We don't need a mob-mentality

By Roshan Doug on Jan 3, 13 06:42 PM in

I see that the recent gang rape of a young Indian woman in Delhi is still creating a stir.

The incident (which subsequently led to the death of the victim) has become a catalyst for social change in India. It's become a wake-up call for the entire nation to reconsider its attitudes to women and sexuality. In the last two or three weeks, for instance, along with civil protests, everyone - from Indian politicians to film stars - has been echoing his dismay and indignation at what occurred. The people are demanding that the judges sentence the men to death (the trial begins this weekend).

But I'm not so sure.

I think the incident is only a microcosm of a wider cultural problem harbouring deep in Asian society and, indeed, society at large. The sad fact is that women are regarded as objects that can be used and abused by men - you only have to look at the recent phenomenon of western men effectively 'buying' Thai women for marriage. Eastern women are seen as docile commodities, fulfilling western men's idea of femininity and subservience.

But women in the East are also 'possessions' belonging to fathers, brothers, husbands and in-laws to such an extent that they are denied legal rights through society's adherence to tradition and tribal/cultural practises. Irrespective of what the law says, people uphold tradition even when it tacitly marginalises women. Out-dated attitudes to inheritance - that exclude women - are examples of the sexual inequity that lie there.

In line with this, ownership is a central issue and it is no more prominent than in the sanctity of marriage. The problem of forced marriages is still very dominant in Asian communities. So much so that in Britain, the police have even set up specialist units to deal specifically with this crime where young girls are abducted by their parents and sent off to Asia to marry against their wishes.

And it's a fairly common practice in India for in-laws to beat, torment and enslave a newly 'acquired' bride especially if she is from a financially or economically dependent background. In some cases, the death of the bride can also result from this, something referred to, by the media, as 'honour killing'. Girls can be killed off if they bring dishonour or shame on the family for something as trivial as talking to a boy or wearing make-up. And in some parts of the Asian subcontinent the situation is so bad, even the police won't intervene or investigate such killings. And a lack of dowry is still considered the main contributory cause of this friction between the bride and her in-laws. Again, in some cases, the death of the bride is not uncommon.

And this marginalisation of women is also reflected in the West.

Some judges, for instance, may not state it explicitly, do lean towards the idea that if a flirtatious or an inebriated woman gets raped, she was probably behaving irresponsibly (what did she expect, leading men on?). In Britain even as early as the 90s it was not possible to charge a husband for raping his wife - the courts just didn't recognise it. And last year the MP George Galloway tried to cloud the issue of rape. He referred to having sex with a woman whilst she's unconscious as merely 'bad sexual etiquette'.

And social services in Rochdale turned a blind eye to a girl under 16 involved in sexual activities with men because, according to them, that was 'her lifestyle choice'. Effectively they failed to intervene and protect a child. On another occasion, the footballer, Ched Evans' having sex with a woman too drunk was, according to the overwhelming comments on social networking sites, seen as her problem. And in Edinburg Fringe Festival it seems it was acceptable to make jokes about rape and domestic violence.

It may be disheartening but putting women down and undermining their position in our society is still fairly fashionable.

But in India, and according to some reputable sources, over 630 cases of rape were reported last year with only a single conviction. The reality is that most women in countries like India are too fearful of reporting any kind of sexual crime or violation lest it reflects badly on them or their families.

Of course, this demonisation of rape victims is also evident everywhere but it is particularly acute in Asia. The stake in filial honour - traditionally a badge of currency - is a major consideration in such circumstances and more often than not, victims refrain from reporting such offences to the police. The idea that a raped woman was probably 'asking for it' is a mind-set prevalent amongst the authorities and men in general. In actual fact, the real conservative figure of rape incidents in India is most likely to be in five figure digits.

And there are other contributory causes that encourage the victimisation of women. Girls, in Asian communities, are considered as a burden due to the prominence of the dowry system. To avoid the expense at marriage, some women will abort a pregnancy on the knowledge that the foetus is a girl. Indian and Pakistani media regularly documents this social/cultural phenomenon. Boys are clearly favoured - an aspect evidently linked to a family's status and honour.

But of course, honour per se is not - and never has been - a convincing argument for maintaining silence and subjugation. But feminists and other critics who argue for sexual equality and justice are viewed as subversive because they argue for the law to protect them.

In reality law cannot eradicate injustice.

Take for instance, the Hindu practice of suttee, in which a woman would immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Although it was banned in 1829, about 40 cases have been reported since Indian independence in 1947. As early as 1987 some Hindu women were arguing that it was their civil right to practise this ancient custom. The furore was created when a case was heard in an Indian high court of an 18 year old girl who 'freely' jumped into the funeral pyre of her husband of no more than a few months.

So although the recent case of gang rape is horrifying, we need to reflect and consider our own attitudes to women and sex. Some people in India are demanding the death penalty for the offenders. But such a mob mentality is not what we need. What we need is education or a programme of public awareness to reflect the horrors that can stem from objectifying women. Rape is a male problem; a problem for society at large.

As a society we all have to take blame for the injustice perpetrated against women because the offenders - whether they are teenagers or men - are the products of our world. And this also applies equally to the men awaiting their trials in Delhi and public figures in the West who think sexist behaviour/attitudes towards women is perfectly acceptable. It is not. As soon as we accept that, the better our world will be for all of us.


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