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.