Ambassador / Wednesday Wisdom

Rape doesn’t rob your ‘izzat’: an Indian-American perspective on global sexual abuse struggles

Today we hear a lesson from the front lines of Indian-American ambassadorship, from Dipika Gaur, a 4th year undergraduate student at NYU concentrating in Global Health Equity. Her primary area of interest is the integration of structures that combat socioeconomic barriers into health care delivery within resource limited settings, and you can read more about her work on her personal blog.

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As an Indian-American, I identify as a ‘double ambassador’. I was raised with influences from two very different cultures and have spent much of my young adulthood assessing how to incorporate values from both into my vision of a just world. During trips to India on various service projects and family reunions, I find myself clarifying misunderstandings of America and Western culture. Other times in the U.S., where I have spent much of my life, I find myself needing to speak up and explain aspects of Indian culture that otherwise go misunderstood.

Two weeks ago I found myself in the odd position of having to do both at once, when a 22-year-old female photojournalist was gang-raped while on assignment in Mumbai, her male colleague was beaten and bound beside her. Protests erupted across India, demanding stricter implementation of the Criminal Law Bill, which was enacted in March 2013 to deter and prosecute sexual offences. Multiple news outlets have embodied the nation’s frustration through one phrase – “Impunity of the rapists, Impotence of the System”. Fittingly, the majority of media and public discourse has focused on how to effectively deter sexual violence through swift and harsh judicial prosecution. These conversations and their intended consequences are important, because India must send a clear message to perpetrators of sexual violence. Such acts cannot and will not be tolerated.

But perhaps the most defiant proclamation against rapists and other perpetrators came from the photojournalist herself, while she was recovering in the hospital. “Rape is not the end of life; I want to get back to work”, she said to a member of the National Commission for Women. In news outlets, she has been called a brave heart; I call her a game changer. Her rapists threatened to disseminate photos they took of her if she reported the incident. Yet, she and her male colleague went straight to a nearby hospital to report the incident once they had escaped. I call her a game changer, because she has made it clear that this one incident will not deter her from pursuing a life of happiness and purpose.

In my Indian heritage, I often hear that a woman’s honor- referring literally to her virginity prior to marriage- is reflective of her character. This perception is exemplified by the Hindi translation of rape. The word rape directly translates to balatkaar, but in verbal discourse, izzat lootna is most commonly used. The literal English translation of izzat lootna is “to rob one’s honor” [izzat = honor, lootna = to rob]. I’ll admit that I have subconsciously internalized these standards imposed upon me through the language I speak. In fact, I argue that millions of women of Indian origin have internalized these standards. We should not wear certain clothes or inhabit certain physical spaces because, if some act of sexual harassment or violence were to occur, it will foremost be a reflection of us. The perpetrator is a sick, twisted individual. Fine. But, now that you’ve been physically assaulted, your integrity and worth is subject to society’s opinions of who’s really to blame.

womb quoteShame and social stigma impact most, if not all, individuals who have been raped. It is an act of violence that robs a person of their bodily autonomy. Why has Indian society, through language, pervasive gender-based violence, and social inequality between women and men promoted the internalization of shaming and questioning the victim?

The 22-year old photojournalist from Mumbai is a game changer, because Indian women across the world have heard her declaration. Say what you will society, but this act is not a reflection of my character. It will not fatally impact my drive to continue living.

Since the gang rape of this woman was reported two weeks ago, I have struggled with why I feel every attack on an Indian woman is an attack on myself. I feel my body shudder and my head sink when I read new reported cases of sexual assaults on women and children in India, because I was taught to be ashamed. Society taught me that izzat is the most important, and if you’ve been robbed of your izzat, you’ve been robbed of your character.

No longer. Perpetrators of sexual violence, you will not win because justice will be served. You will be prosecuted and convicted in a court of law, and I will continue to live with my head held high. You will never be a part of my definition of izzat.

The 22-year-old photojournalist who was raped two weeks ago in Mumbai has given us an opportunity.  Let’s use her voice as a framework for promoting self-worth and dignity in every individual. Instead of silencing women and children who are raped, because you worry about their honor, empower them to assert their perseverance as a symbol of honor.

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2 thoughts on “Rape doesn’t rob your ‘izzat’: an Indian-American perspective on global sexual abuse struggles

  1. “izzat lootna” is an urdu term (persian/arabic origin). It has no relationship to Hindi. It probably originated when Muslim invaders deliberately tried to intimidate Hindus by attacking their daughters and sisters during the waves of Islamic invasions that Hindus in India have had to endure.

  2. Pingback: Snapshot Sunday: Honor A Father’s Wish | Dipika Gaur

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