men, masculinities and gender politics

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Yes, India is a very rough place for women. But that doesn’t excuse the rest of us.

For the last couple of weeks the world has watched as Indian women (and their male supporters) have taken to the streets to protest the horrific gang rape and brutal murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey.  The marchers are fighting against what they perceive to be a culture of violence against women in India.

In response to these events, there have also been commentators from around the world who have attempted to focus our attention on just how horrible Indian culture actually is for women.  For example, see Sunny Hundal’s commentary in The Guardian in which he asks, among other questions, “why isn't there a national debate about the social impact of 100 million missing women” in that country?    (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/03/india-rape-violence-culture) 

(The “missing” women of which he speaks are the victims of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide.  In India -- and in China as well – this increasing and thoroughly unnatural gender imbalance shows pure misogyny in action.  Female fetuses are aborted simply because they are female.  Girl children are murdered simply because they are girls.  Not only is this morally reprehensible, it also represents an increasing demographic nightmare for those societies.)

At the same time, there have been others in the media who have argued that there is nothing specifically Indian about violence against women.  That violence against women is a universal, global scourge, and that Europeans and North Americans should not point fingers at India while absolving ourselves of this problem.  That our own hands are not clean when it comes to the issue of violence against women.  For example, writing in The Independent, Owen Jones asserts that “it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous. Rape and sexual violence against women are endemic everywhere.”  http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/sexual-violence-is-not-a-cultural-phenomenon-in-india--it-is-endemic-everywhere-8433445.html

So who is right?  Is India actually that much worse for women than a lot of other countries?  Or is violence against women simply a global epidemic that impacts us all? 

It’s both… and.  And the answer is: yes.  India has a terrible problem with violence against women.  But most places on earth are also impacted by this horror.

Objectively speaking, India is in fact far worse than many other countries when it comes to the treatment of women.  While it is not the worst country in the world for women, it is far from the best. In June 2012 it was rated the worst of the G20 countries for women.  (Think about it: when you need to have special female-only commuter trains in order to protect women from harassment and sexual assault, then you have a social problem that is far greater than just managing the morning rush hour.) 

Several years ago I heard an American woman of South Asian descent speak about violence against immigrant women in North America.  At one point during her conference presentation she paused and said, “We have to take a moment and realize how truly fortunate we are to live in North America.”   The speaker was not in denial about the realities of violence against women in North America.  In fact, she has made ending that violence her life’s work.  But she was also not in denial about the fact that some cultures around the world are in fact far worse for women.  And she was extremely thankful that women who are abused in North America often have far better access to the legal system than they would have in India or in other South Asian countries.

At the same time, while some cultures are indeed worse than others when it comes to how women are treated, few countries are off the hook entirely.  Even in Canada, which was rated the “best” G20 country for women, violence against women remains a huge social problem.  For example:

*39% of Canadian women (nearly 2 out of 5) have been sexually assaulted since the age of sixteen

*24% of Canadian girls under age 16 (nearly 1 in 4) have experienced rape or coercive sex.

* 51% of Canadian Women have been victims of physical or sexual violence since the age of sixteen.

* 24% of Canadian women have been forced into sexual activity by threat, by being held down, or by being hurt in some way.

* 30% of women currently or previously married have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence at the hands of a marital partner.  (source: http://www.fsacc.ca/content/45357)

So Canada should not crow too loudly about being at the top rung of G20 countries when it comes to women’s well-being...  because the ladder simply doesn’t go all that high!

And keep in mind that rape is not universal!   One thing that has been repeatedly stated in this “India is bad for women” vs. “the whole world is bad for women” debate is the notion that rape is a universal, world-wide phenomenon. 

But, actually, it’s not.

Let me say that again:  rape is not a universal human phenomenon! 

There are dozens of societies on planet earth that have no demonstrated cultural history of rape or other forms of abuse of women.  This fact has been well researched and documented, but has not been well publicized  – perhaps because the forces of patriarchy like to insist that men’s violence against women is simply inevitable, that rape is somehow part of “the natural order” of things.   But the work of Peggy Reeves Sanday, among others, shows that rape is not a universal human behavior.  It simply does not have to happen, and in many cultures it simply doesn’t.

Sanday, as I wrote back in September 2010 (http://billsprofeministblog.blogspot.ca/2010/09/achieving-rape-free-world-its-not-that.html), writes in her article “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape” that at least 47% of world societies have been identified as places where rape is either totally absent or extremely rare. 47%! This number was greater than the number of societies – like ours – where rape is “present and not atypical” (33%), and far greater than the number of societies labeled as “rape prone” (18%).

Societies that are “rape free” include the Taureg of North Africa, the Pygmy and the Nkundo Mongo of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Jivaro and the Cuna of South America, the Khalka of Mongolia, and the the Gond of India. Yes, even in India there are cultures that are rape-free!

So what makes the difference? According to Sanday, societies that are rape-free have the following characteristics:
 

  • Women are sacred and are heavily involved in ceremony and worship – unlike in the patriarchal religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
  • The contributions of women are respected. (No one in these cultures would suggest that women’s traditional work is of limited value to society.)
  • There are balanced power spheres between the sexes. While the work of women and men might not always be the same, both sexes are equally valued. Women are not considered to be property or chattel.
  • Other forms of interpersonal violence are rare – unlike the comparatively high rates of general interpersonal violence and physical assault in North America.
  • There is a close connectedness to mother earth. (No Alberta Tar Sands, no clear cutting of the forest, no scraping off the surface of the earth in order to attain the minerals underneath, no breaking the rocks under our feet to find shale gas.)

So what? How do the practices of these societies impact us? The absence or near-absence of rape in these human societies provides strong refutation of the claim that rape is an inherent part of human existence. Sanday writes: “It is important to understand that violence is socially and not biologically programmed. Rape is not an integral part of male nature.”

Sanday argues that we can learn from these peaceful societies: “Men who are conditioned to respect the female virtues of growth and the sacredness of life do not violate women... The incidence of rape in our society will be reduced to the extent that boys grow to respect women and the qualities so often associated with femaleness in other societies – namely, nurturance, growth, and nature.”

So as we mourn the brutal death of Jyoti Singh Pandey,  let us also make it a catalyst for change.  Let us use it to propel us toward a rape-free world.  

The path ahead is clear.

Honour women’s work. Honour women’s amazing ability to give life. Honour the earth.

And for those of us who live in countries where life may be less bad for women in general than it is in India, we can still do a hell of a lot better than we are doing now.  And until our cultures are totally free of rape, we should not be congratulating ourselves about how well we treat women.

After all, just how many rapes are too many?  I say one.  One rape is one rape too many. 

A global society that is free of rape is achievable.  And we need to achieve it.  In India.  In Canada.  Everywhere.