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Raza Habib Raja Headshot

The Culture of Rape in South Asia

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Misogyny is a universal phenomenon which is prevalent in every society in varying degrees and in different forms. Rape is one of the most perverted expressions of misogyny as it bestows ultimate humiliation on the victim.

Whereas rape is common all across the globe, right now it is the Indian subcontinent -- in particularly India and Pakistan -- which is making news.

I will just give you a few recent examples. About three months ago a woman was raped in Pakistan and her rapists were given a bail. In protest she set herself to fire outside the police station. In early June two Indian girls were raped and then hanged from a tree. Only yesterday another Pakistani girl was first raped and then killed by hanging.

And these are cases which have come to the notice of the media. An overwhelming number of times rape is not even reported.

And what actually sets many developing countries like India and Pakistan apart from the West is this fact. There is a huge social stigma attached to rape due to linkage of women's chastity with family honor.

The linkage in turn promotes silence from the victim and her family as rape if it becomes known would bring "dishonor" to the family. The tendency to remain silent actually encourages rapists as it removes fear of any retribution It is this deeply flawed concept of honor that also accounts for honor killings in rural areas of Pakistan. In a most recent incident, a woman was killed by her own family outside the High Court because she had "presumably" dishonored her family.

But this linkage of so called "honor" does even more besides promoting the above: it actually encourages "blaming the victim" attitude.

A raped woman, instead of getting sympathy from the society often becomes the "culprit" as many start shifting the blame to her "carelessness" in movements and ways of dressing.

Often instead of actually exerting efforts to reform the prevalent masculine attitudes towards women, our focus is to reform women by expecting them to dress modestly or limit their movements. When a rape occurs, the first thing many in the society do is to reprimand the victim by blaming her for "negligence" -- or worse "deliberate sexual provocation."

This "blaming the victim" attitude is somewhat prevalent in the West also but the degree to which it is present in developing countries is extraordinary.

In fact even the most brutal rapes can at times produce bewildering reactions from some parts of the society.
For example, in late 2012, India was shocked by the most brutal gang rape of a young medical professional who subsequently died due to injuries. That horrific rape seemed to have jolted everyone out of slumber and Indian society retaliated against sexual violence against women.

But despite the fact that so many were protesting against an extremely violent crime, there were some who attributed rape due to carelessness of the victim in that particular case, and on rising trend of women wearing fewer clothes with respect to rape cases in general.

Unfortunately, this too is not the whole picture. There is often a tendency to reduce rape to merely higher male libido. To completely understand rape, we have to go beyond the biological differences between sexual drives of men and women. Rape is also a twisted way of flaunting so-called masculinity and reducing women to their perceived status of weaker humans and in essence, mere commodities to be abused by men.

In many developing countries , a woman's status is not merely "natural" rather it is constructed socially through culture and laws. And this construction is then reinforced through our behavior and customs. Rape is essentially one of the more perverted and "illegal" expressions of patriarchy which is already so deeply entrenched in the society.

Where it is unfortunate that rape is a universal setback, at least in western societies, there is a progressive movement, with respect to treatment of women, after the rape is reported.

I am only pointing this out because many apologists for our society's mindset have a tendency to promptly point to West's rape statistics. There, the society has progressed to such an extent that when a rape does occur, it is more of an individual transgression rather than a systemic issue.

Most of our hard work with respect to rape and other misogynist practices lies not in merely improving the judicial system but on the way gender identities are socially constructed.

Without attacking that patriarchal social construction, make no mistake, the culture of rape will continue to flourish.