It brought to mind again something I saw in Bangladesh in the mid-1990s. We were in a village that was struggling to crawl up to the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The village prided itself with an elementary school that drew kids from neighboring villages. Most of the living quarters there were just small huts made of thatch and mud and stone, except for the principal’s which stood on hollow blocks. Useful, one of our guides said with a laugh, for when he beat up his wife. Apparently, wife-beating was fairly common there. The hollow blocks helped mute the sounds of violence and keening, which allowed the principal to keep up his high standing in the neighborhood.
India is by no means Bangladesh. Not then, not now. It has a bustling IT capital in Bangalore, it has brilliant artists, not least of them writers like Salman Rushdie, it remains a beacon of transcendent spirituality to the world. But it also has a skeleton in its closet, which is the way it treats its women. The gang-rape of a 23-year-old, which eventually led to her death in a Singapore hospital where she was flown in a desperate effort to save her life, revealed this in all its gory sordidness. The girl and her male companion were picked up by a school bus that had been hijacked by hooligans, and the girl was repeatedly raped and subjected to acts of sadism. The victims were then thrown out of the bus. The girl died after a couple of weeks from her injuries.
The wanton brutality of it shocked the entire nation and stoked its citizens to fury. Protesters marched in the streets demanding justice for the girl and soul-searching for the nation. It was of course a matter of peace and order too. Rape has gotten out of hand in India, or the social media have made it possible to report it, but either way the routineness with which it is happening, particularly in the rural areas, is alarming. The police almost seem powerless in the face of it.
But more than that, it is culture too. Specifically a culture that holds women in low regard, if not in scorn, which makes rape, or generally, sexual harassment, seem almost like a pastime. An unfortunate pastime, like smoking and drinking, but a pastime nonetheless. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, at least 20 people who have been accused of rape have run in Indian elections over the past five years. Sexual harassment is rampant, being regarded lightly as “eve-teasing.”
“Indian men should change their attitude towards women. We treat them badly, abuse them, harass them and even rape them. We have to change ourselves,” said Ashim Jain, a playwright. “The villain is within us.”
Lest we think ourselves lucky we do not have the same problem, let’s think again. Not too long ago, we almost qualified as the rape capital of the world, the thing happening not just with frightening frequency but with the horrific murder of the victims to go along with it. In the early 1990s, Marikina earned notoriety as the rape-and-murder capital of the country, with girls who worked at night being abducted as they went home in the wee hours of morning, and raped and killed. I remember that very well because one of the victims was a girl we knew who worked at Sam’s Diner in Quezon City, who delivered our orders on skates. She never got home one night, or early morning, and was found on a dumpsite, raped and stabbed to death later on. It gave a face to utter evil.
Clearly, it was a breakdown of peace and order too, and the Marikina police were rightly damned for not being worth the expense of keeping them. Things would change in the late 1990s, unfortunately without most of the victims finding justice. Later, the lethal poisoning of a house painter convicted of rape would be televised. But it would not deter rape, it would not lessen rape. All it did was to encourage rapists to kill their victims, dead women tell no tales. Indeed, all it did was to convince the country to scrap the death penalty.
But more than a peace-and-order problem, it was, and far more so, a cultural problem. Or an attitudinal problem, or a sociological problem, or a psychological problem. Although we’ve had women leaders, like India, we’ve also not gone very far in pushing back backward views about women, particularly in the rural areas. That is the ultimate source of violence against them. Incest remains a humongous problem, along with rape, particularly among the urban poor. As does wife-beating, sanctioned at least by culture, if not by law, with outside interference being effectively barred by the advice, or warning, “Huwag kang makialam sa usapang mag-asawa.”
That’s the reason I applaud every move and measure that improve the standing of women in this country. Or more to the point, that change, alter, reshape our regard for women in this country. And that’s the reason I decry any attempt or effort to retard it, to solidify and reinforce our view of women as originating from the ribs of men. One such attempt or effort being the continuing opposition of groups, led by the bishops, to reproductive health. RH isn’t just about family planning, or responsible sex, it is about giving women power over their own bodies, it is about giving women dignity, it is about giving women equality. The opposition to it isn’t about fighting for life, it is about fighting to keep women in line, fighting to keep their role in life as baby factories.
The denigration of women, open or veiled: That is the ultimate source of violence against them. Not the laxity of the police, not the titillation of media, not the promiscuity of society. Jain is right, stop looking around you to find the blame for the monstrosity. The monster is inside us.
The villain is within us.