The Indian Gang Rape-Murder Just Scratched the Surface

On leave from writing for A7 in order to finish her new book, the apalling murder-rape in India impelled the author to write this incisive and horrifying article about what happens to women in the Hindu and Muslim world. A call to action.

Prof. Phyllis Chesler

OpEds Prof. Phyllis Chesler
Prof. Phyllis Chesler
Joan Roth

And so, poor soul, she has died and been cremated in New Delhi, the victim of a public and murderous gang-rape. Six men attacked her for more than an hour, raping and beating her with a heavy metal bar which damaged her intestines beyond repair. They said they wanted to “teach her a lesson.”

In their eyes, what taboo did she violate?

She boarded the bus they were driving—perhaps women should walk, and not avail themselves of public transportation? How could they have known that she was a physiotherapy student, that her family had chosen to educate their eldest daughter, that she had just seen a movie, “The Life of Pi,” or that the young man she was with was a friend, not a father, brother, or husband?

Clearly, they could not know this. All they knew was that she was a woman, on the street, and therefore vulnerable, a fitting target for their arrogant, patriarchal rage.

Protests and near-riots have broken out all over India since her death on December 29th, thirteen days after the heinous crime. This unnamed young woman has become the symbol of all that Indian women have suffered for so long with no respite. Now, she is a pure and blameless rape victim because she is dead. Had she lived, there are many who would have found a way to blame her. Had she lived, people would be saying that her attackers should be given short sentences because she’s not dead, that so many women endure rape, it is simply how things are, and is, therefore, not “that bad.”

Of course, I disagree but that is another discussion.

Luckily, this does not seem to be a Hindu-on-Muslim or a Muslim-on-Hindu crime. If it were, all India would be on fire.

Hindus and Sikhs in India commit gruesome honor killings mainly of young women, but also of young men, usually for daring to date or marry outside of their own caste or for choosing a spouse who is too closely related to them in terms of caste. Like Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs also perpetrate torturous honor killings of those who violate this taboo, but they do so mainly in India, not in the West. Just yesterday, an Indian father in Utter Pradesh, publicly beheaded his daughter for dating the “wrong” man.

Despite the fact that India is a modern, constitutional democracy and although the government has been calling for stronger laws against these cases of intimate, familial, human sacrifice (crimes which are often ordered by the religious councils), India has only just begun to fight against this custom. At least, they are doing just that. A friend and colleague of mine believes that precisely because the Indian police have begun to arrest and try rapists, that there have been a series of “retaliatory” gang rapes.

Honor-related crimes, including honor killings, are rampant all across the Islamic world, in Hindu India, and among Muslim immigrants in the West. Mahmoud Abbas has recently refused to strengthen the laws against honor killings in the Palestinian Authority and feminist groups there are outraged and frightened.

There are other “customs,” (we would call them crimes), that afflict women in central Asia and in the Arab Middle East, including North Africa, namely, a level of street sexual harassment and public gang-rape that no longer exists in the Judeo-Christian West.

We have seen ugly examples of this in Tahrir Square and in other Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Algeria. After a Friday sermon, roving gangs of up to one thousand men have fallen upon any girl or woman they can find, whether she is veiled or unveiled, is obviously an infidel or, for some reason, is seen as a “prostitute.” (She is walking alone, is known to be unmarried, is working outside the home, etc.) These stories are legion and I will not repeat them.

In India, such public sexual harassment of girls and women, (known as “eve-teasing”), and the rapes and gang-rapes are as pandemic as they are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Indian police are corrupt, the rape victims hesitant about ruining their own and their families’ reputations and marriage eligibility. Rape victims do not want to be raped again by the police, many of whom are easy to bribe and who may share the same view of women-as-man’s-natural-prey that rapists believe in.

Please understand: Rape exists in every country in the world, including Israel. No country has managed to abolish this crime. In the past, I have been harassed on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—although never by gangs of men.

In 1971, I was one of the keynote speakers at the first-ever feminist Speak Out in New York City about rape. Woman after woman approached the mike, describing her rape. At the time, admitting that one had been raped was considered shameful, taboo; the victim was never seen as blameless but rather as “provocative,’ “lying,” “a prostitute.” Juries believed the accused, not the victim. Female jurors did not want to ruin the lives of men for whom they felt compassion and they did not want to believe that the rape victim was blameless. If they did—that meant it could happen to them and that was too frightening a prospect.

Contrary to myth, most rapes are perpetrated by someone familiar to the victim : neighbors, family members, co-workers, on dates, in college dormitories, in one’s own building. The stranger rape is less common—except where gang-rape is involved.

For the last forty years, American and European women have toiled to have rape understood and prosecuted and we have accomplished a great deal—not enough—but still, a great deal. The rape victim’s past cannot be brought into court. We understand that rape has nothing to do with lust or “justified” sexual frustration and everything to do with the need to humiliate and destroy a woman—as well as a woman who is a member of a despised or enemy class.

We also know that rape has long-lasting repercussions and that one cannot just “shut up and get over it.” Even if a woman refuses to be seen as a “victim,” even if she insists on carrying on, (and many do), still, she will probably suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and depression, and may have trust issues for a long time. She may not be able to enjoy intimate affection. If a rape victim is allowed to talk about what has happened in a comforting and knowledgeable setting—these symptoms will eventually subside; not completely, but enough to allow her to go on with her life.

In my opinion, rape (especially repeated public gang-rape in a war-zone) is “gender cleansing.” Women become suicidal. They kill themselves. This happened in Bangladesh in 1971, when the Pakistani army raped between 200,000--400,000 girls and women. Often, if a raped girl or woman still has living relatives, she is rejected by them. If her rape has led to a pregnancy, she is more viciously rejected.

In 1995, and for the first time in history, the UN-convened Hague Tribunal tried to prosecute rape as a war crime. Yes, rape is now considered a type of war crime. However, this did not stop the rape atrocities in Iran, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Kosovo, Congo, Rwanda, or Sudan

What must be said, what must be done? The same hard activist work that has been done in the West—and that is still ongoing--deserves a global platform. This is painstaking work that must be done if a country wishes to consider itself civilized.

Remember the story of the Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi, an unusually spunky Hindu girl, who was also publicly gang-raped and held captive for three weeks by higher-caste Hindus? She became a bandit and was eventually able to exact some measure of revenge against her gang-rapists. Phoolan Devi served eleven years in jail and thereafter, was elected to the Parliament from Utter Pradesh, the same region from which our young victim comes.

I am not recommending vigilante justice (although I admit to engaging in several fantasies about these particular human animals), but I do believe these six men, including the one possible “juvenile,” should hang.

May this woman’s death be the beginning of a serious crackdown on rape and street harassment and may she rest in peace.