India and rape: Spotting some tricky ghosts

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In about 99 percent of the mainstream news reports you will ever read about India and religion, there will be a reference that reads something like the following, from a Washington Post story that I have been meaning to get to for a week or so. This is part of the wave of coverage — totally justifiable, methinks — about rape and women’s rights in that land.

The crucial language, as is the norm, comes right at the end of the feature-style lede that frames this hellish drama:

BANWASA, India – The teenage girl was overpowered by four men at a railway crossing near this village and bundled into a car. For five days she was kept, imprisoned and naked, in a windowless outhouse on nearby farmland and raped repeatedly.

Despite its brutality, the September incident merited just a few lines in a domestic news-agency story about a string of such crimes in the northern state of Haryana. It was headlined simply: “Four more rape cases.”

Thousands of Indians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the rape of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi. But in rural areas just a few hours’ drive from India’s capital, where police and activists say rapes are common and increasing, such incidents draw scarcely any attention, let alone outrage.

In India’s modernizing but still deeply traditional society, social and women’s rights activists say rapes occur with virtual impunity, and women who betray flickers of independent thought and challenge the male-dominated status quo are especially vulnerable.

The key words are found in that passing reference to India being a “deeply traditional society.”

What, precisely, does that mean? What are these traditions? Might they have something to do with religion?

I have several friends who work in the mainstream press in India and, in conversations with them over the years about American media coverage of their land, they have expressed amazement at the degree to which U.S. journalists are afraid to talk about the elephant in the living room in these stories — the caste system.

Is it more common for police and other officials to look the other way when crimes are committed against members of the lower castes? Of course it is. In India, ignoring the role of the caste system would be akin to ignoring the role of gravity in physics. Yet many journalists are afraid to venture into that maze of, yes, religion and tradition. It’s safer to simply call India a “deeply traditional society” — wink, wink — and then move on.

However, this story caught my attention because, after the usual “traditional society” language, the team at the Post foreign desk delivered some crucial details that added depth and reality to the news.

For example, consider this transition passage:

The regularity of rapes and the resentment of women who question traditional roles are just two examples of this country’s vast gender inequality and wobbly rule of law — among the factors economists say are keeping India from its goal of being a global power. According to government statistics, the number of rapes reported nationwide rose 50 percent between 2001 and 2011, when police registered 23,582 cases. Over the same period in Haryana, a state of 25 million people, the figure rose nearly 85 percent, to 733. Police and activists say part of the increase might be attributable to more reporting, but they also insist that incidents are rising.

In October, a senior Haryana police officer interviewed by an Indian magazine blamed the increase on girls and women who are “easily influenced” and wear Western clothes. Police interviewed after the New Delhi case were more circumspect, vaguely blaming socioeconomic factors.

Some right-wing Hindu nationalists have tried to blame rapes on the influx of Western values or portray them as an urban phenomenon. But in rural India, the status of women is so low — and a family’s honor their exclusive burden — that such crimes often go unrecorded. When police do take up rape cases, rural communities tend to rally around the accused and ostracize the accusers.

As I read this story, I wondered if the Post would dare to GO THERE, citing the ultimate example of sexism and the low status of women in this unbelievably complex land.

Imagine my surprise when I read the following:

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