India’s Caste System Punishes Man by Ordering Rape of His Sisters

Rape is illegal in India, but local councils operating outside the law still issue sexual violence as a form of punishment.
(Photo: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)
Aug 28, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Two Indian sisters have been forced out of their home village and are on the run after local leaders said the young women should be raped and publically humiliated as punishment for their brother’s affair with a married woman.

Amnesty International has started a petition on behalf of 23-year-old Meenakshi Kumari and her unnamed 15-year-old sister demanding protection from state authorities. As of this writing, the petition had more than 52,000 signatures.

The decision to sexually assault the sisters came down from a local council of unelected male elders—known as a khap panchayat—in retaliation for their brother’s decision to elope with a married woman from the dominant caste, often reffered to as the Jat people. The Kumari family is part of the lower Dalit caste; once known as untouchables, members of this class have traditionally been excluded from the rest of Indian society.

Rape, caste discrimination, and retaliatory punishments are all illegal nationally. Yet all three remain common in rural parts of India, particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Kumari family lives. The entrenched patriarchal traditions favored by councils take the form of so-called eye-for-an-eye reprisals. Women are regarded as property that can be ruined by sex; raping the sisters would dishonor the Kumari household in the same way the elopement dishonored the married woman’s family.

Meenakshi approached India’s Supreme Court last week to ask for intervention, according to the Times of India. She alleges that police officers, along with members of the Jat caste, have harassed and tortured her family. The high court requested that the state government investigate and protect the women as well.

But state governments are often part of the problem, as they turn a blind eye to the councils called “wholly illegal” by the Indian Supreme Court in 2011. They’re able to act with impunity in part because of silent support from legally elected officials, who need their votes to stay in office, according to The New York Times. Police officers are known to conspire with members of the dominant caste and ignore reports of violence against Dalit people, Amnesty reports.

Societal perceptions have begun to shift in recent years, with rape regarded as an assault on women rather than an action that shames men. The country revised its laws in 2013 to allow capital punishment when rape cases result in death, and a 2014 law outlawed the “two-finger” test for rape survivors. But the caste system leaves Dalit women and girls at risk, with past studies indicating that they represent upwards of 90 percent of all rape victims.