Warning: This article contains gruesome details on sexual violence.
The recent ‘Delhi Gang Rape’ case on December 16, 2012 sent shockwaves throughout the world, precipitating a massive press response as journalists everywhere were quick to capitalize on this piece of news and publish articles dedicated to analyzing patriarchy and rape in India. The political ramifications of this incident quickly surfaced as India became the subject of international critique, with China referring to Delhi as the ‘rape capital of the world’ and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon calling on the Indian government to take ‘further steps and reforms’. While I applaud the various calls for legal reform, efforts to bring to attention cases of sexual violence, and a serious political commitment to gender equality, what unsettles me is the tendency for articles to limit the discussion of patriarchy, rape culture and sexism to the Indian context which suggests that rape is an ‘Indian’ problem.
I acknowledge that focusing on a case study does not automatically connote a link between the subject matter in question and the country involved, however, without explicit caveats readers may make snap judgements of their own. The xenophobic, over-generalized and insensitive remark posted in response to an article published by the Straits Times over the ‘Delhi’ case on 7th February, 2013 which read ‘Indians are so recalcitrant rapist (sic)…Hope we do not import such kind of foreign talent with an insidious mindset here’ is an excellent example of how a complex, multi-faceted and far-reaching issue is reduced to being the problems of one particular nation: here, the assumption that the seeds of rape are carried within one nationality and could ‘infect’ Singapore.
My main concern in this article is not the international reputation of India, but rather the dangers of thinking about rape culture and male domination solely through the framework of some secondary social problem, such as low levels of education or economic development and especially through the lens of nationality. The crux of the issue is that attributing secondary factors to the problem of male domination retards progress for women everywhere by ignoring the underlying power politics that structures gender and sexual relations all over the world regardless of nationality, education and income levels. In addition, it gives economically developed and self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ countries a false sense of moral superiority which also sets women in these societies further back because of this illusion of perfect gender equality. In my mind, what really would contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex social phenomenon of rape in India, Singapore and other countries around the world, is a structural analysis of rape culture itself, especially in terms of the social attitudes and value systems that provide a mental basis for such a culture to take root in the first place.
Men rape because they want sex. Or is that too simple?
While it is difficult to conceptualize the motivations of rape without analyzing the specific details of each case, the phenomenon of rape appears to be structured, in my opinion, upon a substrate value system where masculine sexuality is prioritised at the expense of feminine sexuality. Apologists who quote selectively from evolutionary psychology and see all rape as the inevitable outcome of uncontrollable male sexual urges conveniently ignore the physical violence that accompanies cases such as the ‘Delhi Gang-rape’, which has nothing to do with sexual gratification.
In that particularly vicious case, the victim Jyoti Singh was not only sexually violated repeatedly by six men in turn, but also bitten all over her body, hit with a metal rod, and then violated with that same metal rod which left her remaining with only 5% of her intestines. After the act, the perpetrators attempted to run her over with the bus they raped her in. Although her friend managed to pull her to safety in the nick of time, it was already too late for Jyoti Singh who died of her massive injuries 13 days later. Immediately, one thing is very clear: rape is not always about sexual gratification. Even if we consider only the act of sexual violation itself, the victim here was not just penetrated with male sexual organs but also a metal rod which already disputes the neat formula that men rape because they want sex. Misogyny is not equivalent to lust.
Perhaps one could argue that, in other cases of rape where a man penetrates a woman’s vagina with his penis without her consent with no other peripheral violence, rape is only sexually motivated. Yet, even if it were that rape is merely motivated by lust, the fact that men can feel entitled to act on their sexual urges with disregard to the considerable physical and psychological harm done to their victims attests to a deeper power complex with regard to gender relations that facilitates and legitimizes this sense of entitlement in the first place. This is nowhere more evident than in the arguments of the counsel for defence, Manohar Lal Sharma, whose clients are pleading ‘not guilty’ to the ruthless gang rape of Jyoti Singh.
Mr. Sharma blamed the victims, Jyoti Singh and Awindra Pandey for the sexual assault, stating that the perpetrators were not guilty of rape, murder and other offences. One of the grounds for this defence was that only outwardly promiscuous women are the targets of rape. In Mr Sharma’s own words, “Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady”. This ludicrous statement requires little head-scratching to counter. Reports of 10 year old girls being gang raped and babies being sexually violated, not just in India but around the world, are enough to disprove such a statement beyond a shadow of doubt by showing that the sexual promiscuity or degree of ‘westernization’ of the victim is not a necessary or sufficient factor for causing rape. Yet, it is one thing to claim that the sole targets of rape are promiscuous women but another much more serious thing to use this claim to exonerate rapists of their crime.
The fact that part of the grounds for defence is the sexual promiscuity of the victim, and that these grounds can be presented as enough to absolve the rapists from the torture of Jyoti Singh reveals that the crux of Mr. Sharma’s argument here is that rapists are not guilty for the rape of promiscuous or ‘un-respectable’ women. To put it simply, the conjecture is that only outwardly promiscuous women are raped, but if a woman is promiscuous, she can be raped and therefore her rapist is not guilty. It is this sense of entitlement implicit in Sharma’s statement, for men to act as self-proclaimed agents of social control, which gives them the power to define ‘respectable’ and ‘un-respectable’ behaviour for women, and to carry out sexual and physical terrorism in the name of vigilante justice. At the heart of this warped sense of entitlement lies the idea that female sexuality exists solely as a resource for the gratification of men and not as a part of an independent female identity that is divorced from the wants and needs of men.
This is clearly seen in the double standard of sexuality that women all over the world are subject to where it is socially legitimized for women to be sexual creatures only insofar as a man is able to ‘consume’ that sexuality, be it through advertisements, music videos, comics, video games or pornography. The whole concept of ‘She was asking for it’ stems from the expectation that if a woman does present herself as a sexual creature, it is then the unquestionable right of a man to enjoy that sexuality should he so desire, because a woman’s sexuality is seen as inextricably tied to male gratification as a result of social conditioning. What is not socially acceptable for a woman to do is to present herself as a sexual creature on her own terms and for her own sense of identity and fulfilment without that sexuality being a resource for men.
This is the kind of thinking that leads to that bizarre phenomenon where the responsibility for the crime of rape is placed on the hapless rape victim and not the perpetrator. The onus is on women to avoid appearing sexually receptive but not on men to stop taking advantage of women’s sexuality. Indeed, the whole notion of stigma, where the rape victim is the object of social ostracization instead of the perpetrator, attests to how deeply we are conditioned to privilege male sexuality over the female, where men are legitimized to harm and in some cases to even torture women sexually, physically and emotionally on the basis of their sexuality, but women are not legitimized to even wear revealing clothes, and venture out at night on the basis of their sexuality.
The Singapore Girl
The above point is not one I have to work too hard to communicate to Singaporeans. Many are outraged at the circumstances of women in India and in other countries, and are quick to voice their gratefulness for the treatment of women in Singapore where women are much freer to wear what they desire and travel when they want, without fearing for their lives or dignity. As an immigrant myself, I truly appreciate the security and freedom enjoyed by women in this regard, especially compared to my country of origin. I agree it is certainly something to be very proud of.
However, although women in Singapore enjoy a significant degree of freedom in their fashion choices and their travel decisions unlike women in India, this does not automatically discount the notion that a similar mentality with regards to feminine sexuality exists here in Singapore. What must be emphasized is that the power politics of sexuality is not a simple equation that results in one particular social outcome, but is one that both influences and is influenced by culture, economics and many other social macrostructures. As a result it manifests itself, explicitly and implicitly, in different societies in a myriad of ways.
One very real danger of the myth of perfect gender equality in Singapore is that it causes many young Singaporeans to trivialize the importance of looking at gender issues in their own country. This is misguided to say the least, especially since the rate of rape in Singapore is more than double that of India. In 2009, Singapore had 202 reported cases of rape while India had 21 397. After taking the differences in population size into account this translates into more than 4 cases of rape in Singapore for every 100 000 people but only 1.8 in India. Of course, statistics only show the tip of the iceberg as many rape cases tend to go unreported. Yet, although statistics cannot paint a truly objective picture on the prevalence of rape, it is sufficient to say that rape certainly occurs enough in Singapore to be deemed a significant social problem.
Rape cases in Singapore receive much less public attention than those sensationalized overseas, which is highly unfortunate because the horror of rape should not require an engaging storyline to be taken seriously. It irks me that Singaporeans can devote so much public attention to the rape of Jyoti Singh, when in 2010 the callous gang rape of a 17 year old Singapore girl by five young men barely caused a stir. What makes this gang rape all the more heartless was that one of the perpetrators was known to the victim. She was tricked, raped and abandoned bleeding from the trauma. Strangely enough, for reasons undisclosed to the public, the accused were declared guilty to “aggravated outrage of modesty” but not rape. Is it not ironic that we can devote so much energy feverishly discussing the state of women in other countries while taking for granted our own?
Moreover, people seem unaware of the culture of gang rape in Singapore where Singaporean gangs routinely engage in gang rape as a team bonding ritual. What makes this even more loathsome is that the victim of the gang rape is often the girlfriend of one of the gang members. In the words of one gang member, “After everyone gets high, the boyfriend offers her to the rest of the guys.” With all our economic development, literacy and civic and moral education, that same sickening mentality in India where masculine sexuality is privileged at the expense of feminine sexuality still prevails, to the extent that women are violated in the name of ‘brudder-ly’ bonding. There is a definitely an ideological parallel between Jyoti Singh’s violators who had no remorse (according to interrogators) for what they saw as having fun after meeting up since a long time and these Singaporean rapists, who in an interview also shrugged off the rape as just guys having fun. The fact that this is not a one-off case attributed to a cognitive pathology in specific individuals but that this is an established trend in Singaporean gangs certainly warrants enough to ring social alarm bells.
Furthermore it would appear that the same value system with regards to sexuality that underscores the notion of stigma in India also operates in Singapore, despite our cultural, social and economic differences. According to the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), many sexual assault survivors who call their helpline report that their moral character, behaviour and dressing are questioned by their family, friends and the police. The molest campaigns in Singapore are equally telling, with the posters emphasizing what women can do to avoid molestation rather than focusing on the consequences for sexual harassment. While I am not rejecting the concept that ‘prevention is better than cure’, surely to get to the root of the matter in preventing molestation, would it not make more sense to send a stern message to potential offenders that harassment will not be tolerated? Right now, the message appears to assume that the risk of being harassed is a given which should not be the case. There is nothing ‘natural’ about having to live in an environment where there is a constant risk of being harassed.
Unfortunately, digging a little deeper into Singapore society and the socialization of our young people it is evident that the notion of sexual harassment is taken as a joke, which is by far the most disturbing sign that something somewhere has gone drastically wrong. To make a joke about rape and harassment is to denote an unwillingness to think about the crimes seriously. When people are desensitized and apathetic to the idea of sexual violence, it begins to breed a climate where such deeds are increasingly legitimized. Such apathy and insensitivity needs to be nipped sharply in the bud to remind our privileged citizens not to trivialize the suffering of the victims of sexual assault.
It is appalling how callous and emotionally detached some Singaporeans can be. Take this example of a Facebook conversation between two male students from the National University of Singapore;
X (in Holland on Student Exchange): “If I had a way, I’d stay in Europe forever…”
A: “Find a rich family girl. Rape her. Get to be his (sic) husband. Problem solved.”
X: “This is Amsterdam. They probably offer themselves up to u. Hard to rape the willing…”
A: “Oh my. Try to get someone that is innocent and pure.”
What is truly bone-chilling about this is not simply the indifferent attitude these two young adults have about rape (which is abhorrent in itself), but their sadistic desire for an unwilling victim. These young men are acknowledging an actual thrill for sexual violence and in making a woman suffer in such an intimate and cruel way. To top it all off, whilst talking about such atrocities they put themselves on a moral high ground, lamenting the lack of women that are ‘innocent and pure’. To rape, no less.
This is precisely the mentality that facilitates the crime of rape which Singaporeans are so ready to denounce in India but are impervious to in their own country. These comments were even published in an article in AWARE but stirred little debate, whereas Ms Amy Cheong’s racist comments on Facebook raised a field day. To brush this off as a mere joke between two young men is to deny the criminality of rape. If people can see why racism and racist jokes cannot be tolerated, then they should clearly see why jokes of sexual violence are not just unacceptable but should be utterly condemned.
The National Service marching song that not only legitimizes rape but celebrates the idea of a woman’s sexuality as being the property of a man shows how close we have come to inculcating a rape culture and a markedly misogynistic view of sexuality in the minds of young men.
The offending verse is as follows:
‘Booking out, I see my girlfriend
Saw her with another man.
Kill the man, rape my girlfriend
With my rifle and my buddy and me~’
As long as the value system privileging masculine sexuality at the expense of the feminine exists, no true gender equality can.
Singaporeans, do not take your women for granted.