By Brianna Sacks
The 2012 fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi shook India, and the world. More specifically, the event pushed rape and crimes against women to the forefront of India’s news media coverage.
Since that brutal attack, rape cases now daily appear in a slew of newspapers, and despite national outrage and demands for intensifying security measures for women, rape seems rampant and uncontrolled. The Hindustan Times observed that reported rape cases have jumped 125 percent since the December assault.
On Jan. 23, 2014, the story of another horrific gang rape captured the attention of Indian and international news media. Village elders from the small, rural town of Subalpur, in West Bengal, ordered gang rape as punishment for a 20-year-old who accepted a marriage proposal from a man who lived in a different community— and, most importantly, was an adherent of another religious tradition.
On Friday, India’s Supreme Court ordered an investigation into the incident.
The New York Times covered the story, interweaving how in some parts of tribal India, marriage to outside villagers is considered an “objectionable situation,” as one villager put it, since “marriages to outsiders will dilute communal land claims, among other concerns.”
The article gives many details about councils, but it leaves a crucial aspect of the community-supported gang rape completely untouched—religion.
Other western sources like the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, and Aljazeera America went a small step farther, reporting that the village council ordered the woman to “be enjoyed” by men of the town (13 total) because she fell in love with a man from a different religion, a Muslim. These stories use a narrow lens to tell this woman’s story because the notion that these troubling societal beliefs about women stem from generations of religion and cultural intersection that have now become enmeshed in Indian every day life.
But from Indian media? Nothing. The majority of Indian news sites say the woman accepted a proposal from a man of a “different ethnic group,” or fell in love with a man “outside her community.” Some mention that the man is Muslim, but reporting on how Hinduism — the religious affiliation of the woman and the dominant cultural force in the nation — might figure into the story is completely absent.
Bottom line, Indian media are not covering the role of religion as a key factor shaping the context in which this gang rape took place.
Specifically, no mainstream outlet—from the Times of India and India Today to India Express–explains how the local tribe’s religious beliefs might inform its strict cultural customs. Or how those beliefs govern interreligious relations.
The fact that most Western and Indian news outlets are reluctant even to scratch the surface of religion’s influence on the cultures in which rape in countenanced shows just how integral religion is to Indian societies. Religion is interwoven into all aspects of daily life. It dictates the decisions of rural community councils like the one in Subalpur, and plays a crucial role in how women are perceived and treated.
Why is violence against women tolerated in religious communities that revere female deities? Are there religious voices condemning these rapes from within Hindu communities? How do caste, class, and geography relate to religious attitudes toward intermarriage? These are important and arguably obvious questions that most mainstream news media have yet to ask.