Sadly – so sadly – the girl brutally gang-raped in India has died; with a society in uproar, Bob Ellis considers the plight of women in an unfair world.
THE RAPED GIRL in India – popularly dubbed Nirbhaya, the 'Fearless One' – has died now and a whole society in uproar will find new laws, no doubt, to enact in memory of her.
But this is a part of the world where forced marriage, bride-burning, and, not so long ago, suttee (the immolation of young wives on their elderly husbands’ funeral pyres) showed how little women mattered in the scheme of things, and this has not greatly changed in many households and temples and religions these thousand years.
It is the great unspoken fact of modern life that religions, even now, are written across the bodies of their women like tattoos.
Girls are honour-killed by their brothers for dating an infidel because Islam, or some sects of Islam, will have it so. Amish and fundamentalist Mormon and some Indigenous girls are forcibly betrothed at eight and ten to older men, or sometimes routinely deflowered at puberty by village elders, like those of Pitcairn Island. Arranged marriages, and my mother’s was one, have been the norm in most of human history; shotgun marriages in the last two hundred years in Australian country towns a commonplace.
It is as though what is owed to a woman as her right is such a new thought in the world, it has barely been defined, or even thought upon.
For what has succeeded these old enforced arrangements – the dream of Sex and the City – is not all that agreeable either. Girls in their twenties may be sexually used by a man for six months, a year, and cast aside. Or two years, aborted, and cast aside. Or, worse, for ten years, childlessly, and cast aside when they are thirty-two.
Not many laws prevent this, though it is devastating as divorce, to girls who embrace it as part of their ‘freedom’. As in Muslim countries, a man may seek a younger ‘mate’ when he has worn out the old one. Across the world, this is seen as his right, as Rupert Murdoch, Hugh Hefner and Tom Cruise have shown. You find fresh stimulus when bored by habit, and loyalty has no claim on you.
It has been pointed out that marriages, up to 1800, were five to fifteen years long. A woman dead in childbirth, a man dead in war, or plague, or prison, or chance infection, would allow the survivor to move on, marry younger, have other children, be indulged as famed men are now. And the seventy-year marriage, like the Whitlams’, is an untried novelty still, and we have not yet come to grips with it.
But this reasoning, surely, ducks round what matters most — which is a debt owed. To a woman who in pain and risk has borne your child, you owe, at the least, a constancy of cohabitation. You owe her graduations, weddings and grandchild christening photographs — uncontaminated by the smiles of your new young wife.
It is right that this should be so. It is part of the civility we seek in this; a fair- go society, surely. And it should be enshrined in laws more punishing than we have now.
In the older days, when families had five or six children in them, this loyalty was automatic. Too many bonds of blood and grandparenthood and family Christmases kept you together. But now, with, sometimes, one gay child and no other, it is getting more fragile. And new thoughts, new rules, new support groups – where once there were churches, and church congregations, and stable neighbourhoods, and many siblings – are needed now.
We are dying alone of strangeness. And it is a pity.
* UPDATE: 2/1/13: The composite image of the rape victim originally shown on this page, though given to IA in good faith from a usually reliable source, appears to have contained an image of a different and unrelated 'Nirbhahya'. IA apologises for this error and any distress or confusion caused as a result.
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