Think American Politicians Say Crazy Things About Rape? Then You Haven't Been to India.

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What Women Really Think
Oct. 26 2012 9:23 AM

Think American Politicians Say Crazy Things About Rape? Then You Haven't Been to India.

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Indian congress President Sonia Gandhi arrives to meet the family of a teenage girl who immolated herself in Haryana state on Oct. 9, 2012, after allegedly being gang-raped by two youths

Photograph by Strdel/AFP/GettyImages.

Earlier this fall, what can only be described as a raping spree broke out across the north Indian state of Haryana, claiming nearly 20 young women and girls, including a 6-year-old and a mentally handicapped 13-year-old, as victims in separate incidents. But almost as horrifying as the crimes themselves were the reactions of state police and politicians who, grappling to explain the outbreak of sexual violence, offered a set of truly bizarre viewpoints that make Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin look benign.

Haryana’s chief minister (like a governor), shamed by negative media coverage, suggested the rapes might be part of an overarching conspiracy to make his government look bad. Naturally, the director of police, who had so far failed to nab many of the suspects, agreed. Then a third politician, district spokesman Dharambir Goyat, suggested that everyone just calm down, since 90 percent of rapes are consensual anyhow (a widely held belief in some parts of rural India). Meanwhile, the number of victims continued to grow and the criminals continued to run free. One of the girls who had allegedly been raped doused herself with kerosene and lit a match; another victim's father committed suicide after seeing a video of his daughter's molestation. When the police finally mobilized, it was to strike down a group of peaceful demonstrators who had assembled to protest the government's inaction, sending five of them, including three women, to the hospital.

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The khap panchayat, an unelected board of all-male, white-haired tribal elders that holds significant sway in the villages (think 100 turbaned Pat Robertsons on steroids), decided to get involved. The real problem, they said, is child marriage, or the lack thereof; if the minimum marriageable age (currently 18 for girls and 21 for boys) was lowered to 15 or 16, they reasoned, unmarried boys wouldn't feel compelled to take out their sexual frustration on girls. Politicians endorsed the idea, which prompted the U.N. to respond with a letter to government officials stating that "child marriage is not a solution to protecting girls from sexual crimes including rape." The letter went on to remind them that since 40 percent of the world's child marriages already happen in India, the minimum marriageable age limits can't be to blame for an uptick in sexual assault. (One noncrazy, actual factor, as a local women's organization pointed out, is the extremely skewed sex ratio, the product of India's centuries old son-preference and modern technology that, while technically illegal but still widely available, allows parents to abort unwanted girl fetuses, leaving just 830 women to every 1000 men in Haryana state.  As such, Haryana sees high levels of rape and violence in general, a finding typical of male-dominated societies.)

The U.N. letter did not shake reason into India’s ruling class. The chief minister of Bengal, a different Indian state, threw in her two cents, decrying that these gender-based crimes were a result of boys and girls comingling like never before, and called this New India “an open market with open options” while lambasting the media for failing to focus on happier topics. Meanwhile, the khap panchayat came up with a fresh theory: Chinese food, specifically spicy foods like chow mien, may lead to a “hormonal imbalance” and subsequent urge to attack women. With ideas like these it's no wonder India consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous countries for women. In a survey of G20 countries, India even beat out Saudi Arabia and Indonesia last year as the number one worst place to be female.

Jen Swanson is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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