But the laws governing rape are particularly repugnant.

    • Those are Pakistani laws covering rape, not Islamic laws. Not all Islamic countries impose these types of laws.

      • “Those are Pakistani laws covering rape, not Islamic laws. Not all Islamic countries impose these types of laws.”

        I did not say all Islamic countries impose them. The laws are Islamic in origin, however. That is why Pakistan imposed them, in order to bring its legal code in line with Islam as reflected in Shar’ia law.

        • This is incorrect. Please refer to the following link:

          link to callingchristians.com

          There are other links discussing this issue, but this can be a start. In any case, orthodox Islamic theologians do not necessarily try to tie the Islamic laws to any rational discussion, because for any given time and place, there will be those, both men and women, who will disagree with their minds about aspects of Islamic law.

        • I’m afraid you are incorrect, Hossein. The link you suggested does not maintain that four male witnesses to a rape are not required. If a particular court does not require four male witnesses to the rape, such as under civil law in Turkey or as was formerly the case in Egypt, or even in the case of a particular Shar’ia court’s reading, that does not nullify the basic Shar’ia requirement.

          Neither does it contradict my statement above that if a woman cannot produce four male witnesses, she can herself be charged with adultary. I stated she “can” be charged, not she “will” be charged. In fact, women who bring a case of rape before a Shar’ia court have been charged with adultary when they could not produce four male witnesses.

  4. “here is also a growing problem of families aborting daughters once the sex of the embryo is known via ultrasound.” This is one of the most mind-bending practices. Where on earth do the families think they came from when they abort their girl embryos? Continuing like this to create essentially a uni-sex society is simply a drive towards extinction. Don’t these people even think about these issues?

  5. Arundhati Roy has written and spoken copiously about the treatment of the poor and landless in the “world’s larest democracy”. People vote, but no notice is taken of their wishes. The national and regional governments make deals with corporations (Enron was a case in point, supplying vastly expensive electricity) and the forest people (with whom she shared several weeks, written about in Outlook India online) are constantly attacked and pushed aside when mines and dams are planned despite big campaigns against them. The attitude to women (remember all the stories of burning “accidents” to brides whose financial contibution was not enough for grasping inlaws) needs to vastly change.

  6. “Rape is always about power.” Yes, but…

    Power for what purpose? Evolutionary psychologists would say that rape concerns power for reproductive success. Of course, that does not mean that the perpetrators are aware of this.

    • Rape is the exercise of violence over another person, from the imposition of one’s will and desire over something else, and over controlling something that the other person believes is theirs alone. That alone could explain the rush that a rapist would get

    • Would you please spare us with Biologisms, as I´m just sick of them by now… and as they don´t explain anything they claim to “explain”?
      Rape in the context of primitive patriarch societies that don´t acknowledge women as human beings is about humiliation of the men that “own” the raped woman. This woman had a male companion on her ride to death, as had the woman I mentioned in my post above (brother/fiance).

      When you read about rape as a war crime, you´ll find quite often that the perpetrator forces the husband to watch his wife being raped before he´s getting killed.

      Rape in this context is about taking and destroying cherished property (who/what could be dearer to your soon to be defeated enemy, and what can be more destructive to a woman´s soul?), thereby intimidating the enemy.

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