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Naomi Wolf’s article titled “Ending India’s rape culture” (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 3, 2013) gives us an insight into last month’s rape case in India which sparked global outrage. The victim — a 23-year-old student — died on Dec. 28, 2012 in Singapore, due to severe injuries and organ failure.
Wolf writes that the crime seems incomprehensible, the victim was gang raped for an hour by six men, was beaten and violated by a metal rod, and was thrown out of a moving bus.
Here in Indonesia, sadly, news about rape cases can be found almost every day. Such cases occur in both public and private places with perpetrators ranging from strangers, neighbors, teachers and friends to family members. Victims are women of various ages and backgrounds such as working women, housewives and students. In some rape cases, juveniles are also involved either as perpetrators or as victims.
Rape is of a different nature compared to other crimes. Prosecution of a rape perpetrator is often not easy in a culture which is heavily biased against women. The problem is more complicated when the perpetrator is a family member or someone with a close acquaintance to the victim.
Rape and other forms of sexual violence are a form of subordination of women. This subordination may occur on its own or in combination with economic, political or cultural subordination.
Syarifah (2006) in her book Kebertubuhan Perempuan dalam Pornografi (Women’s Status in Pornography) writes that the term subordination implies three factors. First, subordination is about an (unequal) hierarchical relation between a superior and their subordinate. Second, it is about objectification, in which somebody is treated as a commodity and of a lower status. Third, subordination is about subjugation.
Following Syarifah’s framework, rape and other sexual assaults on women are basically about subordination in which the perpetrators are those with a superior status, be they a father, uncle, brother, teacher or an employer, while the victim is a subordinate such as a daughter, niece, younger sister, student or an employee.
Outside these categories, women in general are regarded as inferior to men. This explains why in some rape cases the perpetrator is a stranger to the victim. Rape also relates to women being perceived as objects and subject to being treated as no more than a commodity. This explains cases of human trafficking in which women are traded as sex slaves.
Rape and other sexual violence against women are also about subjugation as a way to further suppress women on the lowest rank of the social strata and to make them “obedient” to the wishes of the perpetrator. This latter subjugation should be understood in a wider social and cultural context of obedience to patriarchal rules through which women are kept under men’s control.
Under such rules, a good woman is supposed to stay at home. A bad woman is one who claims her rights in the public domain. Consequently, when rape or other sexual assaults occur, it is the fault of the victim for not being a good and “obedient” woman. The problem with this is that rape occurs not only in the public sphere but also at home with the perpetrators often family members or relatives.
There are the so-called “protectionists” who advise women to stay at home, not to go out at night, to dress and to behave in a way that will not be interpreted as “inviting” to be raped or sexually assaulted. Although the protectionists claim to protect women, in fact they do not. Instead they victimize women by limiting their freedoms and when something bad happens, they put the blame on the women.
The protectionists’ way of thinking is not applied to other crimes such as theft. When somebody experiences this crime, it is more likely that people will sympathize. Nobody will blame the victim, asking why they left their home for, say, a vacation so that their home was subject to theft. Nobody will question why they did not recruit a personal security guard, or install a burglar alarm or CCTV or why their fence was not high enough so that it “invited” a thief to come.
On the contrary, when a woman is raped or sexually harassed, people will question whether she — through her dress or behavior — in some way “invited” the perpetrators’ actions. They will also investigate why she traveled alone or why she was not at home after dark and so on and so forth.
Unlike theft, it is the woman rape victim who is held responsible for the crime she experiences. Social stigma forces her to remain silent. The need to save the family’s honor further brings a woman rape victim to an unbearable situation. Not long ago, Amina Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl, committed suicide after being forced to marry a man who raped her in order to preserve her family’s honor (The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012).
Sadly this “protectionist” way of thinking is also adopted by some policymakers. According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women, there are 282 policies — mostly at local level — that discriminate against women or minority groups. The latest one is the government of Lhokseumawe in Aceh which plans to issue a bylaw banning women from straddling motorcycles as this is considered indecent (the Post, Jan. 3, 2013).
While strengthening law enforcement is important, changing the gender-bias mind-set is no less important in order to eliminate rape and other violence against women.
Our task, rather than blaming women and asking them to do or not to do this or that, is to educate, our daughters to understand their rights and to be brave enough to claim these rights, our sons to respect women, and everyone else to uphold human rights.
The writer is a lecturer at Parahyangan Catholic University’s School of Social and Political Sciences, Bandung.