A 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped in New Delhi Dec. 16 passed away last week due to injuries she sustained during the attack. The details are so vile—and so well-reported by news organizations—I won’t elaborate. If you need background, see the links below. A warning: If you’re new to the story, don’t read about it late at night, as I did. You risk nightmares.
Reading about the woman carried me across the brink of horror. It led me down angry-dark alleys of torture, entertaining thoughts I wish I could un-think. The woman’s plight stirred in me the same empathy I felt almost 30 years ago, when I learned my mom had been raped. She trusted a friend of her first husband, who promised her a ride home but instead attacked her. When she reported her case to the authorities, they encouraged her not to press charges. She would be cast as a harlot who incited the attack, they said, and she’d lose the case.
Perhaps I’ve been naïve, thinking this antiquated logic was a thing of the past. News reports about the New Delhi case suggest women are still blamed and shamed when it comes to rape. Sonia Faleiro, who lived in New Delhi for 24 years, wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
India has laws against rape; seats reserved for women in buses, female officers; special police help lines. But these measures have been ineffective in the face of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. It is a culture that believes that the worst aspect of rape is the defilement of the victim, who will no longer be able to find a man to marry her — and that the solution is to marry the rapist.
A NYT editorial from Dec. 29 says the New Delhi case:
reflects an alarming trend in India, which basks in its success as a growing business and technological mecca but tolerates shocking abuse of women. Rape cases have increased at an alarming rate, roughly 25 percent in six years. New Delhi recorded 572 rapes in 2011; that total is up 17 percent this year.
And those are just the reported cases. 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. On Wednesday, an 18-year-old girl from Punjab who had been gang-raped in an earlier incident killed herself after police and village elders pressured her to drop the case and marry one of her attackers.
Rape in America
The New Delhi brutality was half a world away, but rape isn’t rare in the United States. As many as 1.3 million American women each year may be victims of rape or attempted rape, according to an in-depth government survey released just over a year ago.
That number is markedly higher than previous figures, according to a NYT story. The Department of Justice estimated that 188,380 Americans were victims of sexual violence in 2010. Numbers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed 84,767 assaults defined as forcible rapes.
The study, conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gathered information from a nationally representative sample of 16,507 adults. Nearly one in five women in the survey said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked, according to the report.
These figures are surprising. I wonder about the discrepancy between the CDC study and the numbers kept by the DOJ and FBI. I’m guessing part of the gap is because most sexual assaults go unreported. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
Now that I have a daughter, the prominence of rape concerns me in uncomfortable new ways. I worry about Syma’s safety, and Noah’s. RAINN says 80 percent of the victims of sexual assault are under age 30. My husband and I are planning to send both of our children to martial-arts courses, and equip them with pepper spray. (At a responsible age, of course.) Being proactive along these lines is a parent’s biological reflex. It can’t prevent a crime. Yet it makes me feel as if I’m doing something to protect my little legacies.
The roots of rape are several. One that strikes me as increasingly important is the objectification of women. Images on TV, in films, on magazine covers and advertisements, among other places, often depict women as objects. Such powerful imagery skews our perception of women. Recent research backs this up, according to a Huffington Post story from last summer:
Women are more likely to be picked apart by the brain and seen as parts rather than a whole, according to research published online June 29 in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Men, on the other hand, are processed as a whole rather than the sum of their parts. “Everyday, ordinary women are being reduced to their sexual body parts,” said study author Sarah Gervais, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
I can’t speak for other countries. But U.S. media does a shabby job of promoting the dignity and value all women deserve. It’ll take more than just changing the way we portray women. As others have said, we must place blame on rapists, not victims. Law enforcement should treat rape and sexual assault with the same seriousness they treat other crimes. Women need to feel they can and should report such attacks, and that their attackers won’t easily get away with the crime.
The Dec. 29 NYT editorial notes that “India, a rising economic power and the world’s largest democracy, can never reach its full potential if half its population lives in fear of unspeakable violence.” The same holds for the rest of the world. Rape anywhere on this planet should concern people everywhere.
- I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t, The New York Times, Jan. 7, 2013
- New Delhi rape victim’s companion tells of police and public apathy in TV interview, The Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2013
- Charges Filed Against 5 Over Rape in New Delhi, The New York Times, Jan. 2, 2013
- The Unspeakable Truth About Rape in India, The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2013
- Leaders’ Response Magnifies Outrage in India Rape Case, The New York Times, Dec. 29, 2012
- Rape in the World’s Largest Democracy, The New York Times, Dec. 29, 2012
- Women and Objectification: Brain Sees Men as Whole, Women in Parts, The Huffington Post, July 25, 2012
- Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted, The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2011
Note: The title of this post, “Taking Back the Night,” alludes to The Take Back the Night Foundation. This group works to create safe communities and respectful relationships through awareness events and initiatives. Their goal is to end sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual abuse and all other forms of sexual violence.