Leslee Udwin, the documentary-maker whose film, India's Daughter, has been censored on the sub-continent. (Photo:Getty)
Show Hide image

The attitudes expressed towards women in India's Daughter are chilling. But they're also universal

India's Daughter has exposed that country's rape culture. But don't imagine that these attitudes aren't found around the world. 

This week’s screening of the film India’s Daughter has brought long overdue attention to India’s national rape crisis, and the causes behind it. It examines the story of a young woman – Jyoti Singh - who was gang raped by six men and murdered on a bus in Delhi in 2012. Jyoti was raped repeatedly before the men forced an iron rod inside her, removing part of her intestine. She died later that night in hospital. Her rapists and their lawyers’ attempted justifications behind the attack – including “in our culture, there is no place for a woman” - are among one of the most shocking aspects of the film.

Yet, many of the repugnant views voiced by the rapists and their defenders interviewed in the film are alive on our own doorsteps, and the doorsteps of women around the world. Many societies, for example, have adopted a culture of acceptability, where sexual harassment and rape are seen as inevitable. A lawyer defending the Delhi attackers compared women at various points in the interview to a precious flower and a diamond, saying that “if you put the diamond on the street, certainly the dog will take it out, you can’t stop it”. This implication, that the urge to act upon sexual desires in a violent manner is natural and therefore socially acceptable, is prevalent elsewhere. For example, according to Egyptian academic Dr Hania Sholkamy, Egyptian politicians have compared women to raw meat who, if left uncovered, will inevitably be devoured by animals.

Viewing sexual violence as an inevitability, particularly when a woman steps outside of her traditional gender role, directs the blame away from the perpetrator and towards the victim. One of the rapists in the film looks blankly into the camera and says “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy”. This view, though extremely prominent in India, is held by millions of men – and, in some cases, women – around the world. In early 2013 Egypt, after months of brutal attacks on female protesters, I asked the Freedom and Justice Party’s Shura Council human rights representative, Reda el-Hefnawy, about the causes behind sexual violence. He insisted that there are “so many reasons” why harassment remains the woman’s fault, including her whereabouts and clothing at the time of the attack.

Blaming the victim rather than their attacker is also still embedded in Western countries, particularly within college campuses. A 2007 study found that three of the five factors behind “rape-supportive attitudes and beliefs” among male college students were: a “belief that women should hold more responsibility for sexual assault”, “justifications for sexual aggressions based on women’s behavior”, as well as an acceptance of traditional gender roles.

Not only are women around the world seen as unequal to men and therefore deserving of lesser human rights – many victims of sexual violence are perceived as subhuman by their attackers. Women are often placed within a hierarchy of value, depending on their social status, sexuality, caste, religion or behaviour, used to justify how certain ‘types’ of women ‘deserve’ to be treated. Let’s look at the behaviour of women. In an almost unwatchable clip, one of Jyoti’s attackers says unblinkingly: “you can’t clap with one hand, it takes two hands to clap. A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night”.

This attitude often extends right to the upper echelons of power. In Egypt, a senior general attempted to justify forced virginity tests on detained women by saying that they “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters”. Those who inflict extreme sexual cruelty against women often completely dehumanise their victims, conceiving to be subhuman creatures rather than women with human rights and feelings. Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS are considered apostates and devil worshippers by their captives. They are bought and sold like cattle, before being repeatedly raped, abused and tortured.  American soldier Steven Green, who in 2006 gang raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl before shooting her in the back of the head, was quoted as saying “I wasn’t thinking [Iraqis] were humans”. Salafi preacher Ahmed Abdullah (known as Sheikh Abu Islam), who accused women of speaking out about rape and sexual harassment of being “like ogres” and “like a demon”, also said that rape is “halal”, or ‘permissible’.

Sexual violence is often accompanied by a lack of fear of being held accountable. In Green’s case, he attempted to justify his actions in Iraq by saying “I didn’t think I was going to live. . . I wasn’t thinking about more than 10 minutes into the future at any given time”. In fact, many legal and policing systems around the world are designed to work against the victims rather than the perpetrator. In Egypt, a woman can only report an incident of harassment if she first catches her attacker and brings him and two other witnesses to the police. In the unlikely event of her doing so safely, she then has to deal with the police, many of whom share the same beliefs as those who commit the attacks on the streets. In fact, many police around the world pose a great risk to women. Just last year, an Indian woman was reportedly gang raped by four officers inside the police station.

Sexual violence against women is a subject that, time and time again, gets completely ignored by governments, whose job it is to protect its citizens. Following the 2012 attack in India, thousands of women pounded the streets shouting “We want justice!” Three years later, and their government has banned the screening of a film which highlights the problem. Yet, public officials in the UK are also guilty of staying silent on the subject, particularly in the name of protecting cultural sensitivities. In Rotherham, for example, public officials were accused by an independent inquiry of deliberately covering up thousands of cases of appalling sexual violence and abuse against vulnerable young girls. Just this week, a council whistle blower told of how he was silenced by senior staff after speaking up about child sexual abuse in Oxford, where an estimated 307 girls were failed by authorities.

Women around the world risk their lives in demanding an end to sexual violence. They bring subjects that are considered unspeakable onto the streets and shout about them, despite the risks. This International Women’s Day, it is time we recognise that patriarchy – the fight to keep women off the streets; to kill their independence; and, to control every aspect of their sexuality and movements – breeds sexual violence, and is a problem that must be fought on a global scale. So often British girls and women – from victims of female genital mutilation to ‘honour’ killings - are let down by our fear of facing uncomfortable truths. Let this be the year of airing them, and acting on them.

Emily Dyer is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. She tweets as @erdyer1.

Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.


City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.


Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.


Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue