Why we're all guilty in abuse of women

Story highlights

  • Phoebe Schreiner: We react in horror at comments in BBC doc where India rapist says women err in fighting back
  • But she says Americans should look inward at their own tolerance for violence against women, demonstrated in sobering assault stats
  • Schreiner: We dodge accountability for misogyny and sexual abuse in our own culture by focusing on countries that are "the other"

Phoebe K. Schreiner is vice president and U.S. country director for Breakthrough, a global human rights organization working to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"India's Daughter," the BBC Four documentary about the infamous 2012 gang rape in Delhi, premiered in the U.S. last week.

If you haven't seen it, you have likely heard selections from the film's interview with Mukesh Singh, who is on death row for the crime.
"A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," he says. "When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent."
    Certain other men interviewed for the documentary say such things as, "In our culture, there is no place for a woman" and that if a daughter or sister "engaged in pre-marital activities ... I would put petrol on her and set her alight." Note: Those men are not rapist-murderers. They are their lawyers.
    Many (I'd like to think most) of us cringed at these comments and their garishly clear misogyny. But these words were not just a window into one uniquely deranged soul. Let's be clear: Singh is just reading -- perhaps more loudly and cruelly than others, but still -- from a cultural script we all share.
    Yes, we all. Perhaps your first thought when you heard or read those words was, "Violence against women is really bad...in India." And in many ways, of course, it is. Reports this weekend of a robbery at a Christian school in eastern India, in which, officials said, one of the assailants allegedly raped a 70-year-old nun, add to the narrative.
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    But as unfathomable as this brutality is, we must resist the temptation to presume some sort of American violence-against-women exceptionalism, making others the bad guys while crowing about "how far women have come" in the United States. Or to say, "Sure, we still have issues, but not like that."
    I know that temptation is there. Our global human rights organization, based in the U.S. and India, works to inspire individuals and institutions to drive the culture change needed to make violence against women unacceptable. When I describe our work -- including our campaigns and issues in both countries and beyond -- the questions people ask often reveal their at least initial assumption: that we here in the U.S. are working solely to stop violence against women in India.
    Yet we do have issues in the U.S., issues "like that." We have mass murderer Elliot Rodger, who before he killed six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista California last year, wrote his own 137-page version of that same misogynist script. We know from "The Hunting Ground," documentarian Kirby Dick's film about sexual assault on college campuses -- also now in theaters -- that multitudes of women, and many men, have had violated their right to an education free from violence.
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    We know that women are leaving the tech industry, Wall Street, and Internet feminism in droves due to untenable discrimination and violence. We know that women (and people of all genders) are assaulted by strangers and intimates every day. And what of the response? As Zak Cheney-Rice noted, discussing "India's Daughter" in Mic.com, "from India to the U.S., citizens and officials alike display a troubling inclination to sympathize with rapists and vilify their victims."
    A United Nations report released last week, marking the 20th anniversary of the landmark women's rights conference in Beijing, confirms that (as The New York Times put it) "violence against women -- including rape, murder and sexual harassment -- remains stubbornly high in countries rich and poor, at war and at peace." Everywhere.
    We can't relegate such violence to "the other," to the "not here, not us, not me." To do so is not only incorrect, it is damaging. Yes, we must be concerned for the human rights of all the world's citizens. Yes, violence against women varies in form and degree. But to imagine that violence against women happens only, or mostly, "somewhere else," is exactly what keeps the culture of violence alive at home. Concern for others does not absolve us of responsibility for ourselves.
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    Likewise, the extreme actions or words of a few marquee misogynists, wherever they live, do not absolve us. We must all ask ourselves: To what degree do we repeat those scripts, or stay silent when we hear them from others? Our actions, and inactions, fuel the culture from which both extreme and everyday violence and discrimination emerge.
    We cannot furrow our brows about India, or any of those "others" -- abusive men in fraternities, for example -- and be done. Indeed, "India's Daughter" premiered in the U.S. with the intent of drawing attention to gender inequality and sexual violence worldwide.
    So let's bring about the day when the next buzzworthy documentary is about the women and men and allies of all genders who have stepped up, together, to say no more: not in my home, not in my school, not in my country, not anywhere.