I was in New Delhi last weekend at a conference on religion when a 23-year-old medical student was gang-raped on a bus. Though she was assaulted on Sunday night, it took her until Tuesday morning to regain consciousness. She was out to see a movie with a male friend. The attack caused severe injuries to her head and her intestines, requiring multiple surgeries. This damage is in addition to the gross personal violation and trauma of being raped repeatedly by six men who had been drinking and were out looking for a "joy ride".
The people of New Delhi are rightly up in arms. They are demonstrating in the street and calling for change. Rape is a heinous crime and a common one, especially in societies that tolerate it, that attempt to shame and blame the victims, and that fail to punish perpetrators swiftly and forcefully.
Societies like ours in the US, for example, where rape and rape culture are pernicious problems. Here women, children, or men may experience rape at the hands of so-called friends or acquaintances, whether on college campuses, in prisons, or in their own homes by members of their own families.
Did you know that out of every 100 rapes in the US, only 46 get reported to the police? Twelve lead to an arrest; nine get prosecuted; five lead to a felony conviction, and only three rapists will spend even a day in prison. The other 97 will go free.
Crushed by caste-based laws
If a woman who has been raped presses charges, she can expect the rapist's defence attorney routinely to cast doubt upon her credibility, ask humiliating questions about her sexual history, her clothing choices and her veracity. No wonder that few charges are even brought to court, fewer convictions are won and fewer still jail sentences are served.
Last weekend, at the World Council of Churches Consultation on Dalit Theology, held in New Delhi, India, the subject of rape came up in more than one of the papers that scholars presented. Dalit theology, for those who do not know, is an Indian theology of liberation that grows out of the experience of the outcaste, those who were formerly called "untouchable".
Though the caste system has been outlawed in India since 1950, caste is a deeply ingrained notion, and discrimination against Dalits continues in many forms. The word "Dalit" means "crushed" or "broken", and indeed, many of India's 1.2 billion people are crushed by caste-based laws, reminiscent of Jim Crow in this country, as well as deeply ingrained customs and prejudices against them. Dalit women, we learned, are particularly vulnerable to being crushed by the violence of rape.
An ethnographic study based on interviews with 500 Dalit women in two states in North India and two in the South studied 12 different common forms of violence against women. These included: physical assault, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and assault, rape, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, kidnapping and abduction, forced incarceration and medical negligence, as well as female foeticide and infanticide, child sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Rape as 'a form of punishment'
The authors conclude that the three interlinking dynamics of caste, class and gender discrimination function together to make Dalit women extremely vulnerable, undermining their self-respect, their dignity and their rights to freedom and opportunity. (See Irudayam, Mangubhai and Lee, Dalit Women Speak Out: Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India, Zubaan, 2011).
In fact, the authors find that atrocities committed against Dalit women are pervasive. Rape is even used as a form of punishment for violating caste rules, for example, asserting one's right to resources like education can result in being raped by members of the dominant caste. Ironically, the myth of untouchability does nothing to prevent such rapes.
The authors also note that gender bias functions to prevent women from reporting the crime of rape. "This bias, cloaked under the notion of family or community 'honour', effectively serves to silence the voices of many women survivors of violence." Rapes are thus dramatically under-reported, and of the ones that are reported, the police record few and verify fewer still.
Sound familiar? There is an insidious logic that takes over when it comes to the crime of rape, a logic that tends to blame and shame victims, minimise the offence and let perpetrators off the hook. Until we challenge the various cultural lies that support sexual violence here and around the world, we can expect more of the same.
At the WCC Consultation on Dalit Theology, we heard that human dignity is the gift of God, something given to every person, regardless of class or caste, gender, race, sexual orientation or identity, or dis/ability. The violence of rape offends that dignity, and crushes and breaks human beings, near and far.
Mary Clark Moschella is Roger J Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counselling at Yale Divinity School. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project .