Horrors of rape victimlay bare society's unexamined prejudices

Alice Wu says the death of a woman after a gang-rape should force us to face up to any dehumanising prejudice that permits brutality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 2:36am

Over the holidays, the news about a young woman who died after being gang-raped on a bus in India shocked the world. She was not just India's latest victim of such unspeakable evil - she was the world's.

The horrors of what the 23-year-old student had to endure struck a deeply troubled chord - a chord that demands outrage as a response. In the face of something so horrendous, this is the only emotion to feel. Even before her death, her ordeal, during which she was assaulted with an iron bar, had impelled thousands to protest against crimes against women and the failure to allow women to live without fear.

The calls for an overhaul of a judicial system that blames victims of sex crimes, the need for expediting the wheels of justice, debates over punishment, and changes in attitudes towards women are all valid, and necessary. And, yet, it is not only those in India who must face the music for dragging their feet.

For those of us living outside the world's largest democracy, it is not enough to simply be outraged and shed tears.

The woman should be a reminder to all that this act of violence stems from disrespect. The lack of respect happens - in varying degrees, in different forms - every day in every place and in every culture. Now's the time to examine the social norms, the cultural "excuses", and the stereotypes that we, however inadvertently, adhere to, and hence perpetrate, in our own corners of the earth.

We must be self-aware: because any sort of change will take an enormous number of individuals examining themselves critically.

Consider how the term "leftover women" has come to be part of Hong Kong's lexicon. Is the term not a way of attaching some negative value to a single woman for being single? By employing it in our conversations, printing and repeating it in the media, we are not only legitimising the term, but also amplifying the negative connotations it carries - that single women are valued less than married women, and definitely less than our "bachelors".

The unthinking use of this term influences the way women are treated. It perpetuates false assumptions about women, and about their roles at home and at work.

And this reflection should apply not only to women. We accept assumptions made about people based on their gender, skin colour, accent, family background, age, profession and beliefs. And with these unexamined stereotypes, our own prejudices go unquestioned, and our thoughts and actions are shaped accordingly. We assign value, judge and make excuses.

We disrespect, we dehumanise, and we assign a lesser value to another life. We've already seen how a group - driven by their indefensible prejudice - proceeded to shame and violate a young woman.

A male college friend decided to make only one simple New Year resolution this year: to be a better human being.

I hope and believe this is a resolution we can all make and keep. And it begins with examining ourselves.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA