Heavenly Rules with No Idea of Hell

Adil Hossain for BeyondHeadlines

And it has started again. At this moment people of India are seething in anger over the brutalisation and rape of a 5 year old child in Delhi. People are back on the streets demanding accountability from police and politicians and a robust system to check increasing violence against women. Unfortunately, some political parties while discussing the matter in Parliament have already gone back to their usual rhetoric of clamouring for death penalty as a deterrent against sexual crimes. Rather than addressing the structural issues attached to the crisis, this kind of demand offers a simplistic view of a complex matter.

Religiosity in rape debate is a recipe for communalism

However, I am not going to debate the effectiveness of death penalty as the topic has been discussed earlier at length by many columnists and also by the Justice Verma Committee. I am particularly concerned with the increasing reference to the efficacy of anti-rape laws (public stoning or hanging or shooting) in Arab countries as a counter to crimes like this by some of my Muslim friends. Sharing of pictures of public justice in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, usually depicting an army man shooting the offender in the head in full public view or something similar, has become commonplace on social media today. Also by demonstrating low statistics of rape in those countries, they express a sense of righteousness in claiming that these places with Shariah laws are far safer for women and a worthy model for us to follow.

Though after every rape incident, many people suggest harsher punishments on similar lines as a form of retributive justice, but bringing religiosity into a topic like this is a dangerous trend and may have many ramifications for a pluralist democracy like ours. Such approach has the capacity to initiate a process of counter communalisation as it has resonance with our-culture-is-better-than-your-culture conflict. It’s obvious that it is also about reclaiming religious identities through the construction of the good and bad imagery.

If today laws in Arab nations are supposedly harsher, effective and need of the hour, then tomorrow right wing Hindutva forces may construct the same images claiming the usefulness of Manusmriti laws against rape to protect women from such crimes. After all the rape laws in Manusmriti (8:323 or 8:352) also call for similar harsh punishments as in the Shariah. Hardliners in Christian community may follow suit and refer to the severe punishment like public stoning to death mentioned for rapists in texts like Deuteronomy (22:25-27). The opportunity to find harsh laws in ancient texts to punish sex offenders are endless, as one may go on from Code of Hammurabi in Babylon to the Celtic Laws of England where sentences like death by publicly burning at stake or dismemberment or breaking wheel can be found.

So firstly to claim exclusivity in punishing by exemplary means with the intention to create fear among future rapists and bringing religiosity in it is a misplaced idea as most religious texts cite similar things. In criminal jurisprudence, modern human civilisation has come a long way from a point where even death by guillotine was considered humane (started during French revolution). In spite of the temptation, laws in a secular pluralist democratic country like India should be made in Parliament after due deliberations and debate by looking at recent developments and not by locating them in religious texts as it may give rise to competitive communalism. And there is no denying that for minorities in India, any shift from secular discourse in our national debates will only make their position weaker in the society.

Secondly, any reference to the laws of Arab nations should not miss the position of women and the nature of functioning of the state in those societies. The presence of women in public sphere is almost invisible and unfortunately the discourse there still moves around questions about whether women should be allowed to drive or cycle alone in public. While posting UN rape statistics on social media to prove that these places are safer for women, my friends forget that it doesn’t include cases of rape that go unreported or marital rape cases there(the idea is even nonexistent). And given the stigma attached to rape in places where women are the ‘honour of the family’, it is easy to presume that rape would be the most underreported violent crime. Add the factor that these nations are extremely controlled societies with very little scope of independent agencies or non-governmental organisations verifying the government produced data.

Today there are many organisations in countries like India which are taking leadership role in sensitising people on sex crimes, encouraging women to speak up, report and pursue justice for sexual crimes. Reports like 52% children in India face domestic sex abuses create a public discourse which is unimaginable in those nations as they are yet to reach a consensus on issues like this. Public media debate on rape on television and in newspapers also has its own multiplier effect on the society as a whole as reflected after the December rape incident in Delhi. But how many times has any Saudi channel debated with eminent members of public and civil society (if they are there) when a ‘celebrity’ cleric accused of raping, torturing and killing of his 5 year old daughter was released after paying blood money? Or how many public protests have we seen on their streets to protest against miscarriage of justice? If the answer is none, then stop sharing those photographs because it doesn’t prove that their systems protect women better than ours.

India has to find a way forward today with regard to the increasing violence against women where it’s failed badly. We will have to ensure the participation of women in all public spheres if we are to compete with other nations on economic front.

It is sad to note that with a staggeringly slow criminal justice system and rampant police apathy, rape convictions have gone down over the years. But the public protests on the streets of Delhi demonstrate our willingness to change the scene in spite of political apathy. My friends should also join these protests and discuss the issues related to rape within a secular discourse well documented in the Justice Verma Committee to strengthen our democratic system.  They must know that by sharing these images on social media, they are speaking in a language fundamentally different from the voices of reason protesting on the streets of Delhi.

(Adil Hossain is a student of development anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and intern at Media Standard Trust, London. He can be followed on twitter@adilhossain)


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