International Women’s Day is today, and Secretary of State John Kerry will be recognizing ten women with the International Women of Courage Award. Although three of the awards will be given in absentia, a fourth has the weight of real absence. This absence is compounded by the anonymity of the recipient, whose gang-rape on a New Delhi bus in December 2012 left the world sickened and her family heartbroken. The woman being honored as a "champion for justice" is listed simply as Nirbhaya “Fearless.”
“She was the centre of our universe … a future without her is unimaginable,” her father told the press back in January. He also revealed her real name: Jyoti Singh Pandey — which begs the question, why is the State Department issuing an award to her pseudonym?
I think I can answer that, actually. Perpetuating Jyoti Singh Pandey’s initial anonymity is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. In this case, the anonymity of Jyoti Singh Pandey has been preserved by the award listings under the auspices of a victim’s prerogative for privacy.
Shielding a sexual assault victim from prying public scrutiny is certainly noble when the victim’s privacy is the true motive. In the case of Indian law, however, it is not the victim’s privacy that is paramount—but their honor. Shouldn’t the State Department act independently from that mindset?
In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff — a cowardly knight — asks “What is honor? A word … Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No.” Falstaff’s dismissal of honor as a legitimate guide for human action strikes at the root of the wrongness of the State Department’s decision to ceremoniously uphold Jyoti Singh Pandey’s pseudonym.
More often than not, the preservation of honor isn’t for the sake of the victim — but those who surround the victim. Honor-driven anonymity reaffirms that rape is something that should be stigmatized, when those who commit rape truly deserve a stigma. Caring about honor removes society from the experience of the victim — and can lead to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. And yet, "honor" persists as a guiding principle in much of global legislation regarding women.
This is very apparent in the reformation of Article 475 in Moroccan law. On March 10, 2012, Amina Filali, a Moroccan teenager, committed suicide after her parents and the government arranged a marriage to her rapist. Filali’s suicide came just two days after men and women marched through downtown Rabat, observing International Women’s Day and calling for increased gender equality.
Amina Filali’s fate was the result of Article 475 in Morocco’s penal code, which absolves anyone who corrupts or kidnaps a minor so long as they agree to marry their victim. The rationale behind this law? To spare the victim’s family the shame of being associated with a sexually impure woman. Again, honor.
Proposed changes to Article 475 are definitely an improvement — a 10-year penalty for engaging in sex with a minor is expected to pass in the parliament’s spring session. However, the Kingdom still doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of marital rape, and accords a higher sentence to those that “deflower” a minor — 20 years.
The disparity between what equality activists want, and what the changes will encompass, drives home the point that judging the severity of a crime based on what it does to a victim’s honor is terribly misguided.
In Ban Ki-moon’s International Women’s Day message he writes, “We declare that we will prosecute crimes against women — and never allow women to be subjected to punishments for the abuses they have suffered.” His resolve should require a focus on the victim rather than their honor.
Honor, as the bumbling Falstaff says, is just a word.
Both in the case of India’s privacy laws and Morocco’s proposed penal reforms, legislating based on honor leads governments to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. The facade of progress may be present, but the true interests of the female victims are in absentia.