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Another postponement of the verdict in last December’s gruesome rape case in Delhi will renew discussions on many aspects of the case: the crime, the punishment, the culture of rape in India, and the justice system there.
A perennial question will nag us again: what underlies such violence against women in India, and why has India been ranked as the worst place for women among G20 countries?While the answer is not simple, subordination of women in a highly entrenched patriarchal system, doctrinal acceptance of having been born inferior, sealed lips due to a huge social stigma on the rape victim and her family, unbridled power in the hands of the police and the politicians, and much else contribute to a culture of impunity.
Such impunity is further reinforced by recurrent use of official machinery to perpetrate violence in the name of religious, caste-based, social, political or other divisions within the society. When powerful politicians, law enforcement agencies and the justice system all keep engaging in brazen violations of human dignity, they become desensitized to such violence. Impunity in fact becomes an integral part of the culture itself. When nobody protects the constitution, the constitution cannot protect anybody.
While there are significant differences among cultures, religions and societies on such issues, a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) points out a world-wide pattern that is hardly flattering of the ‘man’-kind anywhere.
The WHO report discusses “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”: more than one third of women in the world are victims of sexual and physical violence. While the least horrifying numbers — 27 percent in Europe — are themselves stunning, they rise to 36 percent, 40 percent and 46 percent for Americas, South East Asia and Africa respectively. In Central Sub-Saharan Africa, besides 66 percent of women suffering violence from ‘intimate partners,’ 21 percent suffer at the hands of ‘non-partners.’
Because reporting sexual attack carries serious societal and physical repercussions for the victims in many countries, the numbers reported from those countries are very conservative.
Beyond the WHO report on individual cases, yet another universe of violence against women exists. Rulers and organized groups target women in large numbers as a tactic in most conflicts. A Japanese mayor recently defended the use of sex slaves in World War II (euphemistically called ‘comfort women’) as ‘necessary.’ The stories of women coming from Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Libya, Syria, Egypt and other areas under strife have been mind-numbing.
Even democratic countries are guilty of organized violence against women. The ‘Widow Colony‘ in Delhi, India, remains a stark witness to the brutal gang rape of thousands upon thousands of Sikh women in 1984, in which their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons (including children) were forced to witness before they themselves were burned alive. The ruling party politicians who organized and abetted this barbarity have been rewarded with powerful political appointments rather than being brought to justice.
Whether it is organized brutalization of women or individual cases of violence, the ‘superior’ half of our species hardly cares about such violence against its ‘inferior’ half. When something really egregious comes to light, we go through the ritual of venting our outrage and demanding the blood of the perpetrators. Having done our duty towards humanity, the world seems to us to be a wonderful and peaceful place to live.
All this while, somebody remains chained in a solitary basement for years, hurting from tightly applied duct-tape on her limbs, face and eyes for days at times, and keeps reeling from the intense physical and psychological pain caused by the loss of her fetuses from forceful punches to her abdomen. Someone struggles heroically in a hospital to survive, but succumbs to injuries after a gang rape so gruesome that most of her intestines spill out. Someone lives her life in complete blindness after her whole face melts in acid, and is horrifically disfigured, because she ignores harassing advances of neighborhood boys. A wife set on fire on the altar of dowry desperately begs to be spared for the sake of her child, as her husband contentedly watches her life rapidly and painfully slipping away.
Domestic violence. Sexual violence and sexual slavery. Selective female infanticide and feticide. Trafficking. Comfort women. Tactical targets of rulers and mobs. Honor killings. Child-marriages. Wife burning. Acid attacks.
Where do I begin? Where do I end?
Many organizations and individuals are doing commendable work, and risking their own lives, in rescuing and helping women. But the numbers in each of the above categories are so staggering that they overwhelm the best efforts of such dedicated people. With widespread violence against women, and a handful rescued, it is like trying to tame a gushing fire hydrant with paper towel. We cannot stop the abuse of hundreds of millions of women, unless its root cause is addressed.
Various segments of our society, the politicians, the leaders of faith, the media, the educators, the general public and others must all act together to end this nightmare. In particular, the religious community must play a critical role.
As a first step, we must stop accusing God of misogyny and of creating women as inferior to men. We must stress in our religious services that God does not look kindly upon the abuse of his daughters. In most faiths, women are as much children of God as men. We all agree that God is compassionate and loves all of its children, whether men or women. The same Divine light dwells in women as in men. In describing the play enacted on the world stage by the Creator, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the Sikh Scripture, says:
‘The dancers are women and men, but it is none other than the creator who manifests in them all; doubt it not; shed all skepticism; it is the same creator that speaks through women as through men’ (translated from SGGS).
Irrespective of whether we pray to one God or many, or are atheistic, irrespective of the faith we follow, and irrespective of whether we are men or women, we must treat everyone, including women, as equal.
I believe that the status of women in a society is diagnostic of its moral values, as well as its future. The atrocities and the indignities that millions of women suffer daily cannot be expressed in words, but can only be felt by those who have to endure them. While most of us cannot even fathom such torment, we must at least do whatever we can to rescue humanity from this curse.
The hands of those women are tied, sometimes literally. Ours are not.
Satpal Singh, is chairperson of the World Sikh Council, America region.