News that the medical student brutally raped in New Delhi a few days ago has died of her injuries ought to give us all pause. Violence against women is tolerated in many societies, including our own. If that seems to you very shocking and makes you want to protest, you have clearly not listened to some of the terrible stories I have listened to in the course of my monastic life. What particularly struck me about some of them was the fact that otherwise decent, kindly men seemed to think it acceptable to slap or strike their wives/partners for what they (the men) perceived as domestic failures — a dish not cooked to their liking, forgetting to buy a particular brand of toothpaste and so on. The violence wasn’t always physical, of course. Some of the insults and disparaging remarks still make me wince. Also upsetting is the memory of those occasions where the man blamed the woman, ‘She provoked me. She made me do it.’ I don’t believe it. We can all restrain our fist if we want to. The truth is, we don’t want to; and we’re only annoyed when we don’t get away with it.
Now, I am not suggesting that women are always right and men always wrong; nor am I suggesting that violence is always male on female; but women are much more vulnerable, if only because we aren’t usually as big and heavy as men. The inability of the Indian government to do anything constructive about the situation in New Delhi highlights the basic problem that needs addressing. We need to change the culture which allows women to be perceived as of less value or consequence than men. By that I don’t just mean making it unacceptable to assault or rape women, but making it unacceptable to disparage or belittle women simply for being women. Where there is no respect, no real respect, all kinds of gross behaviour become possible.
It is important to note that what I am talking about is not equality but respect. Equality can be measured; respect cannot. The Christian Churches bear a great responsibility in this matter but I’m not sure we live up to it. Some of the comments following the Church of England Synod’s rejection of the Measure to admit women to the episcopate were embarrassing in their contempt; some of the remarks made about nuns (usually meaning religious sisters) in my own Church have made me very hot under the wimple at their arrogance and injustice; I’m sure you could think of other examples for yourself.
Today we celebrate the feast of St Thomas Becket whose thinking about a difficult question of the day led him into conflict with the king. Perhaps we all need a bit of Becket in us on precisely this question of violence against women. Unless we show that it is unacceptable in all its forms, major and ‘minor’, it will go on being tolerated; and the brutal truth is more women will die. I don’t want that on my conscience. Do you?
N.B. For thoughts on St Thomas Becket and conscience, see this post.