Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


Role of religious freedom in combatting violence against women in India

3 Nov, 2020

By Sharon Angel

Rape cases in India have been prevalent and have been getting a lot of attention over the past five years. Some of the most prevalent rape cases are slowly starting to bring justice to the victims of sexual abuse.

Jyothi Singh from Delhi was gang-raped by seven men on a moving bus and thrown on the side of a road, left to die (Nirbhaya case). Jyothi Singh is with us no more.

A 22-year-old photojournalist was gang-raped by five men near Shakthi Mills, Mumbai, and threatened with death if she reported the incident.

74-year-old nun raped at a convent in Ranaghat, Kolkata, along with money stolen from her before the rape. Six attackers were accused in her case.

17-year old Dalit (lower caste) girl left dead on college water tank after being raped by her physical trainer. Indian National Congress (INC) fails to prove her murder and provide justice to her father who fought the case.

Unnao’s (Uttar Pradesh) 18-year-old girl raped by BJP (Political party) leader. Case results in the BJP leader’s lifetime imprisonment for the girl’s father’s death.

8-year-old Asifa was abducted, gang-raped, and murdered in a village near Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. The case received particular attention as the Muslim girl was raped by Hindu men.

Pastor Samuel from Central India refused to stop preaching the gospel. To teach him a lesson, his 4-year-old daughter was raped by Hindu extremists in a rural village.

All the rape victims mentioned are women from various backgrounds. Whether educated, lower caste, a child, an old woman, Hindu, Muslim or Christian, a woman is in danger of losing her life. India practices multiple faiths, yet will come together to defend humanity. However, lately, it appears that religious institutions are not doing enough to educate, protect and stand on the front lines to ensure justice for the tarnished souls of this often vulnerable community.

News agencies, streaming networks, and the average man in India are doing their best to bring to light these gruesome acts so that women can feel more secure. But digital voices such as “India’s daughter” were banned due to hate speech against the government. When free speech is under attack, all anyone can do is look to religion and its leaders to find hope.

When these digital voices are shut down, who else will fight for her justice?

When Pastor Samuel experienced grief along with his family, he said that he would continue to preach and requested prayers for their family. After that, we hear no news of whether the girl was avenged, her abuser convicted, and if any measures were taken to prevent potential sexual abuse of other girls in the community.

When a leader or a follower is attacked in the name of religion, it becomes personal to the community. In this case, the Christian community was appalled and voiced concerns of religious persecution. It is true that many minority religious groups are targeted in India but right now, we can only depend on the faith communities to ensure that those who have lived through shame, guilt, suicidal intentions, emotional battles and physical bruises, find justice, restoration and hope. Religious freedom protects the freedom of an individual’s conscience. If religious leaders want that freedom for themselves, then they must have compassion and fight for the justice of victims in their own faith, then others.

What are religious communities doing to rebuild the victim’s lost identity?

When a girl is raped and her case becomes public, her whole family is humiliated. Social appearance is everything in India, but in the process of navigating through such public humiliation, the victimized daughter must become the priority and not how the family is perceived in the eyes of others. Medical care must be provided for the daughter’s physical and mental pain, no matter how old she is. On the other hand, as she feels a sense of despair and loss, it is important that society at large is taught not to lose respect for the people of other religions or religion itself.

Religion is rooted in value systems of good vs evil and justice finds base in the execution of these moral systems. So when a daughter is raped, faith communities must spearhead legal battles to ensure justice in the speedy conviction of the rapist. Different faith communities have not come together to override fear mongers or unite to hold the evildoers accountable for their wrong-doing. Our generation needs to change that.

Social standing is so important in India and that’s why many young women are pressured into becoming engineers, doctors or nurses so that they can marry well. But when a girl is stained by an unwelcome abuser, she loses her image of being pure and is shunned by society, and sadly loses her ability to marry well. On the other hand, because of her stain, she is unable to find a job, establish a career, and stand on her own two legs. Her community must join hands to restore her back to life or else she will remain in her label as an “outcast” allowing her abuser to have the final say in her future.

While we are on the topic of restoring life, religion exists to give second chances to sinners. That means rapists must also be restored back into society after they have served their sentence and undergone rehabilitation. They must be counseled and kept accountable for their actions so that these atrocities do not repeat themselves.

These might be incredibly difficult tasks to take on. They might be uncomfortable to address and it might not be the calling of religious leaders to handle these social evils. But there is one thing that anyone, regardless of their religious background, can do: Instead of locking up young girls in the name of safety, let society start a conversation about the value of the physical body. Just because we are fearful of something or someone, doesn’t mean we must close our eyes and hope evil is somehow banished from society. We find hope only when we push through fear. To push through fear we must unite, have difficult conversations and work on providing justice for the broken under the banner of religion.

Her second chance to life

Women who come out of a broken situation, usually struggle to find their identity. Sadly, one of the first aspects to shatter is their faith. Specifically, faith in humanity which trickles down to losing faith in life itself. The one institution that can restore faith while allowing her to rebuild her identity, is religion. By religion, I mean the people who point her to the God of her belief system. Today, religion does not provide a safe place for her to explore her faith. It casts her away as bruised, broken and unworthy.

Equipping such women with tools in business and job skills can change that. When she goes through an intensively gruesome situation such as rape and survives it, her will empowers her to become stronger. She is ready to work, believe and re-shape her life.

Faith communities need to allow her to rebuild her crumbled identity in relationships, career, sexuality, and desperation for justice. This restoration can take years and it is necessary that she is given the space to be emotional while healing from the trauma of her experience. Business can also play an important role in that healing process. She will not only help herself, but also help others in defining religion, bringing justice, rehabilitating health, and earning a living.

To help in the fight against rape and other crimes against women in India, religious leaders must come together, overcome fear, go beyond praying, and create safe spaces, allowing for honest and vulnerable conversations, along with counseling. Such religious institutions can play a vital role in bringing lasting change and healing to the victims of abuse and help society confront the evils done against women.

After all, victims of abuse are attempting to rebuild their identity. Invest in their rehabilitation. Don’t let rape win!

For more thoughts on identity, check out Sharon Angel’s book “The Courage to Identify Who You Are” on Amazon.