Rape on this scale is cultural, too
The details of the crime are unspeakable. But we need to speak about them, or more precisely, the reasons why we continue to live in a world where a young woman can get viciously gang-raped on public transport, thrown out of a moving vehicle, and die of her injuries.
Earlier this month a 23-year-old woman was attacked on a bus in New Dehli. She was eventually flown to a Singapore hospital after a series of local operations in a desperate attempt to save her life from the injuries she sustained from allegedly being repeatedly raped by six men and then pushed from the bus.
The reaction in India and now around the world has been collective outrage. There have been high profile Indians expressing their anger, shame and disgust on Twitter, candle-light vigils, protests, and social media campaigns, all on a scale never before seen about an issue that is apparently endemic in the country.
And the state has at least made the appearance of responding to these calls to take the issue seriously. Officials from the Indian High Commission were at her bedside.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met her body at the airport when it was returned home this past Sunday. Police have announced the alleged offenders could face the death penalty if convicted.
The anger, fear and disgust that people express towards the accused is completely understandable. What is troubling is the attitude by many who automatically understood this act of sexual violence as having a ‘cultural context’ because of the ethnicity of the men.
The reality is all sexual violence against women has a ‘cultural context’.
When ‘Aussie’ men rape, particularly in groups, it isn’t simply as one-off instances of aberrant behaviour that can only be understood at the level of the individual. The occurrence of it may be different in degree in different societies, but it is not a difference in type. It is men expressing a form of hatred towards women (among other things) in whatever language you describe it.
This is not any arbitrary sort of violence – it is specifically gender-based. There is evidence to suggest that cultures with greater equality between genders generate less gender-specific violence.
And this is the unpalatable truth of sexual violence. Simply blaming individual perpetrators for such violence is not enough. I was sent a petition calling for harsher penalties for rapists in the wake of this horrific act. But as appalled as I am by the crime, I won’t be signing it. The problem is not merely one of individual punishment.
Of course if there are cultures whose laws don’t appreciate the seriousness of these crimes or there is an issue with the police not enforcing them (a common problem that India is only one example of), then that has to be urgently addressed.
Tragically, it has taken this case for India’s Prime Minister to make some admission of the role the broader culture plays in shaping attitudes and behaviours towards women generally.
But what we all have to do is to confront the brutal truth that this type of sexual violence doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum anywhere. The culture is one in which our institutions and institutional practices and the attitudes they engender are inherently sexist and structure human relations in ways where women can be seen as objects to be used and abused.
Lengthier sentences may or may not be appropriate in particular cases, but only ever focusing on the responsibility of the individual fails to confront the underlying social and structural causes of sexual violence against women.
Ultimately, understanding responsibility in individualistic terms keeps us stuck at an ideological impasse where bleeding-heart liberals want to make excuses for perpetrators and shock jocks want to hang them from the nearest tree.
We all need to take some collective responsibility for being members of communities where sexual violence against women – committed by men cross-culturally – continues to exist.
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