The Irony of ‘India’s Rape Problem’

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada, formerly the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of...

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Let’s start with the good news. Today, an Indian court found four men guilty in the rape and murder of a 23-year-old student who was attacked on a moving bus in Delhi last December. The four men—a gym instructor, a fruit-seller, a driver, and one who was unemployed—all denied involvement in the crime and now face the death penalty. That’s about as good as the news is going to get in a story like this.

The bad news, though? It’s really, really bad.

A new study paid for by several United Nations agencies and published in the Lancet Global Health journal says that around 1 in 10 men in certain parts of Asia have admitted to raping a woman who isn’t their partner. The researchers interviewed more than 10,000 men in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Papa New Guinea. The word “rape” wasn’t actually used; instead they were asked if they forced a woman to have sex when she wasn’t willing, or forced sex on someone too drunk or drugged to be consenting.

That statistic went up when the men were asked if they ever raped their girlfriend or wife. A quarter of them reported they had. This is merely what men themselves are reporting, not necessarily how many have actually committed rape. It’s also only a drop in the bucket as a sample size of men in Asia.

This all comes just a few weeks after new statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau reported that 8,233 Indian women were killed last year in dowry-related murders. That’s about one an hour.

Oh, and one more, because everything is better in threes: Indian guru Asaram Bapu was arrested last week over claims that he raped a girl when she visited his retreat with her mother. This is the same guru who, after that December gang rape, said that the girl would have been spared had she addressed the men and begged them to spare her.

They may not have onions, but boy does India ever have a lot of rape and gender violence.

Asia—India in particular—has a troubled relationship with women; it can’t decide how it feels about them. Women are, simultaneously, praised and glamourized. This anti-domestic violence ad campaign illustrates it well: Unlike North American culture, which has every capacity to be equally cruel to women, Indian culture puts women on a religious pedestal. Certain goddesses have all the powers of their male counterparts, they’re often the only ones who can defeat demons, they literally create and destroy everything, moving time forward. They propagate the entire human race.

The men who rape women in India are perhaps the same men who were raised to place flowers at the feet of Lakshmi. Did they beg her for prosperity? While in jail, did the four men found guilty in last year’s gang rape plead with her to give them good luck?

And yet, women are the underclass. Beyond the alarming rape rates, many of them live under the heels of their husbands, by the rules of the men in their lives, and are sold into dangerous marriages that end in violence. Women in India, all over Asia, and ultimately all over the world, are still fighting for the most basic respect: Do not touch me. It is actually that simple.

This isn’t to say that all Asian men are threats—I run into plenty of brown men daily, sometimes dozens, and have not been assaulted once. There are, however, fewer checks and balances for women in Asia, particularly in regards to sexual violence. Compared to North America, or Europe, there are fewer resources for women, they have less income, they have more stigma to work against, and have even fewer cooperative law enforcement willing to prosecute sex crimes. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the family dynamics that exist there, where women can sometimes be fearful of their elder brothers or fathers, and don’t want to bring “shame” onto their family by speaking out about their assaults.

Watching protests in India and the details of what feels like a shocking string of rapes and gang rapes can lull us into a false sense of superiority. It’s comforting to feel as if we’re doing better, as if it’s a problem in Eastern countries where people have dark skin and drive on dirt roads.

There’s no one reason for the sex assaults in India. It feels like a sudden rash, but it isn’t. We may be hearing about it more, but it’s not new, and it’s not solely occurring in countries like India or Bangladesh or Indonesia.

In Canada and the U.S., there’s Lizzy Seeberg, Cherice Moralez, Rehtaeh Parsons, Ariel Castro, and Steubenville. Those are just the ones that spring to mind when I think about it for ten seconds or so.

India is a nation in flux. It’s trying to reconcile old-world traditions while also becoming a modern country that can play on the global stage. In order to do that in full, it has to decide what kind of state it wants to be: One that makes serious efforts to raise its women up to be equals, provides resources to the lower class and keeps them safe, or one that just hopes they’ll all just go away. I guess that’s one more spot of good news, one that forces of resistance will be forced to acknowledge eventually: They aren’t going anywhere.

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