Are we clueless about fighting the injustice of sexual violence?
A series of conversations on violence against women in India
Turbulence sinking deep
She longs to sleep
She longs to sleep
Feeling burnt out because
She feels too much
She feels too much
And with every small leap
She looks a hundred times
She looks a hundred times
As much as she longs for it
She fears love
She fears love
Still, as much as she fears it
She longs for love
She longs for Love
Recently on my way to work, I met a colleague at the metro station, and soon we were talking and reflecting on the horrific Hyderabad rape case news.
On the train, a fellow commuter was listening in. A very traditional-looking senior guy probably close to his retirement. He leaned over to me pretty confidently and said, “This is all because of the media.” I didn’t get it immediately, so I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Rapes do happen across the world, and we should not blow this news up.” We were a bit taken aback and did not know how to react. He continued saying that it is the women in the media who are building this unnecessary hue and cry. Men do this, you cannot stop them. It is the women who have to be cautious if they don’t want it. You should also know that people get raped to fulfil their karma.
Seeing at his audacity, I was a bit agitated and did not know how to respond. He noticed and said to me, “Cool down. I think some people influenced you that rape is wrong and evil. See, there is nothing evil about it, it is natural, and women should accept it that way. Don’t you know that most of our gurus also support it? Even temples used to have Devadasis till a few years back. Though they say no, they like it. That is why we have organised prostitution to get this going. Just that now, women are educated and independent; they are making this picture, don’t let them dominate, be a man. Tomorrow they will even dominate you at work.” And then he got down at his station and left.
We were puzzled. Was that man a lunatic? Or is this reality? I heard of such narratives in news reports earlier but never met a person who actually dares to say this to a stranger. What a sad way to start our day! When I reached my desk, the day seems like Monday, as usual. There was no conversation on this topic the whole day, except for once. Frankly, I was not prepared enough to discuss this further after what had happened in the morning.
So, during lunch, a good friend brought this topic to our discussion. He said, “There is no hope in humanity. Did you hear the news about the Hyderabad incident?” Since I know him very well as a moral relativist, I wanted to counter his viewpoint to question his assumptions. So, I responded, yes, I did hear about the news; it is disturbing, but what do you mean by saying there is no hope? Are you saying people are morally corrupt and beyond reform? He was hesitant to say yes, yet he said: “I don’t know if it is immoral or not, but I feel it is clearly wrong.”
Since you are a progressive thinker, why do you think rape is wrong? I asked. It is just sex, humans need sex just like animals do. Whoever is stronger gets it. Just like how you argued the other day that pornography is beneficial for society. He was surprised that I raised that comment now as he did not see any connection. Then he said, “Sex without consent is not proper.” I asked, who says so? Why should someone agree to it? Look, those boys in Hyderabad wanted without consent. Why do you reject their point of view? If you say, the law says so, who makes these laws? What makes you think lawmakers are right? Didn’t you see few on social media saying that rape is ok, but murder is wrong? Do you know there is a growing debate that Paedophile is a disposition, and we should not criminalise them? As you know, your favourite evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once said this. “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA is. And we dance to its music.” So now tell me, why can’t these boys say “we just danced to our DNA”?
Since he did not answer, I asked him, what do you think should be done? He said, “We should have more stringent laws and punishments like hanging them. If there is fear, people will not commit such atrocities.” Ok, do we have any data that it is working? He said, “not sure.” Then I told him about the morning conversation I had on the train and said, If the people who are supposed to enforce the law have the same mind-set, why will they execute what they don’t believe? They will, in fact, support the perpetrators. Look at the recent Unnao rape case.
Well, it was good to have such conversations, and we had to head back to work now. But over the week, I read many articles, watched talks, and put questions to my colleagues on this topic, basically to understand what can be done to stop such violence in our societies.
Then surprisingly, on Friday morning, social media was celebrating the killing of the four suspected rapists in a so-called encounter, without trial. The same friend met me at work asked, “did you hear the good news? Police have done the right thing. Finally, justice has been served.” Though I appreciated his concern on the matter, unlike many silent people, I was puzzled at his conclusion. One violence he condemns and the other he celebrates. So, what are we fighting against? This reminded me what GK Chesterton once said “…the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics, he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics, he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore, the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
I asked him, how come from capital punishment, you are quickly lauding lynching as justice? Since you seem to have an arbitrary conception of the good, what do you mean by justice then? Is that arbitrary as well? He said, “What the police have done is the best thing, only then rapes will stop in India.” I understand your frustration with our broken judiciary system, but then can we make vigilantism or revenge look like justice? He said, “you may call it whatever, as long as rapes stop, it is ok.” Well yes, then abuses may come down, but people will live in fear because there is no law to defend them. They may even take up arms. Don’t you think so? He said, “Yes, maybe they should, or train themselves in self-defence.” Ok, then we will end up with violence and anarchy, not justice. Those who think they have political power will continue to rape. Is this the country we want to live in? A Taliban India?
So, has the killing of the suspected rapists revealed our shallow idea of justice? We see the problem before us, but do we really understand it?
Will applying a band-aid solve?
After a few conversations on the recent incidents of rape, my question seemed louder to me. Is there hope? I was seeking answers, but nobody was talking about it except for a few who were quite angry. I met a friend who champions these matters. I asked her, where are we today, seven years after Delhi Nirbhaya’s case? Have we won any ground? She said that data doesn’t show any progress. In fact, occurrences have almost doubled since then. May be reporting has increased.
Since I could not keep quiet anymore, I wanted to validate my hypothesis, so I asked her. Don’t you think it is because culturally we are steeped in male chauvinism and proud of it, which even our scriptures glorify it, and if you want, karma can justify it? We believe that men are superior to women just like Germans thought of Jews, whites think of blacks, Muslims think of infidels, and Brahmins think of Dalits. She said, “yes, that is right. In general, men across cultures have believed that their worth comes by treating women as objects to conquer, ridicule, lust, and abuse”. This is probably the reason why rape porn is so popular today where people are willing to pay money to watch it.
Then there is corrupt bureaucracy and broken law enforcement. To top it all, we have moral relativism that does not want to call a spade a spade because it lacks a clear and consistent moral system. The rest are silent in the face of this evil, genuinely helpless, believing that it is impossible to change. Many think that it is not my problem nor my karma. So, violence against women in India to me looks a cultural issue than mere law and order problem. Violence against women begins from female foeticide, child marriage to sex trafficking, rapes, domestic violence, acid attacks, etc. Shakuntala Narasimhan wrote, “Smothered or poisoned at birth, given away in marriage at a tender age, bargained over like some commodity by dowry-hungry in-laws, secluded in the name of chastity and religion… the burden of oppression took different stages of a woman’s life, from birth to death in a chain of attitudes linked by contempt for the female.”
“So, are you saying this cannot be solved because it is a cultural issue?” she asked. I said, no, it is a misconception that cultural issues don’t change. We should change it, but our approach needs to be appropriate. Though she did not disagree, she is still optimistic that harsh punishments and fast track courts can reduce rapes.
I said, I am optimistic too but, let us also be realistic. We think if we make the government implement a few action points, things will get resolved. Isn’t it like putting a band-aid on the symptoms we see and ignore the deep-rooted disease within? Probably that is the reason even having laws since long we still are not able to see much progress.
For example, imagine you have moved to a new city on work where stealing is believed to be a regular thing. You have tried all possible ways to protect yourself and your home but failed, now you wanted to appoint a security guard. You have asked your company to provide one. What can you do when the guard himself steals? What are your options? Get a guard who believes that he should not steal, if you don’t get such a person from that city or country, you pay more and get someone from outside. Or else you have to educate the guard that stealing is wrong. Isn’t this our scenario today? Don’t you think asking just for a security guard looks very naive?
We had to end our conversation there but agreed to meet again with some examples we can learn from. That means I need to do some homework.
Is stopping sexual violence a myth?
In most of my recent conversations on violence against women, it was more a venting of anger on the government’s inability to stop it rather than with a constructive problem-solving approach. None of us lacked any knowledge of some successful models to learn from. After some study, I was impressed to find some stories from many NGOs. Notably, Sunitha Krishnan’s efforts through Prajwala are outstanding. Of all those, what I found quite striking was what Gary Haughen, the founder of International Justice Mission (IJM) with his team, were fighting against violence and slavery across the world for the past twenty years. I immediately called my friend to share what I was reading about IJM.
Gary Haughen discovered that the problem is not with the lack of laws but the absence of law enforcement. In his powerful TED talk (please watch), he shared some beautiful stories.
Here is a transformational story from Cambodia (related story). In the Philippines, IJM helped train the local law enforcement, which transformed corrupt police and broken courts drastically. They set up fast-track courts to put the traffickers in jail. In 4 years, they saw a 79% reduction in the victimisation of children. These are phenomenal achievements in the fight against sexual violence. But we saw that dealing with rapes is not precisely the same as trafficking because rapists are mostly known people, and they can be anywhere.
I was surprised to hear my friend’s findings of Sati. It is one of the past battles we won in India, were William Carey, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and William Bentinck, fought to abolish the practice of Sati with fierce effort and commitment. We also reflected on Pandita Ramabai and Savitribai Phule, who fought tirelessly for women’s education and emancipation in India. Carey believed that no social problem that is rooted in the religious soil of a culture can be easily eradicated legally. Though Sati was abolished by law after forty years of fighting, Carey and Raja Ram Mohan Roy tirelessly worked to convince religious leaders, ordinary people, especially women, by educating them.
We thought we found some answers here. Stopping sexual violence is not a myth so that we can be silent about it. If we don’t fight against it, we allow it. Thank God for the tireless efforts of those reformers who fought and made a change. I am hopeful now but more questions to be answered.
Is a woman lower than a man?
Another day over coffee, a few other colleagues joined us. We both shared a bit about what we discussed earlier with them. Since I wanted them to engage in this discussion, I told them. In some parts of India, people used to believe that a husband is Patidev, which means ‘women’s god.’ Hence a woman loses her value when her husband dies; therefore, it is a noble act to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre and be called Pativrata rather than be ridiculed as a widow rest of her life. This is the belief the reformers tried to confront. So, I asked them what such beliefs rooted in violence against women today are?
Reasons they suggested were mostly around the belief that “men are superior to women” and “women are mere objects of sexual pleasure.” I think that was a pretty good assessment. But they have not noticed another belief that is emerging. That is, “women do not have the freedom to choose.” To make them think critically, I quickly became the devil’s advocate. I asked them, are you saying those beliefs are wrong? If so, why? They, in unison, said, “obviously, it is wrong” They said, “men and women are equal.” What do we mean by equal? I asked. Are a man and an animal not equal? Are a woman and a flower equal? If we say, men and women are equal, equal in what? My friend said it is something about value or worth.
If it is about value, who can assign value and on what basis? If our world is a product of time, matter, and chance, why is anything valuable? If humans aren’t any valuable than an animal or a tree, then the value can become a subjective notion. I may value good looking people over the other or stronger over the weaker or the rich over the poor. It is purely personal. Is that what you mean? What I value may be different from what you value, right? Then, how can we affirm that all humans are equal in value? Where did we get this notion of value?
One guy said, “evolution has taught us.” Ok, then why don’t you consider the same for the boys in Hyderabad. Did evolution teach them to rape? If so, why blame them? After thinking for a while, another guy asked me. “So, what are we arguing now? Is equality a myth then?” It is, I guess unless you believe in human dignity. We cannot logically affirm equality without affirming human dignity. “Oh, what is human dignity?” He asked.
By human dignity, we mean that every individual has an essential and immeasurable worth and dignity. Again, how can someone say this? I asked. They were expecting me to answer, so I told them that this can only be true if God, who made us in His image, ascribes that worth to all because he loves them.
If that is true, human dignity ought to be protected, irrespective of gender, race, caste, creed, religion, nationality, age, income, and ability. It is God’s command, not just man’s idea. That is why reformers fought against the then prevalent idea that men are superior to women. If it is not true, you have no valid reason to affirm equality except in relative terms.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
Rejecting human dignity leads to inequality, lack of freedom, violence, abuse, etc., which we call dehumanisation or injustice.
Is a woman a plaything?
In our previous conversation, my friends suggested that a second reason for the violence against women is that many believe that women are mere objects of sexual pleasure. So, I asked them, why do you say that is wrong? My friend said, “now it is pretty clear that once any person becomes a mere object of sexual desire or other objects of abuse, we are stripping that person of God-given dignity.” I was so happy with their conclusion.
Then I asked them, is it possible to uphold human dignity and yet see women or men as mere objects of sex without any commitment to love, intimacy, and trust? They all said no. Absolutely, it is similar to the case if an employer reduces an employee to a mere machine, it is dehumanisation.
Then I asked, what if there is consent? Then one guy said, “If it is with consent, it should be ok.” How come? Can you explain what has changed? He said, freedom. That is right, I am glad you are thinking, but tell me, if it is with consent, has my attitude towards that person as a mere object of sex changed? The only difference is that there is no force. Am I right? Though they have the freedom to do so, either by cohesion or by mutual agreement, it is still dehumanising the other for their selfish reasons. So how do we sort this out?
What do we mean by freedom? Can there be unrestrained freedom and yet maintain human dignity? Freedom is a value only when we assume human dignity. If we do not believe it, freedom is meaningless. Unrestrained freedom leads to abuse, then it is not a virtue anymore. Therefore, freedom is not merely about the right to choose, but it’s about choosing the right.
Then I asked, what do you think about pornography? Is it violence as well? They weren’t sure what to say. One person said, “everybody watches it, we may not call it abuse.” I pointed to the one article I read. The title is “Pornography does not cause sexual violence. Pornography IS sexual violence.” Though quite a few studies show the connection between the two, we fail to understand that, in principle, pornography is violence. Though all who watch porn may not rape, their attitude towards women becomes dehumanising. Sooner or later, it leads to rape, other forms of violence, or sexual ridicule.
“So, are you saying sex is inherently wrong?” They asked. Not at all. Sex is a beautiful gift from God who bestowed dignity on us. We are created to enjoy it. But without committed love, intimacy, and trust, it becomes a violation of its purpose and dignity. You may ask why love and trust? That we will leave it for another discussion.
So, I asked my friends, don’t you think these beliefs give meaning and a moral framework to our fight against violence? They seem to agree, but they were still thinking.
In what ways can we weed out this violence?
After our previous discussion, my colleagues were keen to discuss further. The goal was to identify ways to change our culture of violence against women.
To set the context, I gave them a small analogy. I thought a vineyard is an excellent metaphor to help us see the problem better. Vineyards are beautiful when bunches of grapes are hanging from their branches. The vine, with its root system, stem, branches, and the structure that holds the vine, contributes to the harvest besides the environment. The beliefs that we discussed earlier are like the roots in the soil of culture. The stem and the branches are like the values and principles that come out of those beliefs. The fruits are like the practices and habits are the outcomes. The support systems which are shared by all the vines are like the policies and systems we build as a society to enable good harvest.
If this analogy is accurate, tell me how we can produce a good harvest? In our context, how does a good harvest look like? Since my friend read Shakuntala Narasimhan’s book Sati — widow burning in India, suggested, “all the violence against women has to be removed, beginning from female foeticide to sexual and domestic violence. A society where women are respected equally with men and could thrive to their fullest potential.”
So, if human dignity, equality, and freedom shaped this vision of a good life, how then should we live? What habits should we need to cultivate? It is easy to think that the problem is outside of us. Most of the time, we are part of the problem without realising it, and we need to change ourselves. Our policies and protests are of no value if we go home and dance to a Bollywood item number. Next-generation needs to see role models who live out their convictions consistently. Men respecting women at home and outside. Parents loving each other in spite of the differences and honouring sexual intimacy in their marriage. Girls and boys raised equally in homes, communities, and schools. People cannot become better than their role models.
Those young boys in Hyderabad who raped would have seen men abusing women from their childhood. That is what they believed manhood is all about. Recently Mr. Arvind Kejriwal made schoolboys take an oath to respect women. That is wonderful, but it is not enough. We need role models, not just rhetoric. How can more men become role models?
Another critical dimension is the community. My friend, who has been working in rescuing people from sexual violence and supporting them after rescue for close to two decades, told me that any lasting change can happen only through the community who has the compassion to their neighbours. There is no greater commandment than loving God and loving our neighbour. A community supporting the victims through the process instead of shaming them. Facilitating Restorative Justice that brings healing to all people. These practices have seen great results in the past.
Is real and lasting change possible?
Our beliefs and habits shape our society and its systems. Law enforcement and human development should go hand in hand. Michael Sandel, in his book Justice, writes, “Any system of justice revolves around these three ideas. Welfare, Freedom, and Virtue.” Justice is not only about retribution; it is about healing as well. Law enforcement without human development and restoration cannot sustain justice. We need to fight injustice in all aspects of life. Pursuing human and environmental flourishing helps build a just society that lasts for generations.
That day we listed these points that can help our society administer justice.
- Train prosecutors to champion justice.
- Police reforms to reduce abuse and brutality caused by them.
- Setup fast-track courts.
- Appoint adequate judges.
- Appoint adequate police.
- Social service organisations to provide aftercare for victims rescued from any trauma.
- Stop access and production of pornography.
- Investment in public law enforcement. Gary Haughen says, “People with money don’t need public law enforcement because they pay for their private security.” This weakens the public law enforcement.
- Citizen involvement in local law enforcement. This happens in a few countries, where capable citizens are legally appointed to provide their expertise to aid the justice process.
- The political will to invest and support the above efforts.
- Communities facilitating Restorative Justice practice whenever required. (This practice has created a positive impact in few parts of the world.)
- Volunteers who can champion justice to all people in their community.
- Write songs, stories, make movies, design learning programs that celebrates human dignity, equality, freedom, and love.
Gary says, “Broken law enforcement can be fixed, violence can be stopped. All most criminal justice systems start out broken and corrupt, but they can be transformed with fierce effort and commitment.”
Yes, the battle is not an easy one. People who have fought here will tell you that they have risked their lives. It is a warfare, it is spiritual warfare against the forces of evil. But with hope, compassion, courage, and moral clarity, we can seek justice in our homes, communities, and cities to eliminate this evil.
PS: Knowing these truths, some leaders in the Indian church have become abusers or have tolerated sexual violence. We have failed God and our neighbors. It is time we repent and once again pursue righteousness and justice.
For further reading and watching:
Book: The Locust Effect by Gary Haughen
Book: Good News About Injustice by Gary Haughen
Book: Justice by Michael Sandel
Book: William Carey and the Regeneration of India, by Ruth Mangalwadi
Amidst calls for lynching and a slow legal system, how do we deal with rape?
Gary Haughen TedX talk
Seven beliefs that silence women
Gary Haughen — Passion Conference
Justice by Michael Sandel (12 Harvard lectures)
Restorative Justice : The role of the community
The above conversations are partly fictional and partly actual on the concern of violence against women in India. Please add your suggestions below. If you liked it please share with others.