(Trigger warning: Graphic descriptions of violence)
A 23 year old woman decided to go to the cinema with her 28 year old male friend in Delhi, India’s capital, on Sunday the 16th of December 2012. She was studying physiotherapy, had just finished her exams and wanted to celebrate. On their way home after enjoying a film, they boarded a city bus. An unsettling feeling came over them when the bus detoured from its usual route and its doors were locked. Aboard the bus were six men, and as it turned out, these six men had rented the vehicle. The woman protested and wanted to get off the bus. The men started to harass her and her friend, asking them what they were doing out and about so late at night, just the two of them together. They proceeded to attack the woman's friend, tie him up and beat him with an iron rod. They then dragged the woman to the back of the bus where they tore off her clothes and gang raped her for an hour while the bus driver roamed the city. Lastly, they forced the iron rod into the woman's rectum and jerked it out again with such force that her intestine followed. After this, they tossed the woman and her friend out of the moving bus.
The friend escaped with bruises but the woman fought heroically for her life for the next thirteen days. All her rectal intestine had to be removed because it was torn to shreds. By the looks of it, she would never be able to digest food again and would be dependent on I.V. nutrition for the rest of her life. Her doctors and the police said they'd never been faced with such a shocking and devastating case of rape. They were in awe of the woman's fighting spirit as she wrote “I want to live” on a piece of paper at the hospital. Large protests broke out all over India. Angry mobs demanded that the rapists were hanged, editorials were written about the Indian government's inability to secure women's safety and the brightest stars of Bollywood were seen visiting the intensive care unit where the woman was being treated. Despite being flown to a high tech hospital in Singapore for the best possible care, the woman died on the morning of December 29th after having suffered cardiac arrest and considerable brain damage. The battle was lost. Her devastated parents, who had sold a field to pay for her education, said that they hoped that their daughter's death would lead to the improved safety of Indian women. The Indian government responded by announcing a series of measures that included a ban on tinted windows in city busses, an increased police presence in the city centre and a web page with the names and pictures of convicted rapists.
When faced with such unspeakable horror, many people take comfort in focusing on the distance. "Yes but this is India, it is a poor and underdeveloped faraway country. This would never happen in a civilised society and let alone here in Iceland" - the land I call home. To these people, I want to say this: I once interviewed an Icelandic woman that had been gang raped with a screw driver. In Iceland. By Icelandic men. But the discussion should not be around specific cases of women that have endure unimaginable violence at the hands of men. The problem is way bigger than that. It concerns us all.
The issue is how the threat to women's personal safety is, in fact, a threat to global peace.
Two days before the physiotherapy student boarded that bus in Delhi, a gunman charged an elementary school in the United States and shot dead twenty six people, including twenty young children. The murder weapons were semi-automatic rifles that the shooter had stolen from his mother, Nancy Lanza, who was his first victim. The day after this horrendous act, Nancy's sister, Martha Lanza, was asked why her sister had kept semi-automatic weapons in her home. Her answer was simple: “She was a woman living alone”.
In the United States, which is neither a faraway land nor lacking in human development, being a woman is considered so dangerous that it makes sense for them to have semi-automatic weapons of war in their home. This is underlined by the fact that in the United States alone, statistic show that half a million rapes are perpetrated each year.
Some may dismiss Marta Lanza's comment as hysteria from a gun-crazed nation. However, the lack of women's safety and the fear propaganda directed at them is not an issue confined to the US. Despite a discrepancy in studies measuring the prevalence of rape here in Iceland, it is safe to say that a day does not go by without someone being sexually assaulted. The constant flow of survivors through our women's shelters and rape clinics is proof enough.
I am a young woman. Throughout my life, countless safety precautions have been laid down for me, most of which can be traced straight to my gender. I was taught not make eye-contact with strange men in public areas like parking lots or elevators and never to go on a date without letting someone know whom I was meeting up with and when I should be expected back. I was taught never to be alone outside after dark, but if I had to, I was taught to avoid poorly lit areas and make my keys stick out between my fingers so I could cause an assailant more damage. I was taught to refrain from running or showing signs of fear If I was followed or harassed, but to punch in the emergency number on my phone if I was lucky enough to have one. I was taught never to take my eyes off my drink and never accept a drink I did not see the bartender make myself. I was taught to not get too drunk, not dress too provocatively, not flirt too openly and never accept a ride from a stranger. I was taught to scream and poke at eyes or kick the groin of the assailant if I was attacked. If raped, I was taught not to shower nor wash my clothes and go to the rape clinic as soon as possible… that is to say if I chose to ignore the fact that 70% of rape charges are dismissed.
None of these precautions saved me from being raped. A semi-automatic rifle in my home would not have prevented it from happening either. A web page with names of convicted rapists would not have helped me one bit and an increase in police presence in the city centre would have been just as useless to me. Only one thing could have prevented me from being raped:
The man who raped me.
That is what we ought to be discussing: Men's attitudes towards women. Rape is only one of many manifestations of the notion that women are not equal to men, but a sub-human species they're permitted to abuse. This idea wasn't born in a vacuum. Worldwide, men get paid more than women, they're elevated to higher positions within business and politics and are allotted more of the media spotlight. Violence against women is not even considered a crime in some countries and throughout the world, legal systems fail miserably in handing out justice for abused women. For some, this misconception starts in their early childhood, like my fiancé found out when he showed up for work at a kindergarten wearing a pink T-shirt and was ridiculed by four year old boys that mocked him for “being like some girl.” In the minds of these toddlers, it was okay to ridicule someone who resembled a girl, even if it's just by the colour of their T-shirt. Because being a girl was beneath them.
The gang rape and murder in Delhi is not an issue confined to India. It is a part of the pandemic that men's violence against women is, causing devastation in all corners of the world on a daily basis. Equipping women with ill-founded safety precautions and installing constant fear in them is part of the problem. To make effective changes, we need to educate children from the cradle upwards about gender equality, so that boys do not grow up with contempt for the feminine, turning them into men that gang rape a woman with a screw driver here in Iceland or pull out woman's intestines in Delhi. If the energy that goes into teaching girls and women to take precaution were redirected and put into teaching boys that it is never acceptable to look down on women or discriminate against them in any way – we would be on the right track. If we want girls and boys to believe that they have equal rights and opportunities in life, we need to reject the system of blue/pink apartheid that divides our children into segregated groups. We need to increase education about equality at all stages of the educational system. We need to talk to young men about the objectification of women and question why so many of them choose to watch violent pornography. We need to ensure that elected representatives truly reflect the communities they represent. We need to demand that men and women have equal access to power. With synchronised efforts and vaccinations, we managed to eradicate many deadly diseases that afflicted the human race in just a few decades. Violence against women is a global epidemic that causes more deaths and disability among young women than malaria, cancer, war and traffic accidents combined. To this day, no nation has made a serious attempt to eradicate that disease. And yet, all we need to do is want it. Crave it. Demand it.
The young woman in Delhi did not die in vain. The candles lit in her name have shed light into the darkness that shrouds violence. Let's strengthen that light – let's change the world.
(Photo credit: Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)