If rape is facilitated by self-serving, cultural interpretations of religion, then teaching religion correctly is the answer to eradicating it. The early Muslim women, including Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah (RA), were educated leaders who stood toe-to-toe with men who accepted, respected, and learned from them. The Qur’an itself states that strong, smart, ambitious women are invaluable allies in this life and in the next.
Two days ago, in the second gang rape to occur in northern India within a month, seven men attacked a 29-year-old married woman after cornering her on a bus. The sequence of events was oddly familiar: The woman boarded a bus, and when she was the only passenger left, the driver and another man approached her. She was taken to an unknown location, where the two men and five others, who joined them, repeatedly assaulted her. The woman was dropped off at her village the next morning and alerted the police, who have taken six of the men, including the driver, into custody. She is alive, but the victim of the first gang rape suffered a far worse fate. On December 16, a group of six men gang raped a 23-year-old female medical student for 45 minutes behind tinted windows on a moving bus in New Delhi, India, before dumping her and her male companion, also beaten, on the side of the road. Two weeks later, the woman died in intensive care from multiple organ failure.
This woman and I were uncannily similar: I too am a South Asian medical student, a few months shy of 23. What makes us so different that she died of unimaginable torture, and I sit here telling her story? Dr. Anita Shukla, agricultural scientist by choice and woman by regrettable fate, would say that the difference is in our morality, because “Women instigate men to commit such crimes” – this one by frolicking at night with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, I am sitting pretty because I have not crossed the line and thereby painted an “attack me” sign on my forehead. The Indian government would assert that the difference is in our respective security, and so the Indian Cabinet has promised to explore increased safety measures for women. I’m not sure what I possess that she did not – mace? – because the safety measures that supposedly protect me still permit sexual assault to occur under the American government’s watch every two minutes.
But the defiant droves flooding India’s streets, mostly students, would inform you that there is no difference between me and that woman. I am simply lucky where she was not. And they would be right. Safety measures and stricter curfews for our girls won’t stop rape, because rape isn’t about vulnerability, recklessness, promiscuity, or even sex – it’s about culture. It is about the fact that those six men were molded by a culture that accepts gender inequality and puts reputation before righteousness. Rape is about power – possessing it, wielding it, and making your victim submit to it. Power is a product of inequality: In order to be powerful, someone else must necessarily be weak. That even in the United States nine out of ten rape victims are female indicates that the “someone else” is usually a woman.
Inequality and the power dynamic it creates are taught, and thus, sexual violence begins at home. Both Western and Eastern cultures perpetuate sexism, but an emphasis on the collective over the individual makes our Eastern cultures uniquely dangerous. Eastern cultures scrutinize individuals through a communal lens, their choices a reflection upon their families. The children of these cultures are taught to preserve the family’s reputation, inviting shame if they do not. The Indian police force that took the six men into custody is notorious for discouraging women from reporting rape, even pressuring them to marry their rapists to save face. This pervasive game of appearances stiches sexist norms indelibly into the fabric of our communities, and groupthink leaves little room for progress. Women are placed in a disadvantaged environment where it is both possible and permissible to exploit them.
Not insignificant among the sexist norms that facilitate rape is an idolization of sons. It starts when parents are disappointed at the birth of a daughter, or insist their own grown and married children keep trying for a boy. Those boys are often given more attention, lenience, and resources. Eastern mothers are wont to hold their growing sons’ apron strings more loosely than those of their daughters; little girls are told to sit properly, while their brothers’ inappropriately boisterous and sometimes violent behavior is laughingly excused, as “Boys will be boys!” A teenage son might be allowed a later curfew than a daughter of the same age, and his cursing, flirting, and revealing wardrobe are attributed to raging hormones instead of poor choices. A girl who behaves similarly is not only punished, but branded with deficient character and upbringing. Growing daughters are asked to clean up after dinner and finish the ironing in preparation for managing a household, but sons (who also dirty their dishes, wrinkle their clothes, and will one day form the other half of a household) are dismissed. Boys are sent off to school wherever they so choose, girls too often restricted to “more suitable” careers and stopped from living alone. At puberty, daughters are taught modesty, but sons are not taught to look away. People develop a sense of right and wrong, respect and insolence, and personal space and its violation through accountability. By assuming our boys and men are incapable of self-control, we raise boys and men who truly are. As an Indian woman protesting in the streets put it on her sign, “We live in a society that teaches women not to get raped instead of teaching men NOT TO rape.”
The attack on December 16 had nothing to do with religion, and the people involved were not Muslim. However, we would be amiss to ignore that Muslims comprise a good percentage of those who embrace the Eastern culture that constitutes fertile soil for rape. Muslim homes often justify gender inequality with incorrect religious interpretations, double standards and unspoken rules spoon fed to our youth as fact. Oft mistranslated is the Qur’anic passage, “Those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance…strike them” (4:34). In reality, the Arabic imperative “daraba,” translated as “strike,” has a dozen different meanings. “Leave/go away from” would grammatically fit in this passage and is more suitable considering that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself never struck a woman. It is used by Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar and supported by ISNA in the first Qur’anic translation by an American woman. When we rationalize discrimination and abuse using God’s Word, objection to that abuse becomes sin, sowing the seeds for far greater injustices: Telling a wife to have patience with her abusive husband is only a few steps away from telling a woman to refrain from filing charges when she is raped. Rape begins long before an attack, when parents and communities absolve boys of responsibility for poor decisions, creating men who ultimately absolve themselves.
If rape is facilitated by self-serving, cultural interpretations of religion, then teaching religion correctly is the answer to eradicating it. The early Muslim women, including Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah (RA), were educated leaders who stood toe-to-toe with men who accepted, respected, and learned from them. The Qur’an itself states that strong, smart, ambitious women are invaluable allies in this life and in the next. In passages that are overlooked while we garble others, God says, “I never fail to reward…you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another” (3:195). Surah An-Nisa (The Women) states, “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will, and you should not treat them with harshness” (4:19). As Muslims, then, we must interfere in situations of abuse with the same gusto we use when people pray incorrectly and we must counsel young men to seek partners in women, especially their wives. Let us instill in our sons the discipline and piety we instill in our girls, and give our daughters the confidence and independence we give our boys. Above all, let us teach our boys, girls, men, and women that a woman’s body is not property, entertainment, or a means to an end. Let us teach them, for God’s sake, that a woman’s body is sacred.
Sunna Syed was born cursing injustice in a small Southern town that looks like all the others. When she isn’t writing or buying hats, she attends medical school at UT Southwestern. She will also eventually be found at her blog-to-be, Define Muslim (definemuslim.wordpress.com), if she can ever manage to learn hepatitis.
Photo credit: Udit Kulshrestha