By Kalavai Venkat
In the aftermath of the tragic Delhi gang-rape, the self-styled guru Asaram Bapu as well as an attorney representing the accused rapists remarked that the victim, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was as blameworthy as her rapists for her misfortune. Asaram Bapu reportedly said that Jyoti “should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop…This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.” Jyoti’s family, Indian public, and the media reacted to such remarks with justifiable anger and anguish. However, Asaram was merely preaching Gandhism when he made those remarks. Mahatma Gandhi had said, “I have always held that it is physically impossible to violate a woman against her will. The outrage takes place only when she gives way to fear or does not realize her moral strength. If she cannot meet the assailant’s physical might, her purity will give her the strength to die before he succeeds in violating her…It is my firm conviction that a fearless woman, who knows that her purity is her best shield can never be dishonored. However beastly the man, he will bow in shame before the flame of her dazzling purity.” So, an impartial reader should condemn Gandhi too for blaming the victim of rape.
A British study revealed that Gandhi and Asaram are merely examples of a prevalent universal tendency to blame the victim of rape. In that study, 71% of British women and 57% of British men blamed the victim of rape. Of the younger generation of British, aged 18 to 24, 33% blamed the rape victim if she was provocatively attired. A Christian advisory service for women in the USA teaches that a woman who is provocatively attired is as culpable as her rapist. An American government agency even advertised that the victim of rape should be blamed if she had consumed alcohol. In the USA, Judge Derek Johnson, recently dealing with a rapist who had threatened to mutilate his victim with a heated screwdriver, said, “I can tell you something, if someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted.” In other words, he was saying that a victim who did not resist to the extent of self-inflicting significant physical damage is to be blamed for the rape. An attorney defending the American basketball player Kobe Bryant in a rape case attempted to discredit the victim by informing the judge that she was promiscuous and hence “not worthy of (the judge’s) belief” just as the attorney defending the accused rapists in the Delhi gang-rape case is attempting to discredit the victim by shifting the blame on her.
Blaming the victim of rape is unfortunate but it is a universal phenomenon. It is tempting to condemn, often selectively, those who blame the victim as misogynists but then misogyny is merely the symptom and not the cause of this prevalent behavior. More importantly, the tendency to blame the victim of rape is merely a subset of the general behavior of blaming the victim of traumatic incidents as evident from the fact that some orthodox Jewish rabbis blamed the Jewish victims of the Holocaust as reincarnated sinners thereby implying that the Holocaust was a retribution for their alleged past sins. So, we must turn to evolutionary socio-biology, neuroscience, psychology, and memetics to understand why many blame the victim.
The Biological Insight
Biology provides insights into why one blames the victim of rape.
The first of those is known as behavioral self-blame where a victim often attributes her rape to behavioral causes she could have controlled. Such a victim believes that her rape is an outcome of her failure to exercise control over her behavior and that if she were to modify her behavior, she would increase her chances of avoiding rape in the future. The researches of the psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, summarized in Characterological Versus Behavioral Self-Blame: Inquiries into Depression and Rape, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 37, No. 10, p. 1806, reveal that 74% of rape victims indulge in self-blame. Here, the underlying premise is that one has control over what happens to oneself. Most people subscribe to this belief and as a corollary those who have not been raped conclude that they have been able to avert rape because they controlled their behavior effectively. This is possibly why in the British study that I had cited earlier, more women than men blamed the victim of rape – these women believe that they (unlike the victim) had exercised necessary control over self-behavior to avert rape. The researches of the Israeli forensic psychiatrists Yael Idisis, Sarah Ben-David, and Efrat Ben-Nachum, published in Attribution of Blame to Rape Victims among Therapists and Non-Therapists, Behavioral Sciences & the Law 25, pp. 103–120, also confirm that in two-thirds of the cases the victim of rape is perceived to be blameworthy.
The second of those is related to Von Economo neurons or intuition cells in the brain. Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee, in their book The Body Has a Mind of Its Own – How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better, summarize the researches of the California Institute of Technology neuroscientist John Allman to show that we form initial, quick intuitions of others by relying upon stereotypes, memories, and subliminal perceptions. It is only later, sometimes years later, we replace those initial perceptions with more reasoned judgments. It is the same mechanism that results in most people perceiving the victims of rape as culpable: their perception is the result of social stereotypes.
If the tendency to blame the victim of rape is the result of a neurological mechanism that relies upon social stereotypes why it is a universal phenomenon? After all, every society does not create similar stereotypes. One should evaluate Christian teachings to find an answer.
The Christian Meme of Blaming the Victim of Rape
The Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion and the American medical professor and evolutionary anthropologist John Hartung in Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality explain the biblical evolution and history of “in-group morality and out-group hostility.” Here, “in-group” refers to those who are the favored adherents of biblical religious systems whereas “out-group” refers to those who are outsiders fit to be enslaved or exterminated. As a result, The Bible glorifies murder, cruelty, and rape of “out-groups.” Dawkins points out that “Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility.” The Bible considered women as members of “out-group.” The Book of Revelation is emphatic that women would not go to heaven and that only those Christian men who have not defiled themselves by the touch of a woman would be saved and put on the heaven-bound cargo post-mortem. Paul admonishes women to be subservient to their husbands, extols abstinence from sex as the virtue and only allows marriage as a concession for those who are not strong enough to be celibates. Jesus extolled those who physically mutilate themselves and become eunuchs to attain heaven.
There are teachings in The Bible that actually advocate gang-raping a woman. One such is narrated in Judges 19 where a gang of townsmen demand that a biblical priest be handed over to them for a homosexual gang-rape. The host of the priest is evidently not perturbed by the idea of rape but only with the homosexual aspect of it. He pleads with them not to indulge in homosexuality and instead offers his own daughter and the biblical priest’s concubine for a gang-rape. The townsmen gang-rape the concubine all night long and she dies. Her husband, the biblical priest, simply takes a knife, cuts up her dead body, and callously moves on. Here, the woman was essentially treated as a commodity fit for rape. Anyone reading The Bible would have to confront the fact that its teachings are unethical and against the feminine. However, if one believed that The Bible is a divinely-inspired scripture, one would then rationalize such teachings and conclude that the victim must have asked for the rape and blame her for her misfortune.
The foundational teachings of The Bible portrayed women as defiling and as obstacles to salvation thus effectively portrayed them as an “out-group.” The feminine sexuality evoked suspicion and hostility. The researches of the Israeli psychologist George Tamarin which Dawkins summarizes demonstrate that once someone (in this context, women) is portrayed as an “out-group” deserving of hostility, believers of biblical religions are quick to conclude that the victim (in this context, of rape) is blameworthy. Tamarin presented a group of teenagers the biblical account of the battle of Jericho in which Joshua called on his followers to exterminate every man, woman, child, and cattle of the “out-group” and to take possession of their material belongings to fulfill the will of God. According to The Bible, God’s will was fulfilled. Tamarin asked the teenagers whether they approved of the extermination of “out group” and 74% of the children approved of it and insisted that the victims were blameworthy. Tamarin then de-contextualized the story and presented it to another group of teenagers. In this version, The Bible and Joshua were replaced with the Chinese General Lin who too exterminates a rival kingdom. Now, only 7% approved of General Lin’s conduct thereby proving that once The Bible designates someone as the “out group,” the followers of Christianity (and other biblical religions) are quick to conclude that the victims are blameworthy.
As a consequence of possessing “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility,” Christian societies have historically blamed the victims of rape because those women were perceived as the “out-group” who somehow induced their rapists into a “defiling” act. This attitude is prevalent in contemporary American society as well. The University of Michigan psychologists Jane Sheldon and Sandra Parent, in their study Clergy’s Attitudes and Attributions of Blame toward Female Rape Victims, p. 13, point out that in 20% of cases America’s Christian clergy blame the victim. They also show that more conservative a clergyman is the more likely he is to blame the victim of rape.
The Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape entered India by two different routes. Firstly, Islam had inherited a negative view of the feminine sexuality from The Bible. The Islamic custom of veiling its women was borrowed from Byzantine Christianity and was intended to suppress the feminine sexuality. Such attitudes entered India along with Islamic invasions. Secondly, under the British, French, Portuguese, and Dutch Christian colonial rule, these attitudes were repeatedly reinforced and imposed on Indians. As a result, some Indians acquired this harmful meme. Jad Adams, in Gandhi: Naked Ambitions, shows that Gandhi initially had a normal view towards sexuality until, in his mid-30s, he served in the British Ambulance Corps and came under Christian missionary influence. After that, he started practicing celibacy and internalized the Christian notion that sex (and as a corollary, the feminine) is defiling. It is reasonable to conclude that during the same period he also inherited the Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape. The influence of Gandhi on modern India has been unhealthily enormous. Sadly, as a result of his influence, some contemporary Indians too blame the victim of rape.
Modifying the Christian Meme
Some Christians have attempted to repudiate the notion of “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” insofar as treating women as out-group is concerned. In a biblical story recounted in John 8:3-11, the crowd is clamoring to stone a woman accused of adultery. Jesus cleverly declares that the one who has never sinned might cast the first stone. The crowd goes silent and the woman is spared. As Bart Ehrman shows in Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed The Bible and Why, pp. 63-65, this story is a late interpolation into The Bible and did not originally belong in the text. In other words, someone interpolated this story and attributed it to Jesus. Leviticus 20:10 mandates an adulteress to be stoned to death and Jesus himself confirms in Matthew 5:17 that he has come to fulfill such mandates. So, even a diehard Christian would admit that John 8:3-11 contradicts what Jesus mandates elsewhere.
Scholars such as Zacharias Thundy (Buddha and Christ – Nativity Stories and Indian Traditions), Roy Amore (Two Masters, One Message – The Lives and Teaching of Gautama and Jesus), Burnett Hillman Streeter (The Four Gospels – A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates), etc., have shown that many religious motifs and templates were borrowed from Buddhism through direct and indirect means and incorporated into Christianity. Ken Humphreys, in his article The Buddhist Influence in Christian Origins summarizes the numerous parallels between Buddhist traditions and Christianity to present a picture of how the latter borrowed from the former. It is well known that many pagans were forcibly converted to Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era. So, it is possible that one such convert was troubled by the “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” that characterized the teachings of The Bible and Jesus and interpolated and attributed the story recounted in John 8:3-11 to Jesus in a sincere attempt to vindicate Christian teachings. However, such stories stand in stark contrast to everything Jesus said and did and hence had little effect on the contours of Christian thinking. Nevertheless, today’s Christians should attempt to emulate the example of the interpolator of John 8:3-11 and repudiate the teachings of The Bible and Jesus which advocate “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” so that the victim of rape is not blamed in the future.
The Hindu Meme as the Antidote
Unlike Christianity, Hindu doctrines neither formulate “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” nor consider feminine sexuality as defiling. On the contrary, sexuality is considered sacred and an essential goal of life. Hindu traditions propound puruṣārtas (the four goals of life): dharma (harmony or righteousness), artha (wealth and knowledge), kāma (sacred sexuality), and optionally mökṣa (self-realization). As a result, Hindus are not ashamed of portraying their divinities using sexual narratives. Erotic sculptures adorn Hindu temples. It is considered perfectly normal, or even desirable, for a Hindu woman to learn Bharatanāṭyam and express her passion for her divine lover using śṛṅgāra rasa (dance expressions of erotic love).
This healthy attitude towards feminine sexuality traditionally enabled Hindus to perceive rape as a mahāpātaka (grave sin) and to view the victim of rape with compassion. In my previous article, Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine in the Aftermath of Delhi Gang-Rape, I showed how The Devala Smṛti, instead of blaming the victim of rape, enabled her to once again announce her sanctity. One more example would help understand how Hinduism dealt with rape. In The Rāmāyaṇa, the powerful villain Rāvaṇa once rapes the apsara (a heavenly woman) Rambhā, who then narrates her traumatic suffering to her husband. Her husband is not powerful enough to confront Rāvaṇa so he instead curses him that should Rāvaṇa ever again touch a woman against her will his head would split and that he would die. He does not blame Rambhā at all and she continues to enjoy the status of an apsara in Hinduism. Even more pertinently, Hindu texts cautioned against the tendency to commoditize women. The Tamiḷ sacred text, The Tirukkuraḻ, mandates a man not to look at any woman other than his own wife with lustful eyes. A society conditioned by such ethos does not blame a woman in the unfortunate event when she is raped. It is such noble teachings that serve as an antidote to the harmful Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape and enable us to guard against the tendency to blame the victim of rape.
The tendency to blame the victim of rape follows the universal tendency to blame the victim of any traumatic incident. The victim of rape herself often indulges in self-blame because of her belief rooted in the notion of “just world” that induces her to think that she failed to exercise sufficient control over self-behavior as a result of which she was raped. She then infers, albeit incorrectly, that if she modified her behavior she could avert rape in the future. The tendency to blame the victim is not per se cultural but is rooted in evolutionary neurobiology. Human beings are genetically predisposed to irrational thoughts and, as the neuroscientist Allman shows, often rely upon social stereotypes to intuitively blame the victim of rape. It is only years later, if at all, they use facts to arrive at a reasonable judgment about rape. At the same time, social stereotypes that the neurological processes depend on are the products of culture. It is in that sense that culture becomes relevant.
Historically, The Bible ushered in the worldview of “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility.” In this worldview, women were treated as the “out-group” whose presence defiled Christian men and prevented their salvation. As a result, Christian societies are predisposed to blame the victim of rape because she is not seen as the victim but as someone who has been instrumental in “defiling” Christian men. Islam subsequently borrowed this biblical notion of “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility.” Indian society (and many other societies colonized by Christianity or Islam) inherited this terrible meme as a consequence of centuries of Islamic and Christian colonial rule. In the modern context, individuals such as Gandhi inherited this Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape and passed it on to their followers.
It is not only the negative Christian stereotypes that influence the neurological processes rooted in Von Economo neurons resulting in the victim of rape getting blamed. Positive stereotypes such as the ones embodied in India’s sacred teachings that extol the feminine can influence the same neurological processes too. It is our duty to promote those memetic traits that extol the feminine so that society does not blame the victim of rape in the future. Christians, on their part, have an obligation to repudiate the teachings of The Bible and Jesus which treat women as an “out-group” and revise them.
Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, and a practicing orthodox Hindu.
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