Tuesday 4 September 2012

The gender gap and rape

SEPT 4 — Two recent cases of young men avoiding custodial sentences for the proven crimes of statutory rape of minors have met with howls of outrage from ordinary citizens. While the judgments seem to be supremely lenient on the perpetrators, it may be worthwhile to examine the social context that allowed these judgments to be handed down in the first place.

As I had argued in a column in December 2010, in a society where it is perfectly legal for 14-year-old girls to be married to men much older to them, the value of a girl’s right to a childhood is clearly severely circumscribed.
It is arguably a combination of traditional gender roles entrenched in Malaysian society and the impact of the easy access to Western liberal attitudes through online media that are putting females in a position of no escape.

On the one hand a certain type of social structure dins it into their female children that boys have a God-given right to superiority, whether in education, careers, inheritance or in sex and marriage, and on the other hand female children are made to believe that the only way to secure the love of a desirable male is to flaunt a supposed sexuality and fulfil all their desires if they want to hold onto them.

Kids learn from us. When they see 14-year-old acquaintances being married off with full pomp, or their mothers putting up with philandering husbands with the full consent of society, they are bound to develop feelings of inferiority to men.

This perfect storm of an attack on their status as equals has led to a situation where the rights of women are slowly and insidiously being eroded. When their education is seen as secondary to that of boys, when their jobs are seen as mere supplements to the family income, and when they are supposed to turn a blind eye to their husband’s affairs or multiple marriages, men are emboldened into believing that global norms of decent behaviour do not apply to them. The obedient wives club and the polygamists club are the outcomes of this slow degradation.

I would argue that the really saddening part of these judgments is the accent on the consensual part of the perpetrators’ defence. This is a direct result of all that I have argued above. When the early sexualisation of female children is seen as normal, implicit is the notion that then they are able to give informed consent to the act of intercourse, thus removing the idea of statutory rape entirely from the argument.

The fact is that these girls are children, and their adult attackers child rapists. Simple as that. But the gender gap in society allows, as in every other sphere of activity, justice to also favour men. Our judges are also part of this society. If it is true that there is no justice without context, then it is a surprise that more such judgments have not been handed out before. While we may be outraged at them, it is worthwhile to look inwards and see if we may not have to bear some of the blame for this state of affairs.

If Malaysia wants the better half of its population to be treated with dignity, it has to start at home.

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