The rapid spread of the #MeToo in India has had little impact on the number of cases of sexual assault and harassment towards women. No surprises there in a country that’s known for victim bashing.
“She was asking for it.”
We’ve all heard this before, haven’t we? Why was she hanging out in a nightclub after 9 pm? Why was she wearing that skimpy little dress? She drinks and smokes, that should tell you enough about her character. She wasn’t a virgin anyway...so why make such a fuss?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is India’s standard, tone-deaf default reaction in dealing with women brave enough to speak out against sexual assault and harassment. If you’re a woman living in this country, you’ve probably been subject to those accessing, invasive and threatening stares on the streets—from the minute you developed breasts. Sometimes, even before.
You would think that with the rapid spread of a movement as effective as #MeToo in the country, the number of cases of sexual assault and harassment towards women would witness a sharp decline. However, if anything, Twitter and other public forums have been abound with ego-affronted Indian men stating that women are “too busy playing the victim” and “framing” innocent men, for the movement to be considered credible.
And if you’re really looking to see red, a time-consuming scroll through these comments will reveal these men (and sometimes, horrifyingly even women) bleating on about how the women who have come forth and spoken out against their harassers or abusers, were - as expected - “asking for it”.
These self-proclaimed paragons of male virtue take great delight in turning the narrative against the woman in question. And the narrative? You guessed it. “She led him on, He must have said no to her and she’s taking revenge, Why is she acting like a pure, chaste virgin...she isn’t.”
Um, so? Remember Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink? The Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu-starrer movie, in a first for Bollywood, smashed this pitiable defence, when after being labelled prostitutes by the very men who had assaulted Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari says: “yes, we’re prostitutes, but it still doesn’t give them a right to assault us.”
This movie also perfected in presenting the all-too familiar ‘victim bashing’ this country revels in. Taapsee Pannu and her friends were torn apart by the accused, their lawyers, and their families for being promiscuous women who were inviting sexual favours and were now making much ado about nothing.
Unfortunately, victim blaming doesn’t end in the four-screen of a cinema hall. Ugly tales about female employees being sexually harassed at work and then having their reputation besmirched are a troublingly familiar experience.
In October, the Human Rights Watch came out with a report labelled No #MeToo for Women Like Us’: Poor Enforcement of India’s Sexual Harassment Law, where they highlighted the Indian government’s failure to enforce in practice its sexual harassment law—as a result of which millions of Indian women in the workspace are left exposed to abuse.
Detailing this further, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The #MeToo movement helped to shine a light on violence and harassment at work, but the experiences of millions of women in India’s informal sector remain invisible. India has progressive laws to protect women from sexual abuse by bosses, colleagues, and clients, but has failed to take basic steps to enforce these laws.”
The 2013 POSH Act, which is built upon 1997 Vishaka Guidelines set out by the Supreme Court, mandates employers to take steps in protecting their female employees from sexual harassment. However, and unsurprisingly, the norm of rejecting a victim’s complaint of harassment and tarnishing her reputation and career—is a more common practice within the Indian workforce. As a result of this, many women are too afraid to even speak up. Never mind the social stigma that comes with being the victim, in the first place.
But, are we really surprised? We live in a country where our politicians - elected politicians - lead the march on victim blaming.
In 2017, a 29-year-old woman had alleged that she was being stalked by Haryana BJP chief Subhash Barala's son Vikas Barala and his friend Ashish Kumar. Not only was the CCTV camera footage in question missing, the state unit of the party had said: “The girl should not have gone out at 12 in the night. Why was she driving so late in the night? The atmosphere is not right. We need to take care of ourselves.”
On December 31, 2016, a mass molestation of a group of young women celebrating New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru hit the papers. The then Home Minister G Parameshwara, in an interview, had blamed the women for dressing and acting “Western” and inviting unwarranted attentions. “A large number of youngsters gathered...youngsters who are almost like Westerners...they try to copy Westerners not only in mindset, but even the dressing, so some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen,” he had said.
In 2015, former UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav sparked outrage among the masses, when in response to the conviction of three men accused in a gangrape case, he had said: “The poor fellows, three of them have been sentenced to death. Should rape cases lead to hanging? Boys are boys, they make mistakes.”
In 2012, after a woman had alleged being gangraped in a car after leaving a nightclub in Park Street in Kolkata, several ministers and leading voices courted controversy by maligning her character. TMC leader Madan Mitra had remarked: “She has two children, and so far as I know, she is separated from her husband. What was she doing at a nightclub so late at night?”
And the list goes on.
Other than politicians, Bollywood stars and directors, leading businessmen, and sports personalities have carried out slander campaigns against women who have named their abusers.
Despite the threats, women are coming forth and fighting back, taking on the extremely difficult task of calling out those who have violated their space and their bodies and seeking legal action for the same.
The road ahead, like anything good and worth fighting for, is not an easy one. But the gates have opened.
(Edited by Teja)