Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Re-defining Rape in Taiwan?

It's worth taking a moment to read Chen Yi-chien's editorial in the Taipei Times today: Rape law needs to be reformed.

I wasn't sure I got her point, exactly, in the beginning: it sounded as though the current law on the books is comprehensive and not anti-women's rights. This is a big change from how things used to be - a "crime against public decency" that valued chastity, and not the sexual autonomy of women. It's sad that the women of Taiwan had to wait until 1999 for that to happen - really? For serious? 1999? The old law sounds like something from the 19th century. It just goes to show that the advent of women's rights in Taiwan, which now make it one of the best - if not the best - country in Asia for women is a relatively recent reform in both culture and law. So recent that at times it still seems tenuous.

The reason for her writing of the editorial was that, after a bit of public debate and outrage last year due to "a number of" accused rapists being aquitted when they allegedly shouldn't have been, there was a proposed change:

...the Ministry of Justice and the Executive Yuan have seen fit to act in the wrong way, so wrong that I am very angry. They came up with a proposal to reform the rape law. One of the major revisions was the removal of a phrase that an offense was committed “against the will of the victim” (違反意願).

I completely agree with Chen that while this may seem to be a solution on the surface - that the prosecution would no longer need to prove that the act was against the victim's will, theoretically making it easier to reach a conviction - that what it in fact does is remove the idea of sexual autonomy from the law and make it again about chastity. If rape isn't about consent or will, then what is it about? As Chen says, "so are we heading back to the good old days of 'presence of force?'" Can we trust the proposed change or are they trying, as in the USA, to re-define rape and make it so that a woman has to fight nearly to the death - to the point where further resistance is impossible - in order for the crime to count as "rape"?

Being cynical as I am, I fall on the side of "can't trust 'em", especially in a KMT-led government.

Although I'm just as cynical about the DPP, the KMT has a lousy track record on promoting women's rights (and female politicians - ahem). It is true that a significant chunk of current laws aimed at women's rights were passed in 1998 and 1999 - just before the DPP took the presidency, which you think would speak well of the KMT: but I can't help but wonder if it was done in an attempt to court the female vote in 2000 and not necessarily out of a genuine caring for the rights of women (if it had been, why didn't they pass those laws earlier, when their tenure was not in danger)?

As a result, I am leaning towards interpreting the proposed change negatively, as Chen is. It reminds me of the recent debacle in the USA in which the Republicans sought to re-define rape, insinuating through language that there is a difference between rape and "forcible rape" (and, with clever use of language, making it so that an abortion will only be a procedure eligible for government funding if the rape is "forcible"). It sounds so similar that it kind of gives me shivers.

And yet, I was still wondering from where her desire for reform stemmed. Towards the end of the piece it became clear:

Through the so-called democratic process, the rape law can easily be changed; a phrase dropped here, or a few more years to a prison term added there. The legal culture will never change until we come forward and change the perception that just because a female does not scream herself to death or fight for her chastity until death, she has agreed to engage in a sexual act.

She is absolutely right - the law as it is now protects a woman's sexual autonomy and defines rape as a sexual act with a "lack of consent" - but it is all to easy to change that, and all too easy to do that without raising public ire if done quickly and quietly enough. The reform needs to be in the acceptance that rape is a sexual act with a lack of consent, is a violation of sexual autonomy (not chastity), is not so much an issue of "public decency" but is a crime against a person's body and has nothing to do with how much force was used and how much the woman tried to resist it. This needs to be immutable - this needs to be so obvious as to be a tautology. That's where true reform lies.

The scary parallel here isn't just the outdated and frankly misogynist attitudes behind attempts to change the law, but that we (both American and Taiwanese women) live in cultures where this could even be considered - in the USA the push to de-fund abortions in most cases was made by the conservatives and we all know that they're not exactly pro-women's rights (as much as Sarah Palin may disagree, she can go...well...you can fill in the rest). Here in Taiwan, the push to "re-define rape" ostensibly stems from a push to help women and further the cause of justice in the realm of women's rights. The fact that that is where this proposal would come from is far scarier, indeed.

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