Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir is the chairman of the Women’s Shelter in Reykjavík, Iceland. She is a published author of books and articles on violence against women and a founder of campaigns against sexual abuse and gender inequality. She owes many thanks to Birna Eik Benediktsdóttir for translating this article into English.
Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence. For the Icelandic version of this text, go to: http://tinyurl.com/ax3h5a6
A 23 year old woman decided to go to the cinema with her 28 year old male friend in Delhi, India’s capital, on Sunday the 16th of December 2012. She was studying physiotherapy, probably just finished her exams and wanted to celebrate a bit. They boarded a city bus to get home from the cinema. They started to get eerie feelings once the bus turned off its usual route and its doors were locked. Aboard the bus were six men, and as it happened, these six men had rented the bus. The woman protested and wanted to get off. Then these men started harassing the woman and her friend, asking them what they were doing out and about so late at night, just the two of them together. Then they attacked the 28 year old man, tied him up and beat him with an iron rod. From there they proceeded to dragging the woman to the back of the bus where they tore her clothes off and gang raped her for an hour. To finish off they forced the iron rod into the woman’s rectum and jerked it out again with such force that her intestine followed. The then tossed the woman and her friend out of the moving bus.
The friend escaped with bruises but the woman fought heroically for her life for the next thirteen days. All her rectal intestine had to be removed because it was totally torn apart. By the looks of it she would never be able to digest food again and would be dependent on I.V. nutrition for the remainder of her life. Her doctors and the police said that they had never been faced with such a shocking and devastating rape. They were in awe of the woman who was determined to live and made her will be known by writing: “I want to live” on a piece of paper at the hospital. Large protests broke out all over India. The angry mobs demanded that the rapists should hang, news editors wrote editorial notes regarding the Indian government’s inability to secure women’s safety and the brightest stars in Bollywood were seen visiting the hospital where the woman lay in the intensive care unit. Inspite of being flown to a hight tech hospital in Singapore for the best possible medical care, the woman died on the morning of December 29th after having survived cardiac arrest and considerable brain damage. The fight was lost. Her devastated parents, who had sold a field to pay for their daughter’s education, said that they hoped that the death of their child would lead to improvements in securing the safety of Indian women in the future. The Indian government responded by announcing ways of improvement: Darkened windows in city busses are to be banned; police presence is to be increased in the city centrum and a web page posting names and pictures of convicted rapists is to be put up.
When faced with such indescribable horror many people take comfort in focusing on the distance. “Yes but this is India, it is a poor and uneducated land far far away. This would never happen in a civilized country and let alone here in Iceland” – the society I call home. To those who think like this I want to say: I once interviewed an Icelandic woman that had been gang raped with a screw driver. In Iceland. By Icelandic men. But the discussion should not be about specific cases of women that have had to endure unfathomable violence at the hands of men. The problem is way way bigger than that. The issue regards us all.
The issue is how the constant threat to the personal safety of women is really a threat to peace all over the world.
Two days before the physiotherapy student boarded that bus in Delhi a crazy gunman charged an elementary school in the USA and shot and killed twenty six people, including twenty young children. The murder weapons were semi-automatic rifles that the shooter had stolen from his mother, Nancy Lanza, who was his first victim. The day after this horrendous act Nancy´s sister, Martha Lanza, was asked why her sister had kept semi-automatic weapons in her home. The sister simply answered “She was a woman living alone”.
In the United States of America, which is neither a third world country nor an especially uneducated far away land it is considered to be so dangerous to be a woman that some people find it normal that they keep semi-automatic war weapons in their homes. This being said it must be added that in the US alone a little shy of one million rapes occur against women every year, according to an investigation conducted by the US Justice Department.
Some can probably disregard Marta Lanza’s comment as hysteria from a gun-crazed nation. But the lack of women’s personal security and the fear propaganda directed at women is not an issue that is bound to the US. Even though studies show different results when it comes to frequency of rape here in Iceland it is safe to say that a day does not go by without someone being raped here. The constant demand for supportive measures for rape victims underlines that.
I am a young woman. During my life numerous security rules have been laid down for me due to my sex, some I have incorporated in my everyday life whilst I have chosen to let others slide by me. I have been taught not to be alone outside after dark and stay away from poorly lit areas. If I had to be outside after dark I was taught to hold my keys in my hand so they would stick out between my fingers so I could cause an assailant more damage if I had to defend myself. I was taught that If I was followed or if I was subjected to street-harassment I should not walk faster and not show any signs of fear, just punch in the emergency number on my phone if I had one and be ready to make the call. I was never to take my eyes of my drink at a bar and never accept a drink I did not see the bartender pour myself. Refrain from making eye-contact with strange men in public areas like parking spots or lifts and I was taught never to go on a date without letting someone know whom I was meeting up with and when I should be expected back. I was taught never to get too drunk, not to dress too slutty, not to flirt too openly and never accept a ride from a stranger. I was taught to scream and poke at eyes or kick the groin of the assailant if I was attacked. If I were raped I was taught not to shower, not to wash my clothes and go to the rape-centre as soon as possible… if I was ready to disregard the fact that 70% of rape charges never reach a court room.
None of these lessons kept me from being raped. A semi-automatic rifle in my home would not have kept me from being raped either. A web page with names of convicted rapists would not have helped me one bit and an increase in police presence in the city centre would have been just as useless to me. Only one thing could have kept me from being raped:
The man who raped me.
That is where the discussion needs to be. It needs to be about men’s attitudes towards women. Rape is only one manifestation of the attitude that men feel that women are not their equals, but a sub-group that they have permission to abuse. That idea does not come from nowhere. All over the world women get paid less for the same work than men, men get higher positions within business and politics and they get a lot more of the media spotlight than women do. Violence against women is not even a crime everywhere and in many places the judicial systems are completely powerless against it. The situation is so obvious that even during life’s first years the pecking order is clear, like my fiancé found out when he showed up for work at a kindergarten wearing a pink T-shirt and was ridiculed by wee little boys that mocked him for “being like some girl!”. It is okay to mock and ridicule those that simulate girls even if it´s just by their choice of colour on a T-shirt. These little boys simply felt that being a girl is beneath them.
The gang rape and murder in Delhi is not a specifically Indian issue. It is a part of the universal problem that men’s violence against women is and causes devastation all over the world on a daily basis. Unreliable safety precautions and the nonstop fear propaganda directed at women do not stop this problem. To change this we need to educate our children from the cradle upwards about equal rights so that little boys do not look with contempt upon the feminine – and grow up to be men that gang rape a woman with a screw driver here in Iceland or pull out woman’s intestines in Delhi. If all the energy put into teaching girls and women to beware of the dangerous world was re-directed and put into teaching boys that it is never acceptable to look down on women or justify any discrimination towards them – then we could say that we were on the right track. To make children believe that they do indeed have the same rights and opportunities in life we need to reject the blue/pink apartheid school of thought that divides our children into two segregated groups. We need to increase education in equality at all stages of school. We need to talk to young men about the objectification of women and why so many of them choose to watch violent pornography. We need to make sure that the combination of elected representatives truly reflects the combination of the nation they represent. We need to demand that both sexes should have equal access to power. We managed to eliminate many deadly diseases that afflicted the nation many years ago with enlightenment and synchronized efforts. Violence against women is a global epidemic that causes more deaths and disability among young women than malaria, cancer, war and traffic accidents combined. No nation has as of yet made a real effort to eradicate that disease. We are a small country and we are at the forefront of gender equality worldwide, we should be able to do this and by it shed some light into the darkness that sprouts violence.
The young woman in Delhi did not die in vain. Let’s use this opportunity – let’s change the world.
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Delhi gang rape case:
Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting:
The extent of rape in the US:
Patricia Tjaden og Nancy Thoennes, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimization : Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey, US Justice Department, 2006.
The extent of rape in Iceland:
A study on violence against women, Experiences of women 18-80 years old in Iceland, Department of social affairs, 2010.
Hrefna ólafsdóttir, Children forced to have sex, 2002.
Compilation and analysis of data from the Rape Crisis Centre in Reykjavík, the Stígamót Counselling Centre for survivors of sexual abuse, The Women’s Shelter and the State Prosecutor of Iceland.
Gender equality worldwide – The 2012 Gender Eqality Index:
Representation of women in media – The Global Media Monitoring Project:
Death and disability due to violence against women worldwide: