It’s with a sort of numb horror that I’m thinking about how, the same week that the Internet explodes with condemnation of Daniel Tosh and his crass gang rape joke about a female heckler at a comedy club, a young woman was attacked by a mob in Guwahati, India, while a camera crew recorded the assault. Tosh’s target went home and shared the incident on social media. Reactions spread like wildfire through Twitter, and to the news media. In so many instances, in every country in the world, it’s not just an offensive joke and the woman never gets home.
I’m not trying to dismiss the Tosh situation as trivial in comparison to actual sexual assault — although, I do think there are issues of privilege at play; we have the luxury, in America, of calling out misogynistic humor — it’s more a sad, disgusted acknowledgment that rape culture is cross-culture. It doesn’t really matter where you are. It doesn’t matter how developed the nation is. Are you a woman outside your house? Someone thinks you deserve to be raped. Do you have a job? Someone thinks you deserve to be raped. Did you accidentally look at a man? Someone thinks you deserve to be raped. There will always be a group of men who think the simple act of breathing means a woman is “asking for it.” It’s a pandemic of ignorance, this idea that the genetic lottery of being born a woman means you are a lesser creature.
I think back to a Women’s Studies class I took in college — populated by these idealistic upper middle class young women, with their desk in a circle, making passionate declarations about how a burqa is a horrible, terrible thing. As though being able to bare your legs is a grand example of gender equality. Their idea of liberation was expressly Western…as if misogyny is only perpetuated by backward, dark-skinned, foreigners too uncivilized to know better. I remember wanting to shake them, wanting to pull them from their Ivory Towers. A burqa is just a symptom, hatred and fear of women is the disease. And it knows no color boundary, no religious boundary, no racial divide.
There are countries where a woman can be put to death for being raped, because even the violation isn’t hers: It’s shame on her family, on her village, on the very fabric of society, for not keeping her in her place. If she’d been locked away, not looking, not thinking, not being, there wouldn’t be a question of her being overpowered. When you have no power, there’s nothing to take away, right? There’s no dominance to assert, because all is as it should be. Bullshit philosophy, of course, but it’s the psychology nonetheless: an ingrained, insidious belief that women’s autonomy is an affront to male superiority. It’s a threat. And what is a cornered animal’s response to a threat? To attack. Relentlessly. And those attacks span continents. They are institutional, societal, cultural…omnipresent.
We are not safe walking down the street. We are not safe on buses, subways, trains or planes. Despite the assertion that we belong at home, we’re not safe there either. We aren’t even safe in our own skins. Because, with the simple act of breathing, women dare to ask for one simple thing: to live.