When Tantric is Code for Rape

It’s hard to believe that police would heap praise on a young woman accused of severing a man’s penis with a knife. It’s even harder to believe that such a thing would happen in India, a country with a deeply ingrained tradition of misogyny.

Some necessary, sympathy-eliciting context: The unnamed girl, a 17-year-old from the northern state of Bihar, was defending herself against the unwanted sexual advances of Mahendra Mehta, a local “tantric healer” who diagnosed the teenager, recently stricken by a mystery ailment, as having been possessed by evil spirits. Besides dispensing crackpot cures and forcing himself on his patients, Mehta is the knife-wielding girl’s uncle. And he had, she claims, raped her before

The news from Bihar comes at the height of India’s rape epidemic and extreme violence against women—and just weeks after a 7-year-old girl allegedly was raped by her neighbor, also a tantric, in West Bengal.

Indeed, recent reports have revealed a subculture of sexual predators among the country’s tantric healers. In May, a tantric healer and oil contractor in Jaipur was investigated for allegedly raping a woman, refusing to treat her husband’s spinal cord injury so long as she refused his sexual demands. And last spring, a 71-year-old tantric was arrested for allegedly raping a 10-year-old girl in Delhi who was seeking treatment for migraines. The girl’s mother was asked to vacate the room while he performed “healing rituals.”

The brutal December 2012 Delhi bus gang-rape seemingly has encouraged more women to speak out about sexual assault and roused both local and international media attention. But there is little evidence that media coverage, international scrutiny, and post-Delhi rape reforms have stemmed sexual assault in a country where, according to government statistics, a rape occurs every 22 minutes. In the wake of yet another high-profile gang rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh last month, the new national government in Delhi has promised to take action. But the impoverished state’s regional government has been flippant about tackling the rape crisis. In May, an MP condemned the death penalty as punishment for rapists and shrugged his shoulders at the hideous crime: “Boys will be boys.”

India’s teenage Lorena Bobbitt is a media sensation, and however small, hers is a victory in the war on the country’s rape epidemic. But it will take a lot more than castrating one menacing tantric to turn the tide.

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