Last week, the news broke that the five men charged with the violent gang rape and murder of a young Delhi woman on Dec. 16 would be fast-tracked through India’s courts.
On the one hand, it’s good to see the Indian justice system taking this case extremely seriously.
On the other hand, while this case stands out for its brutality (I cannot bring myself to write in any greater detail what these men are accused of doing to this woman’s body), this is only one of many instances of sexualized violence committed against women in India. The current outrage in India is partly a response to the way in which police and government officials have consistently mishandled or ignored rape cases in the past. Investigation and prosecution of rape often relies upon victim-blaming tactics and ideas about women’s purity (as in the infamous “two-finger test”), and this case has brought attention to the widespread failures of India’s sexual-assault laws.
This is a horrific case. Here in North America, we’re outraged to hear of such a crime.
But it troubles me the way I’ve heard some people express this outrage. From the moment this story broke, in our search to find a way to talk about something so cruel and inhuman, we slipped all too easily into the language of the “other.”
Go to the comments section on any news site (or even Facebook) and you’ll see it: India has a rape problem because India is alien, uncivilized, a Third World nation, totally unlike us. Because it is politically corrupt and culturally backwards and all the women are subjugated at all times. Personal reactions vary from “I’m scratching India off my travel list” to “keep those people out of Canada.”
Keep which people out of Canada? The Indians, or the rapists, or just the Indian rapists? Does this person not know that Canada has rapists?
Instead of having a conversation about the importance of advocating for women’s safety and women’s rights, we made rape Indian and called it a day.
It’s not hard to see why we do this. If rape is Indian, then it’s something we don’t have to worry about.
Unfortunately for us and our sense of cultural superiority, last year India reported 24,000 rape cases, with a population of 1.2 billion. The United States reported 188,380 rape cases in 2010, with a population of 310 million. Even keeping in mind that rape is much less likely to be reported in India, these numbers are Seriously Not Good — and it’s important to point out that in the U.S, the Nation’s Enliven Project estimates that only 10 per cent of rapes are reported, only 30 per cent of those reported go to trial, and only 10 per cent of those trials result in jail time for the accused.
Similarly, in Canada, it’s estimated that only 10 per cent of sexual assaults (the word “rape” is not used in the Canadian Criminal Code) are reported to the police — which puts us at an estimated number of 500,000 sexual assaults per year.
When we try to explain this case in terms of its “Indian-ness,” we are ignoring a vast body of information that says clearly that rape is a problem that exists in many cultures, and affects all nations. Relegating it to the depraved proclivities of some racialized “other” is comforting, perhaps, but it’s also incorrect, not to mention dangerous.
While it is absolutely productive to talk about the specific ways in which Indian law and society promote rape culture and allow rapists to go free, we must not let that conversation distract us from the equally important conversation about the specific ways in which our own law and culture promote rape culture and allow rapists to go free.
Because they do. Canada, too, has a rape problem, and a rape culture.
(Rape culture, for the uninitiated, is any combination of attitudes, beliefs, values, laws, policies or religious regulations that encourage us to be more interested in what the victim of a sexualized crime did to “deserve” it, or how he or she should have prevented it, than in investigating the perpetrator of the crime.)
Rape does not belong to one country or one culture, and when we fall into the trap of explaining it as a product of someone else’s “otherness,” we’re getting further away from promoting women’s safety and women’s rights, not closer.
© Copyright 2013