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Girls, Jokes, and Hanging Offenses

By on Jun 9, 2014 in Viewpoints | 5 comments

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It was bad timing. I know I should be a good sport. That’s what my Dad always said when he made fun of me, that he was just funning. And it was all in fun or I think it was. I mean it was a good joke. Everybody laughed and I laughed too before it hit me that it was a rape joke. On the other hand, it was just a teeny, weeny rape joke. Not bad really. Not insulting or anything. It even took me a minute to realize what was happening but then with this guy — he’s a really nice guy by the way. He tells jokes all the time and most of them are funny. Anyway with this guy I often get a funny feeling, a feeling that he’s besting me somehow in some strange competition and I don’t know the rules. I only learn the rules after I’ve been bested, after he’s won. Won what? I never know. That’s why it’s so weird. I can’t put my finger on it.

That morning I had read of a tragic story from India, India, land of mystery, home to Gods, a country awash in contradictions and juxtapositions, where beauty and culture and poverty all thrive in equal measure.

Two girls, cousins, aged thirteen and fourteen, went into the fields to relieve themselves during the night. They were raped, strangled and then hung in the low-slung branches of a Mango tree. An uncle had heard them.

It was just after 7 p.m. on Tuesday when an uncle of the girls heard their cries as he was coming in from the fields.
He flashed a torch and spotted four men, recognizing one. He confronted them, but fled after being threatened with a handgun, he told Reuters on Saturday at the victims’ family home.The uncle and the girls’ father went to the local police post to report the girls missing.

The father and uncle went to the police for help.

Sohan Lal reached the police outpost at 11 o’clock on the night his daughter disappeared, he said, already desperate for help. He bent down before the officer in charge and clutched his feet, telling him to hurry, hurry
“I was on my knees begging them to come quickly, but they would not take us seriously,” Mr. Lal, 50, said. He said the policemen responded with “foul language” about his caste and his daughter.
Mr. Lal found his daughter, 12, close to dawn. She and her cousin, who was 14, had been raped, and their bodies were hanging by their scarves from a mango tree in this village about 200 miles from Delhi, the Indian capital.
Relatives insisted that the bodies hang there for 12 hours, preventing the police from bringing them down, because they wanted outsiders to see how the girls had been found. 

The girls belonged to the Dalit caste, a caste of untouchables whose occupations traditionally involve leatherworking, butchering, and trash and waste removal. The five perpetrators, three brothers and two police constables, and the police official in charge of the outpost where the father, Sohan Lal, went for help, and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, and his father, the leader of the ruling Samajwadi party, are all of the Yadav caste or tribe. Yadavs are linked to cattle raising and as such are outside of the formal caste system in India. However, they claim to be descendants of the mythological King Yadu and Krishna, which they feel confers on them the status of rulers. They are also landowners. The Dalits are not.

According to an article in the New York Times, “Both the victims and the suspects belong to the lower castes, but only members of the Yadav caste (the surname is the same as the caste) — who make up about 20 of the 400 households in the village — are assigned to the closest police outpost.”

Last month the leader of the ruling party, the socialist Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose son Akhilesh is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, told an election rally that he was opposed to the death penalty for gang rapists, saying “boys make mistakes.” Referring to a gang rape case in Mumbai last week, he commented, “Three poor fellows have been sentenced to death. Should rape cases lead to hanging?”

It was seemingly a rhetorical question, a question about whether rape should lead to a death sentence. Ironically, in the mango tree case, it was the victims who where hanged. Why? If the perpetrators’ motive was a need for sex, then rape would have been sufficient surely. But the girls were additionally strangled and hung from the tree. Atul Saxena, the police chief tried to beg the question. He told the AFP news agency that the autopsy “report suggests ante-mortem hanging, which means the girls committed suicide. But we will take into account all aspects before coming to a conclusion.

So I guess I’m supposed to imagine that these two teen-aged girls, exhausted and terrified after having been brutally raped by five men, wrapped their head scarves around their necks, climbed the mango tree, tied the other end of their head scarves around the branches on opposite sides of the tree and jumped. I’m sorry but I think they probably had help doing this. I think the rapists hung around (pardon the pun) long enough to help them with this task.

Societal norms are changing fast in India and patriarchal values are losing out as opportunities for girls become more readily available. The power grid is being questioned. Young women are becoming educated and demanding autonomy over their own fates. I think that perhaps this is what Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the dominant Samajwadi Party, was referring to when he sympathized with the hanging ruling for rapists. He thought the punishment was too strong. Maybe the rapists thought so too and decided that they would teach the Dalit girls what it is like to be hung.

Why is there so much news about rape in India lately? Perhaps there’s more rape than there used to be, and perhaps it’s just being talked about more. If there is more rape, one cause might be that there are 10 % fewer females than males in India. Male babies are more valued and since the introduction of amniocentesis, families have been electing to end pregnancies when the baby is female.

A second reason is false hopes. India has suffered a downturn in the economy in tune with the rest of the world but for a while it was booming. In 2004, the Indian government spent $20 million USD on a national promotion campaign with the slogan, “India Shining.” campaign glossed over the societal problems of poverty and social inequality. It concentrated on showing only positive images: a young woman playing cricket, happy farmers and a contented and prosperous middle class. If young men believed it, they may have seen themselves driving cars, living in a middle class houses and a pretty girl on their arms. But the economy busted. It wasn’t just in India. It was a worldwide bust. The campaign was unreasonably positive but the young believe in magic and “India Shining” promised magic.

Another possible motive is jealousy. The girls were pretty and smart. One wanted to be a doctor. Could they have been attacking the pride of the Dalit community? Maybe, but I’ll probably never know the motive.

Anyway that’s what was on my mind on Wednesday when the man told the rape joke. You didn’t hear the joke yet, did you? Okay. A man went out onto a lake in a rowboat. He had fishing gear with him, a fishing pole, a bucket and a container of minnows. He caught his limit and returned. His wife met him at the pier and asked him how it went.

“It’s great,” he said, “It’s beautiful out there and peaceful.” The woman decided to take a book she was reading and go out on the lake. After a while a ranger came along and asked her for her fishing license.

“I’m not fishing,” she said.

“You have a pole, a bucket and a container of minnows. You have all the equipment. You’re fishing. Let me see your license.”

“I don’t have a license. I’m not fishing,” she responded.

“Well then, I’m giving you a citation.”

The woman smiled coyly and said, “If you give me a citation, I’m going to scream and say you raped me. After all, you have all the equipment.”

The ranger knew when he was beaten. “Have a nice day,” he said and left.

Mango tree hanging

Photo from IBT, UK Edition, 6/13/2014

As rape jokes go, it is one of the mildest I’ve ever heard. I laughed. It was funny. The problem is that it implies that women will scream rape whenever they feel like it and that means when women say they are raped, they are lying. Ninety-nine percent of the time when a woman says she was raped, it’s because she was raped. She’s not pretending. It actually happened. Now look at the girls hanging from the Mango tree. I guess they’re pretending to be dead. Any minute now they will get down and start laughing. “Gotcha,” they will say.

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  1. Cathy

    June 10, 2014

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    This is so smart. The rape joke seems pretty harmless until you think about how it’s typecasting women who say they’ve been raped as manipulative liars. If you know anyone who’s come forward about her rape, you know how painful and horrible it is, how much backlash you get and suspicion you come under, and how much the stereotype is a disservice to women and a service to those who see them as objects for use. You make an important connection between jokes like that, which seem harmless, and a worldwide ongoing tragedy. Jokes like this don’t cause rape, of course, but they do support misogynist culture.

  2. M.Carlton Avery-Trujillo

    June 15, 2014

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    Hi I’m sorry to comment so late….I think there are a lot of parallels worldwide, with this issue…….the big jump in rape on college campuses, domestic violence chronic estate…also Aljazeera has an article that I saw/read today entitled: Rape in India…reading between the lines…didn’t know if you had seen it.

    Wednesday’s (last) discussion at Atlanta Bread was quite animated/interesting.

    • hannahpowers

      June 15, 2014

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      Thank you for commenting. It doesn’t matter when you do it. I appreciate it when you do it at all. Yes, you are right. It seems to me that the power structure is changing and I think there is a growth of misogyny as a result. I don’t think it’s true misogyny. It’s more of a frustration. I didn’t see the Aljazeera article you are referring to but they do a lot on the subject worldwide.
      Sorry I missed the discussion. I was exhausted.

  3. Vickey Monrean

    June 22, 2014

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    The typecasting in this joke reminds me of the recent George Will column regarding rape. His comments about rape being a coveted action for women on campus. And how terrible it is for the boys because their lives are ruined. It’s almost as if he is demented. I’ve always thought that about George Will, but this is proof.

    • hannahpowers

      June 23, 2014

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      A joke can make fun of just about anything and it’s fine. I think it’s best if people would make fun of themselves – that’s funny. I think we joke in order to say mean things and get away with it. It’s kind of a way of getting even verbally. George Will was an idiot. He should stick to political commentary and leave social issues alone. Obviously he’s not developmentally mature enough to understand.

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