Editor’s Note: Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and the director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. She is also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Wolfe321.
Lauren Wolfe: Story of Indian woman allegedly raped by men who'd done so 3 years before
She says violence against women not just an "over there" issue; with cultural norms we accept the debasement of women
Wolfe: To defang misogyny that leads to violence against women, we must insist men make women humans, not objects
Sexual assault is a cheap and effective weapon. But in a new case in which this weapon has so horrifyingly been wielded, in the northern state of Haryana, India, the perpetrators may actually have defeated its own usefulness. If that is to be true, it is up to us.
A 21-year-old woman is accusing five men of raping her inside a car on Wednesday in Rohtak, where she goes to college. Some of the men were the same ones who raped her twice over the course of four days in October 2013, she told police.
“They tried to strangulate me,” the woman has told the press. “They said they would kill my father and brother.”
Her family says they have been pressured by the accused men to settle the first case and that they believe the new rape was meant to scare the family once and for all into backing off of legal proceedings. “The accused were constantly threatening us to compromise outside the court,” the victim’s brother told the Hindustan Times. “They even offered us a hefty amount for settlement. But we didn’t agree.”
With Indian police yet to make an arrest in the new attack, nerves are raw as social media and pundits voice the mounting international outcry. It’s yet another moment in which we are shocked, shocked, by the brutality of men. But to be clear, mainly we are shocked by the brutality of men “over there.” We separate ourselves from what happens to women in far off places in order to protect ourselves: This couldn’t happen here! But happen here it does. Again and again.
When Gloria Steinem and I wrote about a concept called the “cult of masculinity” a few years ago, we talked about a kind of false idea of manhood that makes some men act violently and risk their lives against their own self-interest as human beings. With male violence plaguing the planet, it is time to stop distancing ourselves from the “over there” and recognize that we are not doing as well as we’d like to think in this country and in most places around the world.
Whether it is in a newsroom in New York or a house in Iowa, there are many things we can do to push back at the mindset and the behaviors – large and small – that lead to abuse of women. It’s not hard to draw a straight line between language that casually degrades women, pop culture that objectifies them, political and cultural norms that render them “less than,” and the impulse of some men to feel free to harm them.
We can call for stronger laws and faster arrests in the countries where we hear about these attacks, including our own. We can call out media for violating basic rules for writing about rape, such as holding them to account for blaming the victim or for describing a victim’s physical attributes in a lascivious way, as The Washington Post did in a story on July 14.
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As citizens or as media producers, we can hold governments to account for not taking action in rape cases, as recently happened in a case I reported on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was for mysterious reasons not arresting a man suspected of committing approximately 50 rapes of girls aged 18 months to 11 years old over the course of three years. He and his confederates were arrested after authorities’ inaction was called out in the press. International pressure works.
Closer to home, we can also, as a country, recognize that we have a candidate for President who attributed a respected female journalist’s aggressive questioning to her menstrual cycle, and who has called women at various times a “dog” and a “disgusting pig,” debasing women to the level of animals — that is, less than human. And we can say that this is unacceptable.
We can stop excusing a kind of manhood that belittles women, bringing us down to the level of objects — objects that can be treated with not only scorn, but with actual violence.
On the reverse pole of treating women in this degraded way is a societal overemphasis on a woman’s “purity.” This is why sexualized violence is also such an effective means of embarrassing male members of a family who worry immensely about their relatives’ “honor,” such as happens in Syria or Afghanistan or other “honor cultures” around the world.
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Rape, whether it is meant to take a woman’s “purity” or to demean her already “animal-like” self, is not about sex. Power and control are the drivers. So let’s teach our boys that women, too, are not only able to hold power, they are worth more than the sum of their body parts. They, too, are able to reach the highest levels of government; they, too, are able to be strong and hold control.
Allegedly gang-raping a young woman in India to persuade her family to drop court charges is only effective if the family gives in, which it has said it won’t, and if the government acts to punish the perpetrators, which we are still waiting to see. We can support the family’s brave decision. And we can go further than that by challenging a global status quo in which men remain in charge and can debase women with vile language without consequence.
Right now, we can begin to defang the misogyny that allows violence against women to be such an effective weapon. Learning to speak about women as humans is really just the most basic — and surprisingly necessary — first step.