India's shame is the antidote to this epidemic of rape
Lost in the uproar over the brutal rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi 10 days ago was a small story that ran in a local newspaper. The khap panchayat, or village council, of Haryana is considering bringing back a traditional punishment for rapists.
Rapists used to have their faces blackened and were forced to ride through the village on a donkey so that the whole community could know their shame. While this falls far short of the calls by many that rapists should be put to death, this story provided me with a moment of hope.
The khap panchayats wield immense power in the rural areas of northern India. Although technically illegal, they pass judgement on thieves and elopers, and mediate disputes. In recent months, they have made headlines for a series of bizarre solutions in regards to sexual assaults.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, village councils banned women from having mobile phones, saying phones made it more likely that they would develop romantic relationships with men. Another village head said that women should avoid wearing jeans to prevent rape, as western clothing denoted sexual availability. A village head in Haryana said that young people should avoid chow mein, since foreign spices created illicit yearnings. Yet another, in response to the vicious rape of a lower-caste girl by four upper-caste men, said that "vulgarity on TV" had somehow sparked early puberty in children, and thus the legal marriage age of 18 should be lowered.
The New Delhi government's response has hardly been more coherent in the face of protests demanding harsher punishments for rapists. The Home Ministry has struggled to rein in the violence. On Sunday, a ban was imposed on unlawful assemblies; on Monday, the ban was lifted but police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. One officer died from a heart attack induced while chasing a group of protesters.
On Wednesday night, the 23-year-old rape victim who is unwillingly at the centre of this latest crisis was flown to Singapore for an intestinal transplant. On the same night, another woman was gang-raped by a male companion as she was returning from the Hindu holy city of Vrindavan.
Further protests are planned as well. The government is discussing revising the rape laws to allow for the death penalty in cases of extreme sexual violence. The death penalty satisfies society's desire for stern justice and catharsis, but that has not been shown to be an actual deterrent against crime. The police cancelled the contract of the bus company, but the bus that the five or six men appropriated to find their victim was hardly the main cause of the rape.
The main cause is men.
I have never lived in a country where women are completely free of the fear of harassment or sexual assault, but I have also never lived in any other country where there is such a permissive attitude towards harassment and sexual assault. It is almost casual.
At its most benign, the harassment is merely annoying: the odd Bollywood love song sung under the breath of a passer-by to a woman or a girl on the street, a wolf whistle, or a request to "make friendship" - a local euphemism for an illicit dalliance. At other times, a man will make his interest felt with an outburst of frustrated sadism, such as throwing an elbow to a woman's breast.
There is little shame in these acts. Society rarely punishes these men. Many if not most women in India are belittled, abused and cast aside from cradle to grave.
I will never forget the sight of a small black plastic bag in the middle of a Delhi highway. The bag had been smashed by a car, revealing the mangled corpse of a newborn baby. I did not stop to check, the police were there already, but I am sure that the infant was female. Female infanticide and foeticide is rampant within certain communities.
A girl is often seen as a burden, something to tolerate and make use of as best you can until she gets married and becomes someone else's problem. There is a platitude in rural India that a girl belongs to the future in-laws and that any money spent on food, clothing and education is eventually lost when she becomes her husband's property. In a village in rural Maharashtra, several hundred girls and women have been named Nakusa, or "unwanted" - a tradition to ensure the gods deliver a baby boy next time.
A society that permits or largely ignores these gross injustices cannot be surprised when its men look upon women as toys.
It would be a mistake to believe that India's rape problems are unique. No country has discovered the magic formula to prevent sexual violence. There are abusive men in every country. I once saw a man on the streets of Abu Dhabi punch a woman, who I assume was his wife, in broad daylight.
What is clear is that the answer does not lie in stiffer sentences for rapists and molesters. The United States has a sex-offender registry that reduces rapists to pariahs. No one would argue that rape has been eradicated there.
The answer to India's problem of rape, which seems to be growing, is changing society's view on sexual abuse. If a man knew that the community, his family and his closest friends would ostracise him if he raped or harassed a woman, then he would quiet his baser urges.
That is why the khap panchayat's decision to bring back public shaming gives me hope.
A khap panchayat is a blunt instrument, often prone to abuse, but the councils at least seem to get it. Rapists can be put in prison or even hung, but until they know shame, India's women will continue to live in fear.
Sean McLain is a freelance journalist based in Delhi
On Twitter: @McLainSean
Published: December 28, 2012 04:00 AM