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Violence across the world: Something is wrong when being raped is a crime

Katherine Kohler | Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I believe that many would agree that violence against women (VAW) is wrong. Many would be outraged to see their sister, mother, friend or daughter suffer the trauma of rape. The big question at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s isn’t whether or not violence against women is wrong, but what is the appropriate way to deal with and prevent it. I would dare to say that women who have been raped on either campus are not penalized for it; rather we question whether the rapists are penalized sufficiently for their crime.

Violence against women is a huge issue on college campuses and it seems that it too frequently appears in the news surrounding Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. But across the globe woman face a bigger fear than even being raped: Women fear being raped and being punished for it. This form of oppression cannot be tolerated and should most definitely not be tolerated by college students who understand the fear of (sexual) violence but rely (and can count) on a supportive campus community instead of further penalization for being assaulted.

Just recently Nicholas Kristof covered a piece about a Bangladeshi girl who was murdered for being raped. An older relative was raping the girl in her town when the rapist’s wife discovered them. The wife reported Hena (the 14 year old Bangladeshi girl) to her local mosque and the local imam found Hena guilty of adultery. A makeshift religious court in the small town sentenced Hena to 100 lashings for “adultery.” Hena collapsed after 70 lashings and was taken to the hospital. She died a week later. According to some it was due to her excessive blood loss. The doctors recorded her death as a suicide. Kristof notes in his article that many Bangladeshi woman and girls are expected to commit suicide after being raped.

Clearly rape is not just. College students, the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations (UN) can all agree on this fact. The UN in Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi government agree that equality should be maintained for men and women. Unfortunately, the official stance of the national government is not upheld in the communities. The local (religious) governments tend to ignore violence against women by justifying the cause or by reframing the situation. For example, domestic violence is called domestic dispute and is not recognized as a crime in Bangladesh. The UN has found that Bangladesh is currently one of the most violent countries and cites domestic violence as one of the leading causes of violence in the country.

That being said, the local Bangladeshi government has put Hena’s family under police protection (from members of the community who are angry with the family for reporting Hena’s death to the government) and has ordered an autopsy of Hena’s body. In addition, the Bangladesh press has reported on the issue, the Bangladesh civil society has shown extreme outrage about this case, lawsuits are underway against the doctors who proclaimed her death a suicide and according to Kristof, the alleged rapist and others involved in the case of Hena’s death are not being ignored.

 It is important to understand when considering the implications of Hena’s death that although the government officials have taken action against her murder, the overall religious and cultural tone of Bangladesh allows for similar occurrences. As I have already mentioned, the Bangladesh government does maintain that men and women are equal, but it would seem (in these smaller communities at least) that the government’s policy on VAW issues is not the first code of conduct for many Bangladeshis. Kirk and Okazawa-Rey (2010 p. 266) have found that the cultural legitimization of male violence is not only influenced by law but by religion, education, popular culture, media, aggressive sports toys and games.

Changing public policy may not be enough to stop violence against women in Bangladesh. Activists may need to address other important aspects of male violence such as religion, education and media. It is apparent that for those involved in Hena’s death that public policy was not their first concern. Rather, the opinion of the imam was considered, respected and fulfilled. A girl died because religion mandated her death even though the mandate was contrary to public policy.

The harsh reality and complexity of this case paints a portrait of what violence against women (VAW) looks like on a global scale. It is true that even though the religious and cultural atmosphere of smaller towns in Bangladesh allow for women to be punished for being raped, there are many Bangladeshi activists who do not support punishing women for a rapist’s crime. The global portrait of VAW has rich tones of oppression, pain and opposition, but mostly silence. Women are not given a voice. Women are not given the right to testify or seek legal aid within (Islamic) Shari’a law.

Muslim law is called Shari’a and translates to “the path leading to water,” meaning the way to live. Shari’a law has its own legal system in which women are not required to have legal representation. Shari’a is interpreted differently across the globe and tends to be viewed negatively in the West. I do not believe that Shari’a is inherently wrong, but it should not be ignored that women are underrepresented in Shari’a law and have been stoned for simply being in the company of a man that is not part of the immediate family.

In 1996 a woman was sentenced to death for being alone with a man. Because women are not guaranteed representation in Shari’a law, she had little opportunity to defend herself against the court. Hena’s case is disconcerting but it is not the first case of rape in which the victim has been put to death. Because Shari’a does not tolerate adultery, many times the woman is put to death for being alone with a man or for having any sexual activity with a man — even if it was rape.

The problem of Hena’s rape is more complicated than poor public policy — it is a problem of strict religious policy that overrides good public policy. Hena died because religious policy is respected more than the good public Bangladeshi policy that respects the equality of men and women and does not tolerate rape.

It is important for students on this campus to understand the implications of Hena’s death in order to understand, sympathize with and stand against the global oppression of women. Here at Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame we understand that rape is never the victim’s fault, but women in other parts of the world do not have that luxury. Women fear penalization for victimization. Hena’s rape and subsequent death are unjust and do not follow her country’s constitution. It is good, as Kristof pointed out, that her death has aroused a public opposed to her punishment for being raped, but it is important that this case is not repeated in Bangladesh or any country where Shari’a is respected more than public policy.

What we can hope for is that Bangladesh will improve their public policy so that religious policy that allows for the killing of innocent victims will become illegal. Let us stand in solidarity with the women across the globe that fear more than rape: rape and a subsequent death sentence.

Katherine Kohler is a senior at Saint Mary’s College. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.