It was a summer night in Florence, Italy. I was returning to my hotel after attending a concert at the Pitti Palace. Suddenly, five young men encircled me, hurling sexual innuendos. One of them smacked his lips and pointed to my crotch. I was sure they were going to gang rape me. The terror I felt was so intense I thought I would pass out. No one who has not experienced that kind of fear can understand what it feels like.
I was lucky. A passerby appeared and I was rescued. I was 23-years old, like Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was not rescued in India even though she was with her boyfriend. She was so brutally raped that what was done to her does not bear repeating. Suffice to say that she died of her injuries. Until her father released her name and picture we didn’t have a sense of her but as one blogger wrote, “I don’t need to see a photograph to cry for her.”
Violence against women in India has increased dramatically over the past two decades as women have become more autonomous. More than 600 rapes were reported in New Delhi alone last year and that number is small compared to those that don’t get reported. Even reporting rape can be dangerous. Recently an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State killed herself after police humiliated and then raped her themselves, admonishing her to marry one of her rapists, a remedy for the shame of rape often proposed by family members. Even as I write this, another gang rape on a bus has been reported.
But India isn’t alone in its murderous attempts to control women and to use them sexually as political pawns. The Women’s Media Center’s project Women Under Siege recently documented the horrific rapes of women in Syria, “usually by government forces.” Again, what has allegedly been done to young girls to sexually mutilate them doesn’t bear repeating. Congo is another case in point. In fact, there isn’t a country in conflict that doesn’t use rape and sexual assault as a form of intimidation and humiliation. And there isn’t a country in the world in which violence against women does not occur on a regular basis.
Here in America someone (overwhelmingly female) is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Mostly we don’t know about these incidents unless they are as heinous as the recent multiple rapes of an unconscious young woman in Steubenville, Ohio. Every year we average over 208,000 victims of reported sexual assault. Eighty percent of these victims are under age 30, 54 percent of assaults are never reported, and 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail.
No wonder most women are afraid, at some level of consciousness, to leave home, to travel alone, to dress the wrong way, to make eye contact with or to smile at someone they don’t know.
And what is our own government doing about it? Not much, thanks to the right wing of the wrong party. While the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in the Senate last year, some House Republicans failed to advance the Senate’s re-authorization because they didn’t think immigrant, Native America or gay women were worthy of being included in the Act. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has vowed to re-introduce the legislation this year.
What is it in individuals and cultures that fosters, overlooks and perpetrates such heinous gender-based violence? How can such violations of women’s bodies, such physical and psychological cruelty, continue unabated? The answers are complex and go beyond theories that include the threat posed to patriarchies by self-determined women.
But Sandip Roy, a blogger who wrote about the Indian woman’s rape, offered some food for thought. There were lessons to be learned, he said, by the tragedy in India. (Many of them relate to the lessons of gun violence as well.)We learned, Roy said, that “it’s an exercise in futility to assign a hierarchy of rape as if one rape is more deserving of attention than the other.” We learned that “it is possible to shake a country out of its apathy” and that “if enough people raise their voices a government cannot ignore them.” We learned that “safety is not about what women do, wear or when they go out. It’s about what men around them do.”
“That girl could have been any one of us,” an Indian mother cried at a candlelight vigil for Jyoti Singh Pandey. “We can only tackle this by becoming Durga,” the Hindu god who slays demons, she said.
Let’s hope we can discover the Durga in all our countries and cultures, and that whatever gods we pray to give us the courage to confront the scourge of rape and other violence against women. Until we do, none of us can claim to be safe, or to assume we live in a civilized world.