Why are Indian and Pakistani men hell-bent on perpetuating sexual terrorism?

Published: July 24, 2016

An activist holds a banner during a march against domestic violence against women, marking International Women's Day in Beirut March 8, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

Another day, another news report about a horrific rape that once again highlights the distance India has to travel to ensure true equality, freedom, and justice for its women.

In this latest incident, a 21-year-old was gang raped again by the same five men who had raped her three years ago. This incident is beyond outrageous and is a measure of the abject failure of the law and order machinery in ensuring that justice is served and all perpetrators of sexual crimes are punished appropriately.

Out of the five original rapists, two were apparently out on bail and three had never been arrested. It gets worse. The girl’s family was being threatened and pressured to withdraw the case. So you have five rapists moving around freely and threatening their victim, while the authorities sat around twiddling their thumbs, granting bail to two and professing to not being able to track the other three.

Four years after the Nirbhaya case and some sort of a mass awakening against the horrors of sexual assault, India still seems to be indifferent towards enforcing strict and harsh punishment for rape. How else can you explain that even three years after the crime, the case had not been concluded and the two rapists were out on bail?

If the two arrested men had been handed exemplary punishment the first time round, would they or their accomplices have dared to repeat the act? Furthermore, the three absconders hadn’t disappeared into thin air obviously. They were very much around, threatening the victim and her family, and ultimately indulging in the act of rape again. The police, with all the resources available to them, could have quite easily exerted some extra effort to apprehend them.

Politicians have compelled cops to work extra hard to catch buffalo thieves in the past, so arresting rapists really should not be particularly hard if the intent is there. Alas, the intent often seems missing.

You can have the strongest laws on the books, but if the will and mechanism to enforce them are absent, then they are worthless. That is why rapists continue to rape with impunity and everyday there are new stories, more women violated, more lives destroyed.

This vicious cycle is no less than sexual terrorism. When exactly one half of your population lives in the constant fear of being attacked, it is no less than terrorism. Women in all of South Asia face this uncertainty and lack of safety. A terror attack is destructive and shatters one’s faith and sense of security, just like a sexual assault.

Just as terrorism stymies the progress of societies, sexual terrorism imposes severe constraints and penalties on women. Fear of bomb blasts and shootings impacts investments and spending in the economy, while the threat of rape impacts women’s social and economic contributions to the economy and society. A truly vibrant society is only possible when both these scourges are defeated.

Women have suffered for centuries. Men have used them for sexual gratification, as spoils of war, and as symbols of honour, without consideration for their individuality, identity, or desires. While many parts of the world are gradually breaking free from this brutal past, South Asia’s progress is still tentative as it staggers along the path to gender equality.

Salman Khan’s recent ‘raped woman’ comment is a classic example of how sexual assault is trivialised by society. While he has a history of insensitivity, most people across the country did not see the comment as being improper either.

Similarly, Mulayam Singh Yadav, a powerful politician in the state of UP, has also made remarks that reflect the seemingly widely prevalent patriarchal and misogynistic view.

When such influential and powerful men treat rape so casually, it is natural for society as a whole to mirror those attitudes. The fact that these men enjoy significant clout is a clear reflection of how society thinks.

The opposition to the women’s protection bill in Pakistan is another facet of the same socio-cultural issue. Women’s safety and equality must be non-negotiable. Qandeel Baloch’s murder by her own brother for tarnishing family honour is essentially a manifestation of the mind-set that considers women as inferior creatures and as the property of their male guardians.

It is time that South Asia emerged from this morass of medieval thinking. Because misogyny is so deep-rooted and widespread in society, it will take a top down effort to hasten the pace of change.

There needs to be zero tolerance for any kind of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment or eve teasing as it is known in this part of the world, to sexual assault. If harassment goes unpunished or unchallenged, it emboldens the perpetrator. Similarly, if one rapist goes unpunished, it encourages other potential rapists.

Harsh punishment, the kind that makes an example out of the perpetrator, will help break this vicious cycle. Very public and visible campaigns to sensitise young men must be launched to promote reformed thinking. However, positive reinforcement alone is insufficient; it has to be accompanied by deterrence. Clearly spelling out the consequences of such acts, and ensuring that the perpetrator suffers those consequences, will help reduce the appeal of such brutish behaviour.

A rapist values his masculinity the most. In his mind, his penis empowers him and is what sets him apart from his victim, the female. The threat of a direct blow to his masculinity is the biggest deterrent. It is therefore time for South Asian countries to think about introducing castration as a punishment for sexual crimes.

This two-pronged approach will go a long way in enhancing the status of women in the region. The state must put its weight behind the objective of protecting them and guaranteeing them a level playing field, just as it did when trying to find the minister’s missing cattle.

South Asia’s abysmal social indicators will also see a healthy improvement if women’s talents and abilities are nurtured and harnessed positively. An environment that allows women to step out freely – without the fear to study and work – will see them increasing their contribution to social productivity significantly. Societies across the globe have benefited from women’s presence and influence in the public sphere.

It’s difficult, but not impossible, and fortunately there is a critical mass of people who want progressive ideas to take root in this part of the world as well and will support any initiatives to further that cause. Governments and leaders owe it to all right thinking people in their constituencies to create the conditions that liberate women from the sexual terrorism that thwarts their potential and restricts their space.

Amit Nangia

Amit Nangia

The author is a learning and development professional with a background in finance and human resources that informs his commentaries on geopolitical and socioeconomic trends. He tweets as @amitnangia06 (twitter.com/amitnangia06)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.