Two Indian sisters ‘sentenced’ to be raped and then paraded naked around the streets with their faces blackened in another example of India’s scandalous ‘village justice’
Local unelected authorities, also known as the Khap Panchayat, reportedly ordered the sexual assault of the sisters from the low Dalit caste (historically called ‘untouchables’) as a punishment for their elder brother marrying a woman from the upper Jat caste.
One of the sisters, Meenaxi Kumari, 23, told Star News that her brother fell in love with the woman back in their home village of Bhagpat, and the couple eloped to Delhi in March. The woman’s family were furious and began to make unannounced midnight visits to their house to harass his sisters.
Meenaxi said they told the family: “You’ve spoilt our honour by marrying our daughter, so now we will ruin your honour by raping your daughters”.
The all-male village council in Uttar Pradesh state, 30 miles from the capital Delhi, then ruled that the Dalit family should be dishonoured to “avenge” their brother’s supposed crime.
Meenakshi and her sister, were told they would be paraded naked with their faces blackened through the streets. The family contacted the police and officials for help, but were rejected.
It meant they were forced to abandon their home and flee to another part of India. They’re still there, in hiding. And though village elders have reportedly now denied the order for them to be raped in revenge, the sisters have petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to be protected.
Yes, this is still happening in the year 2015.
Women are policed
The news has shocked the western world, but in India it is sadly not an anomaly. In rural parts of the country, cases like this are common and have been for centuries.
We’re only hearing about them now because the international media has created a ‘rape debate’, following the horrific 2012 gang rape and murderof Nirbhaya, a medical student in New Delhi.
That tragedy prompted widespread protests for improved women’s rights, and brought violence against women into the spotlight.
But behind closed doors, things have got worse for women in India.
Parents who allowed girls some level of freedom have now become fearful and strict, under the guise of protecting their daughters. While rape debates may have gone mainstream in the media, the general population largely holds women responsible for ‘inviting’ such crimes. Poor rural women may speak about their ordeals, but in middle and upper classes, family honour routinely silences victims.
Having lived in Lucknow, roughly 600km away from Bhagpat, I can verifyhow common it is for men to ‘teach women a lesson’ by molestation, acid attacks and rape.
While I was studying in Lucknow University, a woman on campus was reportedly assaulted every 18 minutes.
The problem is that policing women is inherent in Indian culture. When women don’t abide by society’s so-called ‘rules’, they can end up in appalling circumstances. And even when it’s their brothers who ‘bring dishonour’, it is girls who can find themselves being punished – as in this latest case.
‘His brother raped her sister’
In India, expressing love is still a major taboo – no matter what they show in Bollywood films. It’s even worse if the one you love differs in caste and income. If they differ in religion, you’re dead.
This was evident during last month’s Mumbai police raid on hotel rooms, where couples were ostracised for ‘creating public obscenity’ while they were being intimate in the privacy of their rooms (the police claimed they initially raided the hotel to look for victims of human trafficking). This event sparked national debate on the right to privacy, and the public shaming of young unmarried couples merely expressing their affection.
But although both men and women bear the brunt of this moral (and literal) policing, women suffer more. And in many cases the patriarchal attitudes they’re surrounded with start to rub off.
A friend of mine, Puja* had troubles with her husband, a doctor living in urban India. She argued with him about visiting home, and in revenge, he enlisted his younger brother to rape Puja’s younger sister Neha.
He thought it would ‘teach Puja a lesson’ – but when Neha told her sister what had happened, Puja blamed her for trusting the brother. She immediately found reasons to blame her own sister and even cut connections with her to ‘save’ her marriage.
Considering 92 women are raped every day in India and one woman is beaten up by her spouse every five minutes, few people realise that women are also part of the problem – whether intentionally or not. Women like Puja cast blame in the wrong direction. Victims of domestic violence often encourage their sons and brothers to exercise violence on their spouses.
Women are part of the problem
Instead of becoming agents of change for other women they become messengers of India’s deeply ingrained patriarchal customs.
Rape victims internalise self-blame and apply their reasoning to other rape victims, because they don’t know any different. Hard working women who step outside of the house to earn a living are labelled ‘promiscuous’ by women from the upper classes.
While middle and upper class women have the option of staying home, poor women whose husbands are often low income labours are forced to work as domestic servants for as little as £1.10 for several hours of back-breaking work. And while they work hard to make ends meet to feed their armies of children (most men shun contraception); they are vulnerable to harassment .
It means women from lower caste and low-income backgrounds are far more vulnerable to violent attacks than women with access to resources. They’re also more likely to live in rural India, where there’s a high prevalence of Khap Panchayats – the ‘village elders’ who condemned the sisters of Bhagpat to rape.
Women in urban India at least have possibilities of being educated, running businesses and having relationships away from the watchful eyes of their conservative families, or all-male local village councils.
Selfies solve nothing
It’s evident that a lot needs to change in India to stop violence against women – and it’s going to take a lot more than the Twitter selfie campaignlaunched by the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. His idea was for families to raise awareness of women’s rights by enocuraging fathers to pose for photographs with their daughters, and post them on social media. It’s charming; even empowering for some.
But it’s not enough.
India needs to abolish local unelected authorities like the Khap Panchayat – and tackle the locals who are so outraged about an alleged rapist that they parade him naked around the town and eventually stone him to death.
The public are taking matters into their own hands – enacting ‘eye for an eye’ punishments, such as that decreed against the two Dalit sisters. The law needs to up its game.
At the moment, there is no punishment for attempted rape, according to the Indian Penal Code and spousal rape is not criminalised. This means a husband can asault his wife without criminal sanctions because she is considered his ‘property’ and their marriage implies irrevocable consent.
That needs to change now.
It’s only when the civil population has faith in, and access to, the justice system that India will be able to start cracking down on violence against women. Let’s hope the Supreme Court starts to set an example by protecting these young sisters from rape and quashing the scandalous village justice that seeks to hurt them.