It’s a word I often hear when speaking to women in India, where a combination of patriarchy, misogyny and extreme conservatism makes women feel ashamed of the crimes being committed against them.
They are ashamed of being sexually harassed when walking home from school, ashamed for being molested by a colleague, ashamed after suffering a beating at the hands by their husbands, ashamed when their neighbor rapes them and ashamed when he shares mobile photographs of the crime with his friends.
On August 25, this misguided shame drove two Indian teenage girls, who were being repeatedly sexually harassed and stalked by a group of youths, to take their own lives.
Before drinking fruit juice laced with toxic chemicals at their school on the outskirts of Delhi, engineering students Madhu and Nikita both wrote telling suicide letters about how Indian society views women.
The letters, which were found by police near their desks, speak of fear, shame, and disrepute. They talk of neighborhood tongues wagging against them because the men were following and harassing them, wrote the Indian Express.
“Every day a new man would come and chase us. They would pass lewd remarks and offer us phone numbers. The people around us would stare as if we had done something wrong,” wrote 16-year-old Madhu.
“You know how bad our colony is, how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us even though we are innocent,” she added in her six-page letter written in Hindi.
Seventeen-year-old Nikita spoke of similar distress.
“I have not done anything wrong to bring shame on my family. I am ending my life because I cannot take this daily tension,” she wrote, urging police to crackdown on sexual harassment and warning of more suicides happening if action is not taken.
SHAMED TO DEATH
The letters strike at the heart of how women are viewed in India – where they are shamed because its easier to blame those who have a lower status in society than those who stalk, harass, beat, molest and rape.
In a culture where chastity is expected before marriage, where a woman and her family are judged based on her sexual behaviour, sex crimes bring shame on the woman and dishonour on the family. There are many reports of raped girls and women who are emotionally blackmailed or shamed into ending their lives.
Young girls and women have drunk poison, set themselves alight or slashed their wrists in the aftermath of such sexual violence. Sometimes, even their families are pained or shamed into killing themselves.
Like in many South Asian countries, women here are still judged not so much on what they say or do, their job or education or views, but on whether they have had sex out of wedlock and how they dress and behave with other men. A girl who has engaged in pre-marital sex will often be seen as a disgrace and shunned. If she has sisters, like her, they will face problems finding a husband to marry them — one of the key issues parents worry about as soon as a daughter is born.
With sex crimes, this twisted judgment persists to a point beyond comprehension.
“It’s not difficult to understand why the two bright young girls, who wanted to go abroad to pursue their careers, decided to end their lives: They did not have any faith that their family, the State apparatus and society would help end their trauma,” said a column in the Hindustan Times.
“Their cases are not stray ones – there are scores of such cases across the country and most of them go unreported because society is just so unresponsive to such attacks,” it added.
Until society as a whole realizes that it is the perpetrators who should be shamed by their deeds, rather than the victims, the heart-wrenching suicides of girls like Madhu and Nikita who had dreams of making it big will continue.
“I am sorry I could not fulfill your dream of making it big in life and going to America. I have no option left except to die. I love you,” concluded Nikita in her letter to her family.
Reprint: The Suicide Letters That Symbolize India’s Misguided Shame -By Nita Bhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation (Trustlaw Women)