An unidentified young woman in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal was gang-raped by 13 men because of an order by her village’s council on January 20. The rape was a punishment by the council because she had agreed to marry a man of her choosing, Khaliq Sheikh, a village outsider. All 13 men were arrested, including the council’s chief who not only ordered, but also participated in the rape.
After hearing that an outsider had proposed to the young woman, Balai Mardi, the village’s chief, immediately started taking action against the couple. People in the village went to the woman’s house to detain Sheikh, and the next day villagers took both he and the woman to the town’s square and tied them to trees.
Mardi told the couple to pay fines of about $442, and after paying the amount, Sheik was allowed to leave. The woman’s family refused to pay the fine, which is when Mardi reportedly ordered men in the village to “enjoy her.”
She was repeatedly raped in Mardi’s hut, after which he told her that if she or her family reported the rape to the police, her house would be destroyed.
Despite the risks, the young woman and her family went to the police, and all 13 rape suspects were arrested and charged with “rape, wrongful confinement, verbal threats, and assault.”
Meanwhile, the young survivor was admitted to the hospital and is in stable condition.
Expressing a feeling of betrayal, the survivor’s mother states, “The crime was committed by our own people [who] tortured my daughter and dumped her at home late at night.” The young woman asserts that her own neighbors were among those who raped her.
In 2010, in the same region as this recent rape, village elders told a woman to take her clothes off and stand in public for having “close relations” with a man from a different caste.
Sunil Soren, a leader from another village nearby, asserts that people in the region “respect our women a lot,” but that the young rape survivor was “in an objectionable situation” that “pollute[s] the minds of youngsters.”
“In the excitement, some wrong things happened,” Soren states.
West Bengal is 7.5% of India’s population, but in 2012, the area made up 13% of reported crimes against women. This figure could be because of a higher rate of crimes or that the police in the area take rape more seriously.
Village councils are prevalent in rural parts of India, where they enforce strict values and can be involved in choosing partners for marriage. These bodies often discourage marrying outside of the village, partially for fear that communal land claims will be weakened.
Multiple rape cases in the last year have put India in the global spotlight and caused profound anger over sexual violence against women. These crimes have led to changes in law, with 20 years the maximum sentence for rape, and broader awareness of the problem in India. There is, however, little evidence that rape is more common in India than in other nations.
Like all nations, in India, many victims fear reprisals if they report sexual abuse, and this young woman in West Bengal is no exception.
During an interview, a fellow villager and family member of one of the rape suspects said that the woman “is a bad character.”
She continues, “She was going around with this non-tribal man. We told her not to, but she didn’t listen…If she dares to come back to the village, I will kill her.”
– Kaylie Cordingley