Our Common Shame….

Raza Habib Raja

imagesMisogyny is a universal phenomenon which is prevalent in every society in varying degrees and in different forms. Rape is one of the most perverted expressions of misogyny as it bestows ultimate humiliation on the victim.

Whereas rape is common all across the globe, right now it is the Indian subcontinent — in particularly India and Pakistan — which is making news.

We can of course continue to argue about “Two Nation Theory” and how in essence we are so “different”, with each side claiming how it is superior than the other, but in some extremely perverted ways, we are the same.

And of course, many of us, belonging to both the sides, will dispute it. One side will claim that “Islam gives better rights to women” and other will say that “Dharmic religions like Hinduism are mellow  and therefore abhor all kinds of violence against women”.

But rape and the broad misogynist culture is not peculiar to religion but cuts across the entire society.

I will just give you a few recent examples. About three months ago a woman was raped in Pakistan and her rapists were given a bail. In protest she set herself to fire outside the police station. In early June two Indian girls were raped and then hanged from a tree. A few days ago, in a chilling and grotesque imitation, a  Pakistani girl was first raped and then killed by hanging. Most recently, a woman in UP has complained of gang rape occurred an year ago whose video has recently been uploaded on Facebook.

And these are cases which have come to the notice of the media. An overwhelming number of times rape is not even reported.

And what actually sets many developing countries like India and Pakistan apart from the West is this fact. There is a huge social stigma attached to rape due to linkage of women’s chastity with family honor.

The linkage in turn promotes silence from the victim and her family as rape if it becomes known would bring “dishonor” to the family. The tendency to remain silent actually encourages rapists as it removes fear of any retribution It is this deeply flawed concept of honor that also accounts for honor killings in rural areas of Pakistan. In a most recent incident, a woman was killed by her own family outside the High Court because she had “presumably” dishonored her family.

But this linkage of so called “honor” does even more besides promoting the above: it actually encourages “blaming the victim” attitude.


A raped woman, instead of getting sympathy from the society often becomes the “culprit” as many start shifting the blame to her “carelessness” in movements and ways of dressing.

Often instead of actually exerting efforts to reform the prevalent masculine attitudes towards women, our focus is to reform women by expecting them to dress modestly or limit their movements. When a rape occurs, the first thing many in the society do is to reprimand the victim by blaming her for “negligence” — or worse “deliberate sexual provocation.”

This “blaming the victim” attitude is somewhat prevalent in the West also but the degree to which it is present in developing countries is extraordinary.

In fact even the most brutal rapes can at times produce bewildering reactions from some parts of the society.
For example, in late 2012, India was shocked by the most brutal gang rape of a young medical professional who subsequently died due to injuries. That horrific rape seemed to have jolted everyone out of slumber and Indian society retaliated against sexual violence against women.

But despite the fact that so many were protesting against an extremely violent crime, there were some who attributed rape due to carelessness of the victim in that particular case, and on rising trend of women wearing fewer clothes with respect to rape cases in general.
Unfortunately, this too is not the whole picture. There is often a tendency to reduce rape to merely higher male libido. To completely understand rape, we have to go beyond the biological differences between sexual drives of men and women. Rape is also a twisted way of flaunting so-called masculinity and reducing women to their perceived status of weaker humans and in essence, mere commodities to be abused by men.

In many developing countries , a woman’s status is not merely “natural” rather it is constructed socially through culture and laws. And this construction is then reinforced through our behavior and customs. Rape is essentially one of the more perverted and “illegal” expressions of patriarchy which is already so deeply entrenched in the society.

Where it is unfortunate that rape is a universal setback, at least in western societies, there is a progressive movement, with respect to treatment of women, after the rape is reported.

I am only pointing this out because many apologists for our society’s mindset have a tendency to promptly point to West’s rape statistics. There, the society has progressed to such an extent that when a rape does occur, it is more of an individual transgression rather than a systemic issue.

Most of our hard work with respect to rape and other misogynist practices lies not in merely improving the judicial system but on the way gender identities are socially constructed.

Most importantly we have to work on the concepts like honor and the way they are linked with chastity of women.

Apart from inflicting humiliation on a victim on individual basis, rape also becomes a weapon for inflicting humiliation on a family and in times of war, on a nation precisely because of that.

More than the sexual gratification, it is the desire to “dishonor” which makes rape a perverted yet potent weapon. It explains that why during 1947 riots women of both sides were raped on a mass scale. The perpetuators, Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs knew that nothing would demoralize the “other” side more than rape.

Rape was a weapon employed by the rioters during Gujarat riots and also in Sudan where it was used by soldiers –and some say under explicit command-to inflict humiliation.

I am not saying if these concepts, constructions and linkages are eliminated then rape would also be eliminated. No, but it will be more of an individual transgression (for which very strict laws should be enforced) rather than a weapon of mass humiliation and perverted expression of patriarchy.

It is in this domain where both Indian subcontinent has to work together. It is our common shame…

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The writer is co-editor of PTH and can be contacted at rhr53@cornell.edu

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