Missing elements in NYTimes marital rape report from India

Marriage was a hot topic this week in the Indian press following rulings by two Delhi Courts. The High Court held that apostasy was automatic grounds for granting a divorce under the country’s Muslim Marriage Act, while the Court of Additional Sessions in Delhi ruled that there was no such thing as “marital rape” under Indian civil law and the Hindu Marriage Act.

Religion — in this case the intersection of Hinduism and Islam — played a prominent role in the reporting of the first story. But it was absent from overseas reports on the second. The Hindu reported that a Muslim wife who quits her faith for another may be granted an automatic divorce from her Muslim husband.

A Division Bench of the High Court, rejecting an appeal of one Munavvar-ul-Islam against a decree of a family court in Saket, has held that dissolution of his marriage with Rishu Arora, who first converted to Islam but later reconverted to her original religion, was valid under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939.

“It is an admitted fact that the respondent (Rishu) was initially professing Hinduism and had embraced Islam prior to the marriage, and then reconverted to Hinduism. … The trial court was right in specifying that the marriage stands dissolved from the date on which the respondent apostatised from Islam,” stated the Bench, comprising Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Najmi Waziri, in its 30-page verdict delivered on Friday.

The Indian Express’s lede typifies the interpretation of the ruling.

One’s religious faith is above any law, the Delhi High Court has ruled while granting divorce to a girl who converted to Islam for marriage and then reconverted to her original religion.

The New York Times picked up the marital rape story, running a piece on page A7 of its May 13 print edition entitled: “India: Court Rules That Marital Sex, Even When Forced, Is Not Rape.”

The Times story, which was reprinted by some Indian outlets, comes down on the side of the wife, while other Indian newspapers were skeptical of the claims made in her pleading. The Times wrote:

NEW DELHI – A Delhi court has ruled that sex between a husband and wife, “even if forcible, is not rape.” The judge’s decision, which was made public Saturday, upheld section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which does not recognize “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age,” as rape.

Last October, a Delhi woman filed a complaint against a man she accused of drugging her, abducting her and taking her to Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, to register their marriage. Afterward, she told the court, he raped her.

The judge in the case wrote that there was “no clinching or convincing evidence on record to show that the accused had administered any stupefying substance.” The man accused in the case said that the couple was married in 2011 at the woman’s home in Delhi in the presence of her family, and that they had decided to register with the court only last year on the insistence of the woman. He also said, according to court documents, that the rape complaint was filed by the woman under pressure from her family members, who were not in favor of their marriage.

The Indian Express came down on the side of the husband. Adding these details:

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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?

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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

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No sex please, we’re Indian


Rape and religion returned to the front pages of India’s newspapers this week after a judge in Delhi stated premarital sex was sinful.

The Hindu reported:

Pre-marital sex is “immoral” and against the “tenets of every religion”, a Delhi court has said while holding that every act of sexual intercourse between two adults on the promise of marriage does not become rape. Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat also held that a woman, especially grown up, educated and office-going, who has sexual intercourse on the assurance of marriage does so “at her own peril”.

According to The Times of India, Judge Bhat, who presides over a court set up last year in response to the nationally publicized gang rape and murder wrote:

When a grown up woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise. He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows pre-marital sex.

The BBC picked up this story as well. It added this explanation for Western audiences in its story “Indian judge says pre-marital sex ‘against religion’”:

Pre-marital sex remains a cultural taboo in India. Last year, a court in Delhi said live-in relationships were immoral and an “infamous product of Western culture”.

But the BBC goes no further in offering context or an explanation (it appears to be a re-write of an AFP story, which may be a mitigating factor). Even though the lede and headline of the BBC story makes explicit reference to religion, this angle is not developed. This criticism does not fall only on the BBC, the Indian press has also shied away from developing the religious angle to this story and has been content to publish only the judge’s obiter ditca.

The press has not remained silent in discussing Judge Bhat’s remarks — but the conversation has been channeled into discussions of gender and women’s rights.

Why the reticence? In a series of GetReligion posts, TMatt has addressed whether the Indian press avoids reporting on the religion and caste angles to a story. In a 2010 post entitled “Life and death (and faith) in India,” he wrote:

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

The Indian press as well as the BBC and the wire service reports on Judge Bhat’s decision are continuing this trend of avoiding religion in reporting. An in depth article from the Wall Street Journal last November entitled “Indian Rape Law Offers Desperate Last Resort” sticks to culture only.

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USA Today offers faith-free look at meditation, stress

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Journalists who try to cover the life and teachings of Deepak Chopra always face the same question: How much ink should they dedicate to the debates about whether his fusion of Hinduism and science are secular or sacred? In other words, is this man a religious leader who is teaching specific doctrines or not?

The skeptics at Sceptic.com state the issue this way, coming from — obviously — a totally nonreligious perspective (as opposed to the views of Chopra critics within specific religious traditions):

The content of Chopra’s philosophy is often obscured by logical inconsistencies, but it is possible, nonetheless, to identify its key components. First, he views the body as a quantum mechanical system, and uses comparisons of quantum reality with Eastern thought to guide us away from our Western, Newtonian-based paradigms. Having accomplished that, he then sets out to convince us that we can alter reality through our perceptions, and admonishes us to appreciate the unity of the Universe. If we allow ourselves to fully grasp these lessons, Chopra assures us, we will then understand the force of Intelligence permeating all of existence — guiding us ever closer to fulfillment. Each component of this philosophy has serious flaws. …

So that is one side of the debate. There are also people who believe, in the end, that the heart of Chopra’s work is best understood in terms of, well, marketing and the sound of ringing cash registers.

Is it possible to write about Chopra and issues related to his phenomenal popularity without even mentioning its religious content?

I would argue “no.”

However, it appears that the editors of the USA Today business section would say that the answer is “yes,” and that market trends ultimately trump religious concerns (either pro or con). Here is the opening of a long news feature about current sales trends in stress reduction:

Deepak Chopra says he never feels stress.

He wakes up at 4 a.m. daily and meditates for two hours. Then, he writes for an hour before going to the gym. The famed 66-year-old holistic health guru takes no medicine. He’s never had surgery. And he’s never been hospitalized.

“This is embarrassing,” he says, “but I do not get stress.”

Even then, he has made millions off the unrelenting stresses from which the rest of us suffer — linking his name to everything from stress-busting techno gadgets to spiritual retreats. Few things, it seems, are more stressful, or expensive, than trying to shed stress.

This raises the obvious question: Does Chopra “meditate” for two hours in the morning or does he “pray” for two hours and, in his tradition, is it possible to draw an journalistically meaningful line between these two terms? More on that later.

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Kudos for Quartz’s coverage of business and religion

“Business is religion, and religion is business,” said Maltbie Babcock. “The man who does not make a business of his religion has a religious life of no force, and the man who does not make a religion of his business has a business life of no character.”

While few people today would completely agree with the 19th-century Presbyterian preacher, business and religion are indeed closely tied together. This connection, though, remains largely unexamined by major media outlets. It’s refreshing to find, then, a new publication that has already done an impressive job of showing how to adequately cover the intersection of religion and business.

Quartz, a “digitally native news outlet” owned by the publisher of The Atlantic, bills itself as a site for “business people in the new global economy.” Recently, they ran an article explaining why Chrysler’s .Ram domain “might just offend a billion people.”

At the most recent meeting of the GAC in Durban last week, India again made clear (pdf) its discomfort with the idea of a .ram domain name. To many outside India, this is baffling. Why does India care about a line of pick-up trucks named for a male sheep?

The objection arises from an unfortunate homonym: Ram, pronounced with a long “a,” is also the name of one of Hinduism’s chief gods. “What if someone registers a domain name such as http://www.sex.ram? It could create a lot of communal tension in the country,” a government official told the Business Standard newspaper. India has argued that under the nation’s laws, trademarks can be denied if they stand to hurt religious sentiments.

The argument might sound disingenuous, but Indians often lose their collective sense of humor when it comes to matters of religion. Moreover, Ram is also a politically sensitive issue. In 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque claiming that it was the birthplace of Lord Ram. The act led to weeks of Hindu-Muslim violence across India, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.

In three brief paragraphs, Leo Mirani puts the religious, business, and political implications in a helpful context for those of us unfamiliar with Eastern religious concerns.

Another Quartz feature, published on the same day as the .Ram article, explains how “Buddhist monks are buying into Thailand’s new religion: consumerism.”
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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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Serious story on separation of yoga and state

When I saw this story come in (clicking on a URL from a reader), I immediately thought, “Here we go again.”

But the reader was right. This is not another story that simply assumes that yoga is a practice that can be stripped of all specific religious content. That’s the kind of story that, alas, comes up pretty frequently in the mainstream press. Surf around in this GetReligion search file and you’ll see evidence of that syndrome that pretty quick.

Once again, the goal is not for journalists to assume that all critics of yoga know what they are talking about, when covering a story in which yoga is introduced into taxpayer-funded environments in which other forms of spiritual discipline would not be acceptable. In short, the goal is to try to cover the church-state separation — or yoga-state separation — issues as they are seen by activists on both sides of the story. Let me state the obvious: The goal is to take the conflict seriously, instead of wishing it away.

So here is the set-up for this ABC News story on the West Coast (naturally):

Parents in a southern California community are considering legal action over the constitutionality of a form of yoga being taught to their children, which they claim is introducing religion into public schools.

Last month, half of the students attending classes in the Encinitas Union School District K-6 elementary schools in San Diego North County began taking Ashtanga (Sanskrit for “eight-limbed”) yoga for 30 minutes twice per week. In January, the other half will begin the lessons. Concerned parents have now retained constitutional first amendment attorney Dean Broyles, who says that Ashtanga yoga is a religious form of yoga, and that religious aspects have been introduced into the schools.

“The poses and positions are acknowledged by Ashtanga and Hindi yoga as forms of worship and prayers to Hindu deities,” he told ABC News. “They have a spiritual and religious meaning behind them.”

Now, it helps to know where the money is coming from this. The story gives readers that information very early, which is normal journalistic practice.

You know. When in doubt, follow the money.

The yoga, which is being taught in all nine of the schools in the district, is being funded by a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Ashtanga yoga across the world. All of the instructors teaching the students are certified and trained by the Jois Foundation in Ashtanga yoga.

Broyles points to hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia Jones, who is a known dedicated disciple of Sri Pattabhi Jois, the recently deceased master of Ashtanga yoga, as the money behind the EUSD yoga program. The district’s program will be studied by the University of Virginia and University of San Diego to look at benefits of Ashtanga yoga, as outlined in a letter sent to parents by EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird.

“The study will look at the way that public school systems can impact student learning, health, positive relationships, and overall wellness through the implementation of a holistic approach to student wellness,” Baird said in the letter.

Calls placed by ABC News to Superintendent Baird were not immediately returned.

Calls not returned? That is not a surprise. Try to imagine if a wealthy Catholic funded a program that used, oh, prayer beads to teach a tweaked form of spirituality that evoked specific Catholic doctrines, by name. This ABC News story actually quotes a critic asking if the school would accept money from wealthy Pentecostal Christians to do similar work in the same classrooms.

This is where the story struggles to get voices on the other side into the debate, because the leaders on the other side do not want to answer questions at this time.

This often happens to journalists, when covering controversial stories? When in doubt, you try to quote fact claims that can — with some effort — be verified. In other words, try to avoid opinion and get the basics down. Thus, in this case, readers are told, via Broyles the lawyer:

Broyles says that it has been argued that the in-school yoga programs have been stripped of their spirituality. But he says that kids in EUSD are being exposed to Hindu thought and belief within the school.

“On the wall there was a poster that showed the Ashtanga, or 8-limbed deity. There are words showing what the limbs are,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to be absorbed into the universe, which is called Samadhi. They had a poster depicting that. Fundamentally it is a Hindu religion being taught through Ashtanga yoga.”

Children are also being taught eastern meditation techniques to calm themselves, where one clears the mind of all thoughts, poses that were imparted by Hindu deities, and in one class were trained in drawing mandalas, according to Broyles.

Parents also raised specific concerns about the program aside from the religious aspects, saying that the fact that kids are taking 60 minutes of the 100 mins per week allotted for physical education to do yoga is inappropriate. Broyles said that for 40 minutes per week the kids are not getting PE, and that they’re not offering anything for kids that are opting out of the program.

Did ABC News personnel attempt to verify this information — by which I mean the information that could be confirmed by sight — at the schools? Did the schools refuse admission to a camera crew? That would be good, basic information to know.

The story leaves us with half of the equation on the record. However, it’s clear that a conflict is taking place and that it involves practices that, in a Christian context, would be unacceptable in public schools. The conflict is taken seriously. At this point, that is enough. Now, ABC News has to get the other side on the record.


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