THE BLOG
01/15/2013 03:19 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Women's Rights Depend on the West

The gang rape, torture and murder of a 23-year-old student in India set off a tsunami of outrage and nationwide demonstrations against culture-bound gender violence. More reports have surfaced recently. A woman was gang-raped on a bus in Punjab state, another was attacked and murdered in the state of Bihar, and a woman was abducted and repeatedly raped after traffickers promised her a job in Delhi.

It is time for feminists and human rights defenders globally to ride this wave and widen the campaign to include other societies. Western opinion makers could also reflect on their deference to other cultures and demand the same standards for all.

India's National Crime Records Bureau reported that a woman is raped every 20 minutes, and although rape is a serous offence, police officers tend to believe the victim is at fault. Few offenders are convicted, and it can take years for those accused to come to trial.

Moreover, many politicians who are charged with gender violence are not held to account. According to the Association for Democratic Reform, six members of the Legislative Assembly are facing rape charges, and in the past five years, 260 candidates who stood for election declared they had been charged with crimes against women.

Indian women are determined to pressure the government to bring offenders to trial more quickly. They have also focused on the prevailing culture of male chauvinism.

Muslim women reformers face twofold battles. They oppose the culture-bound view of women as temptresses, responsible for "fitna" or chaos, and in need of suppression to ensure peace and male honor. They are also fighting theo-political Islamism.

The inherent misogyny of this ideology is expressed in militias and vigilantes operating under cover of religion, as well as archaic, state-sanctioned discriminatory shariah laws that claim unchallengeable divinity.

Under Pakistan's Hudood Ordinances, or religious laws, a woman who is raped requires four male eyewitnesses to prove her claim; otherwise she can be deemed an adulteress and punished accordingly. Both violent and nonviolent forms of Islamism have been bolstered by the "Arab Spring" and advanced in Nigeria, Mali, the Aceh province of Indonesia and the Mindanao region of the Philippines.

Afghan women have made important strides toward equal rights. However, the assassinations in December of Nadjia Sediqi, head of an eastern province branch of the Afghan Ministry of Women, and her predecessor, Hanifa Safi six months earlier, exemplify violent Islamism, and the failure of the Karzai government to enforce the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (2009).

That legislation listed 22 criminal acts, including rape, acid attacks, forced marriage, trading women for marriage or revenge and so on, but police in rural areas often deliver female victims to tribal councils, where sexist religious laws hold sway and offenders in powerful social positions avoid punishment.

Many Afghan women are currently held in prison for the "moral crime" of adultery after being raped, and the offense of "running away" from a forced marriage or domestic violence.

Reformers in India and the Arab world are gradually co-opting men, but the defeat of patriarchy and misogyny requires international support. In a globalized world, cultures cross-fertilize, and immigration can replant homeland tribal sexism and religious radicalism.

Refusal to take Islamist extremists to task leaves them free to promote an agenda of female subjugation, based on selective, discriminatory religious texts, instead of those with an egalitarian message espoused by reformers.

The U.N., dominated by a large bloc of Muslim majority countries, is under pressure to support patriarchal tribal societies, rather than women reformers.

Many Western governments, media and feminist NGOs have adopted a morally bankrupt position by ignoring reformers and their campaign for equal rights.

Violence against women cannot be justified. Indian politicians and Islamic religious leaders must desist from blaming victims for using cellphones, going out at night or not dressing appropriately. They should also stop forcing victims to marry rapists in order to obtain a pardon for the assailants and save family honor.

Activists who are prepared to champion reform need urgent solidarity and support, and there is a strong case to be made for Western aid to be contingent on adherence to women's rights in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where gender violence is rife.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.