Guest blogged by Shahe Kaur
The story is not a scene from a movie or excerpt from a novel; it is the living nightmare of a 13-year-old rape survivor in Swang Gulgulia Dhoura, India. In a remote village in the woods, in the middle of the night, an intruder assaulted Devi while she sleeps in her hut. Startled by the stranger’s presence, Devi screamed and Harendra, the intruder, escaped. When Devi’s husband complained of the incident to the Panchayat (village elder), the Panchayat decreed that the punishment for Harendra’s crime would be that his sister, a 13-year-old girl, be raped by Devi’s husband, Pasi. According to the Panchayat, only then would justice be served for Devi. In this case, the Panchayat happened to be the father of Devi, so his impartiality in commanding his son-in-law, Pasi, to carry out his sentence wreaks more of revenge than justice.
Nonetheless, Devi went into the 13-year-old’s hut and dragged her out by her hair, in the middle of the afternoon, and then passed her on to Pasi. Spectators stood by silently as the 13-year-old cried out for help as she was dragged into the jungle where the Panchayat’s sentence was carried out. “The girl limped back to her family’s hut 45 minutes later, and then set out on the hour long walk to the nearest police station.” In an act of great courage, the 13-year-old girl filed a complaint at the local police station. In these cases, survivors of sexual assault rarely file complaints and pursue legal action because perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. Those survivors that do seek justice risk bringing “besti” (dishonor) upon themselves and their families, sometimes risking greater consequences of further abuse.
The international community demands to know why a 13-year-old girl was raped as punishment for a crime her brother committed? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that in certain parts of India, rape is not considered a brutal attack on the woman’s own body, soul, dignity, and humanity. The rape serves as the most effective assault on the men that she is attached to by blood or bond. Her rape is a blow to the “izaath” (dignity and honor) of her father because her rape renders her impure, so she will not be easily accepted as a bride. If married, her rape is a blow to the izaath of her husband because now the character of his wife will be held in question. In a patriarchal society in which a woman is only valued according to her relationship to a man, the barbaric rape of a 13-year-old child is not a violation of her or her izaath; it is the violation of the izaath of the men whom she calls family. The fact that her childhood and womanhood was ripped from her in one gruesome act is not a consideration. The honor of men is the primary focus.
This incident is significant because it raises questions about the prevalence of rape culture in our global community. Some argue that the village in this present case is in a remote area of India in which the overwhelming majority of people are uneducated and lack the most basic of human necessities. According to this logic, it is therefore unrealistic to expect these villagers to understand even the simplest concepts of law and justice. However, rape has been and continues to be used as a weapon of war, as punishment for crimes, and as an act of control and dominance over women all around the world. In the U.S., a woman is battered every 15 seconds and raped every 90 seconds. According to the World Health Organization, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. It is an indisputable fact that violence against woman occurs globally and with shocking prevalence.
Just recently the president of a prominent Gurdwara in Surrey, Canada was arrested for allegedly killing his wife. As the president of a Gurdwara, this man was in a position of leadership in the community, yet he still engaged in a life-altering act of violence against his wife. This speaks to deeper issues of violence and male domination. Much of the discussion surrounding domestic violence and women’s rights is focused on empowering women, which is very important, especially in a community where women’s voices are generally silenced. But why do women have to carry our community’s burden of “besti/izaath” alone? More importantly, how is empowering women the only solution to stopping men from perpetrating violence? Often women are berated for not speaking out or asking for help, but why is the dialogue always framed in a manner in which the blame is shifted to the women? Why aren’t men held accountable and taught to respect women as equals?
Perhaps the question we should be asking is: does our community create an environment in which women can safely speak out and at the onset of abuse? Do we accept and support these individuals who face abuse or do we stigmatize them with dismissing phrases like “taali do hathan naal vajdia” (it takes two hands to clap)? And what are we actively doing to teach our sons to respect women, not just in words but also by example? Why are all of our Punjabi curse words focused on women? The insult to the woman is dismissed and unimportant because the aim is to insult the man she is attached to (be it her father, brother, or husband). It is that mentality, that a woman is his claim and property, which we as a community need to change. Jackson Katz, an anti-sexism educator, created a video to try and change that very mentality, in which he discusses domestic violence and sexual abuse framed as issues that are intrinsically men’s issues. Focusing the dialogue on what women can or should do ignores and excuses the men perpetrating these injustices.
Our gurus taught us that men and women are equal. It’s time we start practicing equality by ending the oppression of women, not just in extremely brutal cases such as this one, but also in the words we use and in our daily conduct. It’s time we start holding perpetrators responsible for their brutality; in this horrific case, the woman who led this 13-year-old to be raped is just as guilty as the rapist himself. It’s time we hold governmental and legal officials responsible when they themselves make law and justice a mockery with statements like, “Girls are morally and socially bound not to indulge in sexual intercourse before a proper marriage, and if they do so, it would be to their peril and they cannot be heard crying later that it was rape.” It’s time we change primitive laws like those that state marital rape is not rape, and therefore not punishable; laws that permit doctors to perform the “two-finger test” on rape survivors to test their character, results of which then become admissible as evidence against her in her own rape trial. Oppression is oppression regardless of the degree of severity, whether it exists in the form of rape or something we dismiss as street slang, we are all responsible. It’s time we collectively stand up and say “Enough!”
I urge you to join the movement to ensure the human rights of women are respected everywhere in our global community, from remote villages in India, to our own backyards. It is up to each one of us to propel change by doing what we know and using that knowledge to bring awareness to these issues:
Discussing these issues is important to victims, survivors, and the general community because silence is acceptance. Voice your opinion because your silence is deafening!