Early Thursday, two teenage Indian girls, aged 14 and 15, cousins, were found dead, hanging from a mango tree, in Uttar Pradesh, where their heartless gang-rapists had left them. Both are Dalits, formerly considered “untouchables.”
One (or possibly two) men are in custody; two or three more men are being sought. Three police officers have been removed from duty because they did not register the girls as missing when their families first reported it. One or possibly two police officers have, reportedly, been arrested for having sided with the criminals and delayed acting on a report of the missing girls. The superintendent of police said, “We now believe the girls were assaulted for their low caste.” A post mortem determined that, indeed, they had been gang-raped and then hung.
Despite the fact that India is a constitutional democracy and a modern country, caste still plagues the country. Hindu honor killings are perpetrated mainly for reasons of caste-violation. In general, Dalits may be viewed as even more justifiable prey than other women–even by other Dalit men. One police officer believes this was a Dalit-on-Dalit crime.
Sexual violence against women is a huge problem, not only in India, but also all over central and southeast Asia, as well as in Hindu Bali. I recently screened a 2013 film, Bitter Honey, about Hindu polygamy in Bali which documented how a woman, even accompanied by her mother, is treated by the police when she alleges beatings or rape by a husband or by a stranger. The police do not look at her, turn away from her, walk away, or keep staring at her. Often, the police are bought off by the offender and his family, in which case the police threaten the woman if she dares persist.
In India, rampant, public sexual harassment of girls and women (known as “eve-teasing”), rapes, and gang-rapes are as pandemic as they are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Indian police are corrupt, the rape victims hesitant about ruining their own and their families’ reputations and marriage eligibility. Rape victims do not want to be raped again by the police, many of whom are easy to bribe and who may share the same view of women-as-man’s-natural-prey that rapists believe in.
And so, two very young and innocent girls have been rape-murdered in India.
Rape-murder is condemned. But is “mere” rape being condemned?
Only if a rape victim has also been murdered is she then presumed “innocent”–unless, of course, she is a prostitute, or too independent a woman.
In 1971, I was one of the keynote speakers at the first-ever feminist Speak Out in New York City about rape. Woman after woman approached the mike to describe her rape in the United States. At the time, admitting that one had been raped was considered shameful, taboo; the victim was never seen as blameless but rather as “provocative,” “lying,” “a prostitute.” Juries believed the accused, not the victim. Female jurors did not want to ruin the lives of men for whom they felt compassion, and they did not want to believe that the rape victim was blameless. If they did–that meant it could happen to them, and that was too frightening a prospect.
Contrary to myth, most rapes are perpetrated by someone familiar to the victim: neighbors, family members, co-workers, on dates, in college dormitories, in one’s own building. Stranger rape is less common–except where gang-rape is involved.
For the last forty-seven years, American and European women have toiled to have rape understood and prosecuted, and we have accomplished a great deal–not enough–but still, a great deal. In the United States, the rape victim’s past cannot be brought into court. We understand that rape has nothing to do with lust or “justified” sexual frustration and everything to do with the need to humiliate and destroy a woman.
We also know that rape has long-lasting repercussions and that one cannot just “shut up and get over it.” Even if a woman refuses to be seen as a “victim,” even if she insists on carrying on, (and many do), still, she will probably suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and depression, and may have trust issues for a long time. She may not be able to enjoy intimate affection. If a rape victim is allowed to talk about what has happened in a comforting and knowledgeable setting, these symptoms will eventually subside–not completely, but enough to allow her to go on with her life.
Some say that rape is a form of “soul murder,” a form of torture that has increasingly been used, not as a spoil of war, but as a systematic weapon of war. Repeated public gang-rapes of girls and women in Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Congo, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Sudan have also been a form of gender or ethnic cleansing, if and when the rapists belong to another tribe or religion. In many cases, the victim no longer wishes to live. She loses her power to resist. She is shamed, tends to blame herself; her family may blame or even kill her.
Whenever I read about violence against women in Utter Pradesh, I fondly recall their Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi. She was a born rebel. She protested when a male relative stole her father’s land–and was therefore married off at eleven to a 33-year-old man who beat her viciously. She kept running away. Ultimately, she became an outcast and was known as a “runaway” wife.
Phoolan became a dacoit, a bandit, and in the course of that life was kidnapped by upper-caste men, held for three weeks, and repeatedly raped. She escaped, with the help from her own caste, and continued the bandit life. Eventually, she and her gang wreaked revenge on the men who had captured her, and she murdered them all. After doing jail-time, Phoolan ran for public office, won, and represented Uttar Pradesh in Parliament.
The fact that a woman can go on and even triumph after being raped does not mean that she has not been wounded.
The heroism of Hindu and Muslim women under siege is quite extraordinary. In India, there is the Pink Sari revolution–women who support each other, all wearing pink saris, in confronting men who have beaten or raped one of them.
Hindu nationalist Tapan Ghosh is known for his heroic rescues of Hindu girls who have taken by Muslims, forcibly converted, raped, and “married.” He returns them to their families and villages.
By now, we have all heard about Nujood Ali, the incredibly heroic ten-year-old girl in Yemen who fled her abusive husband and demanded a divorce. This act was the first of its kind in a country where girls as young as eight are given away in marriage.
Forced by her father to marry a man three times her age, young Nujood Ali was sent away from her parents and beloved sisters and made to live with her husband and his family in an isolated village in rural Yemen. There she suffered daily from physical and emotional abuse by her mother-in-law and nightly at the rough hands of her spouse. Flouting his oath to wait to have sexual relations with Nujood until she was no longer a child, he took her virginity on their wedding night. She was only ten years old.
Unable to endure the pain and distress any longer, Nujood fled–not for home, but to the courthouse of the capital, paying for a taxi ride with a few precious coins of bread money. When a renowned Yemeni lawyer (Shada Nasser) heard about the young victim, she took on Nujood’s case and fought the archaic system in a country where almost half the girls are married while still under the legal age. Since their unprecedented victory in April 2008, Nujood’s courageous defiance of both Yemeni customs and her own family has attracted a storm of international attention.
We want her as an ally. We want her counterparts in the Muslim world as allies. We want Mukhtaran Bibi (Muhktar Mai) on our side. She is the young Pakistani woman who was gang-raped by her alleged social superiors in order to cover up their own considerable crimes. She escaped. She was not silenced by shame. She did not kill herself. Bibi did not join a gang of outlaws and then exact personal and caste revenge. Despite numerous death threats, Mukhtaran Bibi legally pursued the criminals-and won. And then she moved on to rescue, shelter, and educate other women who are facing similar circumstances. She remains in danger and under police protection.
Personally, I wish we had more women like Nujood Ali, Mukhtaran Bibi (alright, like Phoolan Devi too) right here. Their bravery is astounding. Although they have much to lose–their lives for starters–they also have much to gain since they are debased from morning to night from the moment of their birth.
What must be said, what must be done? The same hard activist work that has been done in the West–and that is still ongoing–deserves a global platform. This is painstaking work that must be done if a country wishes to consider itself civilized.
May these unnamed young girls’ deaths lead India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, into taking radically bold steps to criminalize caste distinctions as well as to prosecute and one day abolish the epidemic of sexual violence against girls and women.
May these innocent girls rest in peace.
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum and the author of fifteen books, including her latest, An American Bride in Kabul.