shame spirals

Police Not Helping Rape Situation in India

Photo: Pallava Bagla/Corbis

Today the New York Times has an excellent explainer on why capital punishment for the six non-minors charged with the brutal rape and beating of a 23-year-old Indian woman — a punishment many outraged protesters are demanding — won’t solve the nation’s rape problem. One major obstacle is an Indian police force that is “woefully understaffed,” the second lowest among 50 countries ranked by the U.N., and dangerously underpaid. Many officers rely on bribes to feed their families. The force is also overwhelmingly male, making reporting sexual assault more traumatic for women than it already is. The Times doesn’t go into details, but the Washington Post did last month, citing the Human Rights Watch’s description of the “two-finger test” used to determine if victims of sexual assault are virgins. Women are actually afraid of the cops because “in case after case, the police have used their powers to deliver abused women into the hands of their abusers,” often wasting the first crucial day of the investigation trying to get the victim to marry her rapist and spare her family the shame. (And let’s not forget that police anywhere can themselves be rapists.)

Today Morocco’s government announced plans to make similar post-rape marriage practices illegal. Previously, the penal code allowed those convicted of kidnapping a minor to go free if they married her. As in India, it took a 16-year-old poisoning herself to get out of her marriage to her rapist to generate the public outrage necessary to change the law. But women’s rights activists there are not satisfied with the law, which more harshly punishes the rape of virgins than the rape of non-virgins. Fouzia Assouli, president of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights, told the AP that the code only penalizes violence against women from a moral standpoint “and not because it is just violence.”

Assouli’s point could equally apply to America’s own obsession with rape. Are we outraged on behalf of the victim of Steubenville because what happened to her wasn’t just violent but, because of the pictures and tweets posted about her, also shameful? It would be easier to capitalize on the mass outrage over these cases if we were positive that it wasn’t born from the same moral concern for a woman’s virtue or reputation (as opposed to, say, her autonomy and safety) that allows people to blame sexual assault on a victim’s promiscuity or clothes. That would mean reserving a little of the anger currently aimed at the “bad guys” for the less evil cops and courts that routinely fail victims of the bad guys. (By letting the victims’ rape kits pile up, for example.) It would also probably make it easier for sex workers, the most common victims of rape, to seek justice.

Police Not Helping Rape Situation in India