[Editor's note: Madeline wrote this essay prior to the death of the victim from her injuries on December 29, 2012.]
In the aftermath of the recent, highly publicized rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi, we have heard a roar of public outrage. This is a good thing. People should be angry and horrified that in 2012, a woman, heading home from Life of Pi, can’t get on a bus with the certainty that she won’t be beaten and raped with a metal rod until her intestines spill out of her, and then dumped on the side of the road to die. I suppose it is, for lack of a better word, heartening that so many people around the world are standing up and demanding justice, and demanding that this incident be taken very, very seriously.
Still, while following the discourse that has emerged, I can’t help but be disheartened by so much of what I hear. Reading the scores of news articles and editorials that have sprung up in the wake of the attack, I keep thinking: It makes sense that these things happen in a world where we constantly have to reiterate the rights of women as if they’re a novelty.
Partly I’m talking about the “she deserved it” argument, mercifully absent from the mouths of reporters and talking heads but visibly virulent on Twitter. As RobertMacMillan reports in Reuters, tweets from a “@shivendraINDIA,” who works as an assistant review officer in the Allahabad High Court, read:
- @saritatanwar why that gal was enjoying with her boyfriend? is it indianculture?girl,who was raped in delhi, shud not have followed western culture
@maheepkapoor. sorry but I think that delhi gals r too modern so that delhiis becoming rape capital
This is disgusting. I wont even insult readers by explaining what’s wrong with this attitude and reiterating its many incidences. (If you want more evidence, just read Tehelka’s report, The rapes will go on.)
But it seems to me that this argument is only the most obvious, most repellent expression of victim-shaming. Beyond is a quiet, widespread attitude that runs deep through Indian society, and indeed, across the world.
Much of the reporting has focused on the horrible regularity of rapes and sexual harassment in India. As the New York Times reported, “Tens of thousands of rapes are reported each year in India, while many more go unreported because rape victims are often shunned and unable to marry. Even so, reports of rape are on the rise, up about 25 percent in the past six years.”
For the two plus years I lived in India, sexual harassment was a constant menace. In Jaipur I was painfully squeezed and groped on Holi, to the shrugs of my American male companions. In Bombay I was trapped in a small alley by a man on a bicycle who reached forward and grabbed my breast, and finally rode away grinning. If I’d had a gun, I would have pulled it out and shot him in the back of the head. I can’t begin to fathom what the victim of the Delhi rape is feeling.
Yes, this is the reality of life as a woman in India. But the underlying issue is global. We are kidding ourselves if we, in America and beyond, believe that we don’t live in a system that takes women’s availability for sexual exploitation for granted. There’s nothing new in pointing out the ubiquity of advertisements, movies, video games, and songs that carelessly toss around women as objects to be fucked and discarded. The Delhi rape was a very literal instance of a very common trope.
In one widely reported case in Haryana in September, a father committed suicide by drinking pesticide after his 16-year-old daughter was raped by eight men. For right or wrong, I feel anger at this father who killed himself, presumably out of shame, rather than stand by his daughter, support her, and prosecute the offenders. Along with everything else, she may now feel complicit in and responsible for his death. It reminded me of a scene in the popular film Dev D, where a father shoots himself after a tape of his daughter giving a blowjob goes viral.
It also reminds me of a comment made by Sushma Swaraj, a member of parliament, regarding the victim of the Delhi rape, that “uski zindagi maut se badtar hochuki hai” — “her life is now worse than death.” It’s in every way an insult to note that the victim (as now unnamed) wrote to her mother when she regained consciousness: “I want to live.” And an insult to the victim herself. It makes me sick, as a woman, to think about a rape victim being treated as somehow ruined inside.
In England in 2012, a 16-year-old girl killed herself after having to show her g-string underwear to the court while testifying for rape. Also in 2012, a Moroccan woman killed herself because she was forced to marry her rapist. In the amazing 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, scores of women soldiers testify to being charged for adultery and dismissed — after being raped by another officer and reporting it. Rapes are disgusting; the reactions to a rape often are, too.
Violence against women is the terrible, terrible consequence of the problem, and not the problem itself. The problem is misogyny, and the seemingly immortal idea that women are weaker, somehow less-than, and always available for the use of men. Violence against women is like the sickening black soot and exhaust that gets pumped out of a wheezing, clunking, dying old jalopy. I suppose the actual vehicle is what is commonly referred to as The Patriarchy.
Discussing punishment for the rapists is important. I want the victim to feel that she has received justice. But it’s no more important than talking about the cause. And discussing the cause is meaningless if we sit around and point fingers. When it comes to rape, we have to look at ourselves very long and closely in the mirror, to admit to what deep degree women are controlled and fetishized around the world, before we will be able to address the regularity of rape.
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Madeline is a writer and journalist currently based in Hong Kong. Born and raised in New York City, she's lived in Montreal, Udaipur, Mumbai, and Hong Kong, and has traveled to over 40 countries across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Her website is www.madelinegressel.com.
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