In 2002 Mukhtaran Bibi was gang-raped on the orders of her village council in rural Pakistan, in retaliation for her brother's association with a woman from another tribal group.
My 2007 essay on her can be found here
. I wrote not about the problem of sexual violence against women in India & Pakistan, which I'd addressed the year before (my 12-year-old-girl learning curve is detailed here
), but about Bibi's heroically humanitarian response to the verdict against her rapists: She used the money to open a school in her village...a school in which she first enrolled her rapists' children.
I bring up Bibi's case, and her extraordinary selflessness, not only because her 'crime' and 'punishment' parallel those of the Indian woman who was gang-raped on the orders of her village council last week, but because of Bibi's wise and apposite response.
Mukhtaran Bibi opened a school. She did that because the real problem with the treatment of women and non-straight-male persons on the Indian subcontinent isn't just--or even mostly--a lack of statutory protection. The reason women and other "minorities" are mistreated on the subcontinent is the rampant bigotry, born of insular and determined ignorance, that pervades the culture there.
That bigotry--against women, against homosexuals, against anyone who transgresses sectarian boundaries or other cultural taboos--is a Stone-Age norm across India (and, one can conclude from Bibi's ordeal, Pakistan).
Yes, Stone-Age. A woman from the most recent gang-rape-victim's village (I hope every human reading is cringing at the words 'most recent') justified the council's punishment by stating that the woman is "a bad character" who "was going around with this non-tribal man." This, in Stone-Age logic, justifies gang-rape: People from other tribes are, just as they were 10,000 years ago, threats to the village's food supply and lands and survival as a tribe. By that logic, fraternization should indeed be punished extremely--by gang-rape, at least; and stoning might not be out of the question either...
But civilized people don't act this way.
And that's the problem with the Indian subcontinent. That's the reason why women, Indian or not, aren't safe in India, and neither is anyone transgressing those Stone-Age norms: Vast swathes of the Indian subcontinent aren't civilized.
And contrary to the shrieks of outraged Indians at home and abroad, those vast uncivilized swathes aren't just located in West Bengal, or in backwards villages.
(Or in Pakistan.)
No, many of those swathes of bigoted, backward, uncivilized, determinedly ignorant, Stone-Age thinking cut straight through the likes of Mumbai and Delhi, where Indian women are--less than their South Asian peers, but still increasingly--choosing to delay marriage because it spells unremitting, full-time child-rearing and the end of their careers, no matter how educated or successful a woman may be.
That bigoted, backward, uncivilized, determinedly ignorant, Stone-Age thinking also cuts straight through the Lok and Rajya Sabhas, the two houses of the Indian Parliament, who are consistently embroiled in sectarian bigotry of the most pernicious, and often fatal, kind--see Narendra Modi
, leader of the minority BJP party, for just how deeply involved in this sort of bloodthirsty thuggery Indian politicians can get (apparently without repercussion).
And then there is the institution re-conceived in the Enlightenment, the common man's last defense against bigoted, backward, uncivilized, determinedly ignorant, Stone-Age thinking: the high courts. In this case, the Supreme Court of India.
Which means that that Court's re-criminalization of homosexuality last month was not only a blow against the human rights and civil liberties of a large portion (approximately 20%) of the world's LGBT population, but also a complete failure of the SCI's mandate as an institution.
As of December 2013, any homosexual sexual activity in India is once again punishable by a 10-year prison term. That's right, it's again
punishable...because the Supreme Court of India, in order to purvey its own bigoted, backward, uncivilized, determinedly ignorant thinking, had to overturn a High Court ruling and uphold a law from the 1870 British Penal Code.
That's 1870 AD
, ladies and gentlemen. A law imposed by India's British colonizers 143 years ago is once again the law of the land.
Not quite Stone-Age. But in this day and age, quite definitely uncivilized.
Personally, my view of the bigotry of Indian culture has been jaundiced in the extreme since I was 11 years old--when my mother, brothers and I were reviled for more than a decade by the Indian community in Nashville (while they welcomed my 'respectable' surgeon father) because my parents had divorced.
I learned first-hand about the hypocritical blindness of which the Indian community is capable when protecting its cultural norms, and in that awareness I chose to be American by acculturation as well as by birth. Only later, because my extended family--and living rough in India for a year--showed me the positive side of Indian familial culture, did I choose to adopt some of it (if in a decidedly piecemeal fashion).
So I'm biased both for and
against, now. All of which allows me to see bigotry on the subcontinent with a clearer eye than most.
Indian technology has evolved over the past three decades, and via India's youth has begun to drag the culture (inch by inch) with it. And India's children are, just like India's geography is, a patchwork of truly high-minded, humanistic thinking scattered throughout the bigoted, backward, insular traditional gender and community roles--roles enforced by family 'elders' as well as by many of the younger Indians (largely male) whom those traditions benefit.
My cousins--from India to Australia to Singapore to Montreal--are excellent examples of India's evolution. They are, very nearly entirely, caring and high-minded human beings, and they're a large part of the reason I came to value being part of a wider Indian family. Many work for justice and equality in their day-to-day lives; most exemplify it to some degree or another.
Not everyone from an Indian family is so lucky. But lucky or not, those of Indian origin with high ideals and open hearts need to speak up against the bigots, both in India and abroad. Here's the key--an idea that, despite its logic, most of India wholly rejects (and America struggles with, especially post-Bush and post-Ed-Snowden): Being anti-bigoted, backward, uncivilized, determinedly ignorant, Stone-Age thinking doesn't mean being anti-Indian.
And if it does mean that to you, consider seriously what that means about your idea of being Indian.
Indians of conscience and humanism and goodwill need to speak up in the face of oppression instead of simply ignoring it (or even opposing it quietly) lest they offend their elders and those who raised them--who, in India, are nearly universally less open-minded, less humanitarian, and less conscience-driven than those who grew up with a wider view of the world and of themselves.
Respect for our elders is a worthy tenet--but as with any worthy tenet, when embraced unthinkingly it can be carried too far.
Back to the 1870s, for example. Or the Stone Age.