Recently, in Delhi, India, a 23-year-old woman and her boyfriend, after seeing an evening movie, stepped onto what they thought was a city bus. It wasn't. A feral group of young men, joyriders, gang-raped and beat her and assaulted her male companion. Both were thrown off the bus, and later found bloodied and partially clothed on the side of the road. Shortly thereafter, the woman died of her injuries.
Hearing the horrifying story, those in the West may pause and reflect on the brutal treatment, not just of this one woman, but of women across the Third World, judgments buttressed by images of women, dressed in burqas, walking crowded streets, reduced to silent, anonymous silhouettes, seeming almost ethereal, mere wisps of dark smoke.
Perhaps we feel a quiet sense of post-modern superiority. In America, certainly, we have liberated our women and enlightened our men.
Worldwide, we're told, women ages 15-44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. The World Health Organization has found domestic and sexual violence affects 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries. And we know that it is one of the most underreported crimes committed.
But perhaps those attitudes toward women — objects to be possessed, discounted, objectified and viewed as disposable — which thread their way through so many societies are not as extraneous to our own culture as we might think. Look beneath the patina of "women's rights and liberation" and our assumed sophistication and modernity, which characterize so much of Western industrialized society, and there are truths that are startling and unexpected.
Consider the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law passed in 1994. Its intent was to create, using federal funds, an architecture wherein violent crimes against women can be prosecuted, restitution imposed and civil redress sought where applicable. VAWA is also intended to coordinate community approaches to domestic violence, sex dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Congressional reauthorization of the Act has been withheld since 2011, and continues to be blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives.
But then, this continued obstructionism comes from the same political party that requires women seeking an abortion to have an unnecessary medical procedure, an ultrasound (often intravaginal), while mandating that they watch the monitor during the procedure. It's incomprehensible.
What is equally incomprehensible is a recently released survey detailing that in 2010 there were 19,000 reported acts of sexual assault and rape in the military. The VA now calls the phenomenon MST: military sexual trauma. Again, we know that this number reflects the tip of a very large iceberg, and suggests that there are hundreds of thousands of survivors of MST, each representing a jarring and emotionally debilitating story, most suffering in silence (don't ask, don't tell). A footnote: Nominated for Best Documentary at this year's Oscars is the film "The Invisible War," an examination of what is characterized as an epidemic of sexual assault and rape in our military. A military that we, as a nation, hold in high esteem, one that is ostensibly committed to the belief that its members form a band of brothers and sisters, their bond inviolable.
And yet, a study of women who sought health care through the VA from the period of Vietnam through the first Gulf War found that nearly 1 in 3 was raped while serving (14 percent were gang-raped) — almost twice the rate of rape in civilian society. Eight in 10 had been sexually assaulted during military service.
But clearly it isn't just the military in which a culture of male impunity is cultivated. As is mirrored by Congress, there is a thread of disparaging aggression toward women that stitches together the fabric of our society and is embedded in our culture. Consider the recent events in Steubenville, Ohio, where high school football players are alleged to have taken an unconscious 16-year-old girl, intoxicated or the victim of a date-rape drug, from party to party where she was repeatedly sexually assaulted. The narrative of their behavior is both chilling and disturbing; however, it is not atypical. Yearly, in the U.S., some 208,000 women are sexually assaulted.
Beyond the numbers, however, resides a labyrinth of questions that we have yet to fully explore. What is there still about our culture, its messaging both latent and obvious, that conveys to our sons that women are objects to be possessed, consumed or reflexively dominated? Women are, after all, our sisters and daughters and mothers. They are, in essence, our caretakers, those among us who nurture and sustain us.
How, then, do we explain the above realities? Absent profound reflection, or a national dialogue (let it begin with the military and Congress), we carry on in denial or in silence.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.