Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

Indian women protest after a highly publicized gang rape in New Dehli.
Indian women protest after a highly publicized gang rape in New Dehli.

In September of this year, an Indian court sentenced four New Delhi men to death for gang-raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman. They had assaulted her so brutally that she died two weeks later. The attack ignited a firestorm of protest and policy changes in India, from street demonstrations and online petitions to tougher punishments for abusers. International media outlets covered the rape with an intensity usually reserved for royal weddings and celebrity trials, calling attention to the need for greater safety measures for women in India.

A late 2013 survey of more than 10,000 men in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka found that 24 percent of Asian men admitted to committing rape. In some areas, the figure rose as high as 62 percent. The study, conducted by the United Nations, found that shockingly few of the self-admitted rapists — 72 to 97 percent across countries — ever faced legal repercussions, like the men in New Delhi gang rape case.

Gang rape, indeed, makes up only a small part of the story of violence against women in Asia. Yet the international community fixates on violence it can understand — like unambiguous sexual assault — and ignores other pressing threats to women’s well-being. As a result, it tends to overlook two of the most egregious forms of violence facing women in Asia: honor killings and night hunting.

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In 2012, in the town of Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, a mother and father killed their 15-year-old daughter for talking to a young man outside her house. The parents beat their daughter and doused her with acid. They told police that they thought their daughter was having an illicit affair with the man, which in their opinion warranted death. “It was her destiny to die this way,” the mother explained.

Such an act is referred to as an honor killing: the murder of women, and occasionally men, for disgracing their family or clan. “Most honor killings occur in countries where the concept of women as a vessel of the family reputation predominates,” said Marsha Freeman, Director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch at the University of Minnesota, in National Geographic. Any violation of family honor renders a woman liable to being killed, in order to protect her family’s standing. Violations range from marital infidelity to pre-marital sex to mere flirting. Usually, a male family member — a husband, father, or brother — carries out the killing.

A poor Pakistani woman collects recyclable goods to earn money for her family members.
A poor Pakistani woman collects recyclable goods to earn money for her family members.

Honor killings remain prevalent in rural Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s 2012 report, 913 girls and women were killed for this reason last year. At least 604 of the victims were killed after being accused of having illicit relations with men, often without proof, and 191 were killed because they had married by their own choice, against their families’ wishes.

In Sindh, a province in southern Pakistan, honor killings are known as karo-kari. The word karo literally translates to “black man” and kari, to “black woman.” According to the Asian Human Rights Committee, the term implies that offenders have blackened themselves by committing sin and dishonoring their families. The original meaning of the word shames both the man and the woman involved — one cannot call a man a karo without calling out his kari.

However, punishment for karo-kari almost always falls on the woman. According to Akmal Wasim, a professor at Karachi’s Hamdard University, the manifestation of a man’s honor has traditionally been his wife in societies located on the Indian subcontinent. “The decision in karo-kari cases is usually to kill the woman, or [give] away girls from the perpetrator’s family or from the victim’s family, depending on the case, as a settlement between the parts,” he explained. “So in this case we have other women ‘wiping out’ the alleged sin committed. It is a clear example of the way women are considered sexual property.”

This attitude toward women is not specific to a single religion. Although Islam is the predominant religion in Pakistan, honor killing also exists in non-Muslim cultures. In 2012, at least seven Hindu and six Christian women also fell victim to honor killings. The issue is not religion, but rather location; honor killing predates Islam on the Indian subcontinent and, according to experts, is indicative of the region’s patriarchal culture.

Pakistan’s constitution formally guarantees gender equality, stating that “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. Steps shall be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life.” But the constitution might as well not exist in many rural areas, where the decisions of local tribal councils often take precedence over the Pakistani penal code.

This dual legal system has produced a deep rift in attitudes toward honor killings. People living in cities deem honor killing barbaric, while many in tribal areas find it acceptable. An editorial published in the English-language national newspaper Express Tribune — whose readership is largely urban — referred to Pakistan’s tribal belts as “primitive societies […] where men address any real or perceived breach in their honour in extreme fashion.”

Perhaps in light of mounting national and international backlash against honor killings, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s 2012 report did note certain cases in which the police and courts opposed family members and tribal councils. For example, when one woman left her husband to elope with a cousin, her father and husband threatened to kill them both and asked the police to arrest the couple. The Sindh High Court, however, halted the arrest and provided the couple with protection.

Perhaps the best way to approach honor killings, experts say, is to change cultural attitudes and thus prevent them from happening in the first place. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported, “Sindhi newspapers now publish stories of women coming out and giving statements in front of the court in favor of ‘love marriages.’” These kinds of gestures, no matter how small, empower women to make their own decisions regarding marriage and will hopefully transform the deeply rooted prejudices that give rise to honor killings.

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Imagine lying in bed late at night, your parents and siblings on floor mats by your side. They all breathe heavily, but no one stirs. You hear the sounds of the night animals and insects, a chorus in the dark. Before long, it is interrupted by shuffling outside your house. A shadowy figure sneaks into your window. If you were a young, Bhutanese woman, this could have been the man with whom you had arranged a nighttime tryst. However, it could be a violent prowler. The trouble is, in Bhutan — more than 1500 miles from Pakistan, but similarly rural and poor — the lines between these two visitors, one welcome, one feared and reviled, has been blurred.

The practice of “night hunting” or “night prowling” —  in which men enter the houses of adolescent, unmarried females for nocturnal sex — has long been a traditional courtship ritual in the rural areas of eastern and central Bhutan. It encompasses a wide range of behaviors and sexual relations, from consensual, planned, and consistent sex between two individuals to gang rape.

A women in rural Bhutan
A women in rural Bhutan

The vernacular word for night hunting is Bomena, which literally translates to “going towards the girl” — it does not have the predatory implications of “hunting” and “prowling.” According to social scientist Dorji Penjore in Love, Courtship, and Marriage in Rural Bhutan, “Bomena is a lengthy and complex process, sometimes lasting a year if it is meant for finding a marriage partner. But it can also be as short as [a] one night affair depending on one’s motive. It is like modern day dating, an institution which helped young ones to find their partners.”

Traditionally, women have the right to accept or reject their visitors. In this way, Bomena was part of a Bhutanese culture that empowered women. In fact, the society is matriarchal, with daughters inheriting property. When men and women are ready to enter cultural adulthood together (called jai do jong, coming to the surface), men will stay to be discovered by women’s families. Some parents pretend to be asleep even if awoken, taking night prowling as an essential facet of courtship and sexual release.

Despite Bhutan’s increasingly westernized culture, public dating and premarital sex remain taboo in rural areas. Accordingly, young men and women often prefer secretive night-time sex. Should a “prowler” be discovered, however, he is often assigned to be the woman’s husband, regardless of circumstance.

Bomena, nonetheless, has increased the number of fatherless children and single mothers, consigning women to poverty, depression, and social stigmas. It has become less common for extended families to live together, so the burden of caring for children falls heavily on women and their nuclear families. Women with unwanted pregnancies frequently drop out of school. Moreover, they face regulations that make single parenting increasingly difficult. For example, only fathers can register their children as citizens. Unregistered children are denied access to schooling, social programs, and health services.

Urban and rural Bhutanese people often clash over night hunting, as city dwellers typically see the practice as sexual exploitation. Bhutanese law increasingly addresses sexual violence and rape, but does not fully safeguard women against the potential ills of night hunting. In 1996, for instance, Bhutan raised the minimum age for women to marry from 16 to 18, the same age as for men. Bhutan outlaws rape with its 1996 Rape Act, which stipulates different penalties depending on the aggressors’ and victims’ age. The Rape Act, however, does not apply to “night hunting,” a loosely-defined term.

Bhutan also signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1980, and the government came to regard Bomena as gender discrimination, joining the National Commission for Women and Children, the U.N., and nongovernmental organizations. These forces claim Bomena can be addressed with law and education, but they have not yet enacted any measures to that effect. Moreover, no law in Bhutan protects women against domestic violence or abuse by intimate partners.

Few Bhutanese laws, in fact, address Bomena directly, though men proven as fathers are required to financially support the children they conceive through night hunting. According to Phintsho Choeden, Executive Director of Bhutan’s National Commission for Women and Children, the government is generally wary when confronting Bomena, claiming it does not yet have enough data to directly link fatherless children to night hunting.

Sexual abuse in the form of Bomena is clearly difficult to combat. It occurs in communities that vary in terms of culture, geography, and socioeconomics. But there are specific legal steps that Bhutan can take to better protect its women from the ills of Bomena. The government can enact laws and proper enforcement to protect women from abuse by intimate partners, experts say, as most Bomena occurs between villagers who knew one another previously. Women can also be educated about what qualifies as forcible sex, empowered to say no to potential suitors and report unwanted intruders. In this way, women may eventually combat cultural acceptance of unwelcome night hunting and voice a need for consent.

Bomena cannot and should not be eradicated completely, because in some cases it still involves traditional, consensual courtship practices. There must, however, be comprehensive education and laws to differentiate intruding rapists from secret suitors, a complex task for both government bodies and citizens.

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The news media today rarely give cases of sexual assault the column inches they ought to command. And even when the press does focus sexual violence, the coverage is often limited to just the most straight-forward, salient examples, like the recent gang rape in New Delhi, India.

Yet injustice by way of sexual violence has many forms, ranging from honor killings to night prowling, but all must be regarded with cultural sensitivity. When responding to such violence, we must examine a place’s traditions and cultures, deeming which values ought to be preserved and which, unfortunately, continue to foster gender-based evils.

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