For those who might have missed the news out of India, a 23-year-old medical student was viciously assaulted by a group of men while she was riding a bus with a male companion. The two had just seen a movie. Both she and the man were beaten with an iron rod, stripped, robbed and dumped on the roadside. The woman was gang-raped. She died 13 days later on Dec. 29, 2012, after suffering organ failure.
The assailants were strangers to the woman and her companion. All the assailants knew was that she was a woman, on the street, not accompanied by a husband, a father or a brother, and therefore vulnerable, a fitting target for their arrogant, patriarchal rage. Protests and near-riots have broken out all over India since her death. This unnamed young woman has become the symbol of all that many Indian women have suffered for so long. Now, she is a pure and blameless rape victim because she is dead. Had she lived, there are many who would have found a way to blame her for being raped. In many countries outside the Western world, women have become the face of the family and the symbol of their male relatives’ dignity. Even in cases of rape, all that matters is that the woman must be killed to save the embarrassment and shame she brought to the men. The concept is not unique to Indian women.
In Egypt, the ruling party is paying gangs of thugs to sexually assault women protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against President Mohamed Morsi.
In 2009, Ameneh Bahrami, a young Iranian woman, lost her sight and suffered horrific burns to her face, scalp and body in an acid attack carried out by a man who was angered that she refused his marriage proposal. Such attacks also happen in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In Afghanistan in November 2008, extremists subjected schoolgirls to acid attacks for attending school.
In Iran, Afsaneh Nowrouzi, a 34-year-old mother of two, was convicted of killing the head of security police and has spent the last six years in a desolate prison, despite her claim that she was defending herself when the man attempted to rape her.
A 19-year-old married man in Jordan had charges against him dropped after kidnapping a 14-year-old girl, holding her in a tent in the desert for three days and repeatedly raping her. Article 308 of Jordanian law states that if the rapist agrees to marry his victim, the charges will be dropped. A system that legally allows a man to rape any girl on the street and then get away with his crime by marrying her isn’t a system. It is a crime.
Some would say there is no difference between these crimes happening overseas and many horrific murders, assaults and rapes that happen right here at home. The crime rates for murder and rape in the United States are among the highest in the world. So why should we treat these crimes differently? In “Les Miserables,” we saw Anne Hathaway as Fantine being surrounded on the street, attacked and lured into prostitution. That was a depiction of the world in the 1800s. But it could be Afghanistan, Iraq and some other countries today.
The big difference is that in the United States, thanks to the hard work of many women and some men, laws and attitudes about rape have changed greatly over time. The blame is taken away from the victim. The focus is on eradicating the cause and the roots of the crime – the male’s need for power and control, and the patriarchal society that exonerates the man. But make no mistake, we are far from perfect and our system of justice fails from time to time. There is much more to be done.
However, in many other countries, the focus has remained the same: No matter the circumstances, it is always the victim’s fault. What did she do to provoke the rape? Women are subject to discrimination by both the state and society.
The Iranian penal code, which is based on Iranian interpretations of Islamic law, states that if a woman injures or kills a rapist in self-defense, she will not be prosecuted. But proving self-defense is equivalent to our standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard of proof in our legal system. The woman must demonstrate that her defense was equal to the danger she faced. She also must prove inflicting harm was her last resort.
According to press reports, in the last year only one woman successfully argued self-defense while being tried for murdering an alleged rapist. In Iran, if a woman is raped, she is considered an adulteress and faces death by stoning. If she fights off a sexual predator and kills him, she can be tried for murder and face death by hanging. Women and girls who suffer rape have almost no recourse under Iranian law. It is no wonder why reports of rape and other sexual offenses are low: The victims may be executed if charges are not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Iran has no problem publicly executing, without proof, men accused of homosexual acts. Why can’t the same measure of deterrence be used to stop acts of gender violence against women? A rapist can marry and escape punishment but, depending on the victim’s response, she might be put to death. A man throwing acid is lightly punished because either the girl’s parents cannot afford to pay the difference in blood money or the government will intervene and excuse the assailant. Suicide rates among women who have been raped or disfigured in attacks are high. Research shows the number of Afghan women committing suicide has increased to 2,300 per year.
Many victims, shamed into silence and callously disregarded by a male-dominated power structure, never go to the authorities to seek justice. Women are routinely blamed for inciting the violence against them.
In Bangladesh, acid attacks are relatively common. The Acid Survivor Foundation counted 91 attacks in 2011. The scholar Afroza Anwary points out that acid violence also occurs in Pakistan, China, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Gaza.
According to a Thomas Reuters Foundation survey, India is the fourth-most- dangerous place in the world for women. Regardless of class, caste, creed or religion, women are the targeted victims of this cruel form of violence and disfigurement. In India, acid attacks on women who dared to refuse a man’s proposal of marriage or who asked for a divorce are a form of revenge. Acid is cheap and easily available and is the quickest way to destroy a woman’s life. There have been 68 reported acid attacks in the state of Karnateka alone. Most of the victims suffer further because of police apathy in dealing with such violence.
In Sonali Mukherjee’s well-publicized case, the perpetrators were granted bail after being sentenced to nine years of jail. Without media attention, acid attack victims languish in pain and poverty, their families often unable to bear the medical expenses. Some of these girls end up killing themselves to take the burden away from their families.
According to New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, Westerners associate terrorism in Pakistan with suicide bombers, but an emerging terrorist threat for Pakistani women is acid attacks, often by their own husbands. Azar, a young mother with three small children, decided to divorce her husband, Jamsheed, and he agreed. After the divorce was final, he came to say goodbye to the children, pulled out a bottle and poured acid on his wife’s face.
In 2002, Bangladesh introduced the death penalty for throwing acid. Under the Qisas law of Pakistan, the perpetrator may suffer the same fate as the victim, meaning the victim may choose the legal punishment of throwing acid on the perpetrator. However, this law is not binding and is rarely enforced.
Over the past few years, acid throwing has been recognized in many countries as one of the most excruciating forms of violence committed against women. It should be treated as a public health concern and dealt with on a national basis.
Recently, India’s legislature passed sweeping reform laws addressing these horrific injustices. A harsher punishment for rape will, for the first time, include the death penalty in cases where the victim dies or is left in a vegetative state. The minimum sentence for gang rape, rape of a minor or rape by a person in authority has been doubled from 10 to 20 years. Trafficking of women and children will also be punished by longer jail terms. Voyeurism and stalking have been defined as new offenses. These new laws may result in a vast improvement of the treatment of women and girls, if the police and the legal culture actually give the new laws full force. However, it is going to take more than laws to change the patriarchal and misogynistic belief system that has been the cause of centuries of harsh treatment of women.
The popular Arab proverb, “A man’s honor lies between the legs of a woman” must change to: “A man’s honor is being part of his own body and soul.”
May this young woman’s death be the beginning of a serious crackdown on rape and harassment in countries around the world, and may she rest in peace.
Nadia Shahram, an attorney and matrimonial mediator, practices in Williamsville.