I wrote about reactions to the Delhi gang-rape (and now murder) that are not what you expect from a civilised people. Abhijit Mukherjee was not the only person making dumb-headed comments. There are people who blame the victim and people who blame “western culture”; there are people in parliament and people on the streets demanding castration and death as punishment for rape.
But for all this, I have also heard some sane voices. Rape is only the worst symptom of a continuum of attitudes and the misogyny that pervades society at every level. Rape begins at home. Every boy who has it drilled into him that he is worth more than his sister is a potential rapist. He may not actually rape anybody, but he will become a member of this society in which it is ever so easy to blame the victim. It doesn’t help that even our mythology — the epics, the bedrock of this society — is misogynistic.
But while we in India may be worse than other societies, we are by no means unique when it comes to victim-blaming or treating women like second-class citizens. In fact, the language that is used to shame women — “shame the sluts” — is the same no matter which society we talk about.
Society’s treatment of women is again only one tragedy in a hierarchy of sorrow. This hierarchy is institutionalised and perpetuated by the xenophobia inherent in this society as in any other. We treat the other with contempt and suspicion. While it may sound facile to suggest that teaching men and women to empathise with those less privileged than themselves will stop rape, I can’t think of another permanent solution. Yes, the laws regarding rape need to be re-written. But no amount of policing and jurisprudence will end the tragedy of rape if change doesn’t begin at home and on the streets.
And finally, I have come across two accounts — those of Charanya Kannan, and of Sohalia Abdulali — of personal trauma and courage in the face of a malevolent society and an uncaring legal system. The only thing in common between these two women is that they had the support of their friends and families. Which is more than can be said for many women in this country. Read just these accounts of personal travails and you will have an idea of what we can do to change society for the better, bottom-up.
[Edit: After I had written this post, I found this wonderful TED-ed talk by Isabel Allende who says, near the end of her talk:
What I fear most is power with impunity. I fear abuse of power and the power to abuse. In our species, the alpha-males define reality and force the rest of the pack to accept that reality and follow the rules. The rules change all the time but they always benefit men. And in this case, the trickle-down effect that does not work in Economics works perfectly. Abuse trickles down from the top of the ladder to the bottom. Women and children, especially the poor, are at the bottom of the ladder. Even the most destitute of men has somebody to abuse — a woman or a child. I am fed up with the power that the few exert over the many through gender, income, race and class. I think that the time is right to make fundamental changes in our civilisation. But for real change, we need feminine energy in the management of the world. We need a critical number of women in positions of power and we need to nurture the feminine energy in men. I am talking about men with young minds, of course. Old guys are useless; we have to wait for them to die off.
-C, 7 Jan 2013]
[Further edit: Sohalia Abdulali, mentioned above for her essay about her gang-rape has written for the NY Times about living to tell the story about her rape, with all the wisdom that age brings with it. The essay is titled “After being raped, I was wounded; my “honour” wasn’t.” The most hopeful thing about the essay, for me, was this:
At 17, I was just a child. Life rewarded me richly for surviving. I stumbled home, wounded and traumatized, to a fabulous family. With them on my side, so much came my way. I found true love. I wrote books. I saw a kangaroo in the wild. I caught buses and missed trains. I had a shining child. The century changed. My first gray hair appeared.
Too many others will never experience that. They will not see that it gets better, that the day comes when one incident is no longer the central focus of your life. One day you find you are no longer looking behind you, expecting every group of men to attack. One day you wind a scarf around your throat without having a flashback to being choked. One day you are not frightened anymore.
-C, 9 Jan 2013]