The King of Saudi Arabia, under pressure from some quarters, eventually granted pardon to the gang-rape victim ‘not because he wished to undermine the judgement of the courts' but for the larger common good.
Despite the blatant and brutal physical violation, this woman faced a judicial violation as punishment for being in the company of a man – who was not a relative – further victimizing her for a crime against her. This probably would be seen as an extreme example of the kind of hold religion and its tenets can have over the lives of people, in particular women; but in fact examples of women and their rights offered as the first sacrifice in preserving the chaste principles of almost any religion and its practices are not that uncommon in the world around us and not just the immediate community. Even though the Saudi case might appear horrific to many, including those in urban India, the case of women raped by influential men within their rural communities for daring to take up cudgels against patriarchal practices would not need very in depth research.
The irony is that in a multi-cultural society like India, with a history of both tolerance and conflict, the one thing that appears to have a common cause across religions, cultures and sub-cultures is the manner in which women are treated and perceived within the community — especially in the single-minded pursuance of protecting one's beliefs and value-systems. With honor and reputation being the driving forces of many South Asian societies and cultures, and women seen as the primary vessels of this family honor, very often women are also made to pay the price for family disrepute with their lives. Committing suicide after a rape was for a long time seen as the honorable thing to do for a woman — despite being the victim of the crime — which also ensures that rape continues unabated since the accused is never held accountable. Besides, in a society where most marriages are arranged by fathers and money is often exchanged as a price for the groom in the form of dowry, a woman's desire to choose her own husband is viewed as a grave act of defiance. Especially if the intended alliance is inter-caste or inter-religion despite enjoying a legal protection. Cases of women (and even men) killed just to end the ‘unholy' alliance are not uncommon even in urban India not to mention the often brutal punishments sanctioned by the local panchayats (see below) or other governing bodies in rural India.
That post-independent modern India has actually seen cases of Sati is in reality an extension of the same mind-set where women's lives are so inextricably tied to their husbands and dying on the pyre – willingly or unwillingly – is perceived as the honorable thing. So while communities condoning the practice erect temples in the name of these satis and the judiciary allows the abettors to escape any form of punishment, proud urban Indians continue to deny the existence of such a practise because it was apparently a feature of colonial India. That even one woman consigning herself to flames (under suspicious circumstances) in the late 1980s and being blatantly eulogized even today counts for nothing is the unfortunate reality of how wide the gap is between urban and rural India.
How do you talk about women without talking about the orthodoxy of each and every religion, which in its own peculiar way ends up perceiving women and their bodily autonomy in much the same manner as the next? And the upholders of these various religious faiths, in maintaining their distinct traditional beliefs and faiths have, ironically, been quite unanimous in their opposition to sex education. Stretching the argument to a nationalistic screech of a western propaganda to it being against Indian values and culture and its corrupting effect on young minds, the curriculum has been doomed from the start. The truth is that sex education, even if it were implemented, will not reach most adolescents or young adults because most children still do not make it to schools in India. Those who do either drop out for various reasons– one being the pressure to start earning for the family. In the case of girls, most often when it comes to an education they figure last on the list of priorities.
And for those who do, they are married off very early and hence are unable to continue their education. And it is this group that really are the ones most in need of sex education. For a country where girls continue to be married off much before the legal age to men much older to them, what corruption of values are these politicians and religious heads referring to? Most often their husbands have already engaged in risky sexual behaviour placing these young girls at risk too. Besides, the urban minority of young adults that they are attempting to protect already have access to the information or misinformation on sex through the new media.
Not only are these young brides slaves to the sexual needs of their older husbands, but even access to contraception and other sexual health services are not available or they simply lack information on it. Moreover, contraception is rarely encouraged by the family since it is perceived as something used commonly by sex workers. India has had legal abortions since 1971 and while religious groups even belonging to the Hindu majority have not really openly advocated any anti-abortion laws the balance is always heavily tilted against family planning. In fact abortion has been practiced less as the woman's bodily right and more as a family planning alternative and even more so criminally in willfully selecting female fetuses for abortion.
Complicity by other women in the family and the community in perpetuating these acts only strengthens the concept of women as property and the perception that violence against family members is a family and not a judicial issue. Women are perceived as someone else's property to be nurtured by parents and given away. Boys are important not just for ritualistic practices but also because inheritance laws have for long been in their favour. Hence the girl is seen as someone who adds little value to even the parental home. And culturally, irrespective of the religious pursuance, this is the manner in which girls and women have been perceived and correspondingly treated both at their parental and marital homes.
The recent case of a father killing his daughter for refusing the hijab in Canada really is just a reminder of the conflict between religion and identity that many women face within the realms of their respective religions and faiths. The issue is not just about purdah or segregation but of the manner in which women as a group, a community, a gender, face discriminatory and violent treatment all in the name of religion and the garb of tradition and culture.
What Is a Panchayat?
The Panchayat system is based on the theory of local governance as part of the Indian political system and is constitutionally provided for. Panchayat literally means ‘an assembly of five' respected elders chosen and accepted by the village community. Traditionally, these assemblies settled disputes between individuals and villages. The Indian government has decentralised several administrative functions to the village level, empowering elected gram (village) panchayats. The gram (village) panchayat is the basic unit of administration. It has 3 levels – village, block and district and it is at the village level that it is called a Panchayat. The panchayat is meant to act as a conduit between the local government and the people.