Nicholas Kristof, co-author of the esteemed book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity Worldwide and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, expressed his outrage at the recent death of Hena, a 14 year old Bangladeshi girl, in his op-ed piece “When a Girl Is Executed…for Being Raped.” The young girl died from complications caused by receiving seventy lashes as punishment for being raped by an older cousin. In his article Kristof briefly discusses the role of imams and other cultural norms in the proceedings but states, “…this was a brutal attack on a helpless girl in the name of sharia and justice.”
When we in the United States hear of this and similar cases, it can be easy to adopt a somewhat distanced perspective based on the idea that we are “beyond” such brutality. But we should remember that we too still struggle with our own rape culture. That 1 in 6 women in the US will be victims of sexual assault speaks to the overwhelming pervasiveness of that culture in society. Unfortunately, we have often seen the tendency toward victim blaming rather than questioning the violence, whether sexual or intimate partner, itself. As Kristof states, “the crime lies not in being raped, but in raping.”
Thankfully we do not live in a society that kills or physically punishes rape victims but we should still take this opportunity to acknowledge the decrease in reported sexual assault cases and the improvements in handling rape that have been made in the past few decades but should perhaps also take note of how recently some of the changes have occurred.
For example, North Carolina did not do away with the spousal exemption in their rape laws until 1993. This means that until 1993 it was not recognized as a crime when a husband raped his wife. Even now that spousal rape is recognized as a crime, it is not uncommon for victims of spousal rape to have additional burdens in proving rape occurred in these particular situations. This signifies that the legal system may still be operating under a preconceived notion of the rarity of spousal rape and a general tendency toward victim blaming.
Our hearts go out to victims of rape worldwide. Like Kristof, we hope that their stories have not been in vain and that countries worldwide will soon reexamine their own ways of addressing rape.