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The trouble with ‘eve-teasing’: Some perceptions on sexual harassment and violence in India April 5, 2013

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Nishank Motwani

India is a dangerous country for women and the government is part of the problem rather than the solution. That was the overwhelming conclusion I observed when speaking to men and women on a visit to India (my home country) following the brutal gang rape of a twenty-three year old medical student in Delhi on the night of December 16, 2012. The victim of that heinous act of sexual violence succumbed to her injuries two weeks later, demonstrating the viciousness of the assault that destroyed her life and that of her family. Since then, three horrific cases in March 2013 have highlighted yet again the danger women face in India – the gang rape of a Swiss woman camping with her husband while on a cycling trip through Madhya Pradesh (central India), a British woman jumping off the balcony of her hotel room in Agra fearing a sexual assault by the hotel’s manager and security guard who tried to forcefully enter her room at 3.45am, and the thrashing of a twenty-two year old woman and her father by policemen in Punjab after she sought police assistance against a group of men sexually harassing her.

“Why do men rape?” and “why don’t men consider “eve-teasing” to be the equivalent of sexual harassment?” are just a few of the countless questions being raised by those campaigning for better protection of women and for gender equality in the country. The use of the casual term “eve-teasing” to describe acts of name-calling, following, touching, stalking and even groping of women is particularly troublesome as it strips away the seriousness of the act of sexual harassment. Furthermore, as the term ‘eve’ has Biblical origins in reference to Eve, the first woman, the word insinuates a temptress nature in women, implying that they have somehow provoked the behaviour of men who engage in such acts.

Not only is the term employed by offenders to reduce the perceived magnitude of their unwanted advances towards women but it also features prominently in the lexicon of government officials, police officers, religious leaders, state and federal ministers and members of parliament, which reflects their insensitivity towards crimes of sexual harassment and violence. Existing legislation such as the “Delhi Prohibition of Eve Teasing Bill” (1992) and the “Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Eve-Teasing Act” (1998) make evident the imprudent acceptance of the euphemism of ‘eve-teasing’ in the Indian legal system.

Making a mockery of the victim and blaming her for the indecent acts of the culprits is all too common in India. Consider the following remark made by Abhijit Mukherjee, a member of parliament and the son of Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India, in response to the protests against the gang-raped victim in Delhi that “Women who are participating in candle-light vigils and those who are protesting have no connection with ground reality. These pretty ladies coming to protest are ‘highly dented and painted’” women “who go from discos to demonstrations.” Revealing yet another abhorrent perspective akin to the junior Mukherjee’s was the comment by Asaram Bapu, a renowned spiritual leader who blamed the victim for her gang rape, saying that “a mistake is not committed from one side”.

The Indian police—better known for being insensitive in dealing with crimes of sexual violence than for empathising with victims of such attacks—was recently caught expressing its callous attitude (on hidden camera) toward victims of sexual assault to a leading investigative journalism publication. In a secret recording of the personal opinions of over thirty senior Indian police officers in the National Capital Region of New Delhi, an Additional Station House Officer (SHO), Yogender Singh Tomar, stated that “In reality, the ones who complain are only those who have turned rape into a business”, or in other words, all rape cases for Tomar are business transactions for sex gone bad. Consider another view, this one of Inspector Sunil Kumar, who said that “No rape can happen in Delhi without the girl’s provocation.” Such a mind-set of blaming the victim—and thus reinforcing the supposedly temptress nature of women—is also shared by Sub-Inspector Roop Lal, who explained his hypothesis as this:

“If a girl asks for a birthday party and is alone with 2-3 boys and sees they are drinking, she knows what is likely to happen. When she herself goes for such a party, she can’t complain of rape. How can you call it rape if she is sitting and drinking with them? You are a student and have brain of your own. Why are you going out with them?”

If it seemed these deplorable statements and hence perceptions could not get any worse, then a sitting member of the Indian parliament’s remarks at a press conference in February 2013 surely crossed that threshold. Referring to a shocking sexual assault case known as the “Suryanelli gang rape” of 1996, where a 16-year old girl was kidnapped and gang-raped by forty-two men for forty days, the MP from the state of Kerala where the atrocity took place, K Sudhakaran, labelled the victim “as a prostitute, making money and accepting gift[s].” The victim of the Suryanelli gang rape has received little (if any at all) justice as the Kerala High Court acquitted all but one of the thirty-six accused in the case in its 2005 verdict. The victim’s family appealed the court’s ruling without delay however due to the Indian judicial system’s overload it took eight years before the case reached the Supreme Court in January 2013. A fresh hearing of the case is scheduled to begin on April 2.

Appalling as much as these mind-sets are, they are neither scarce nor unrepresentative of entrenched social attitudes in men which cut across all social, economic, class, caste, racial and religious divides in India. In my own experience several years ago I was horrified to have witnessed a young man, probably in his late teens, at an exclusive Delhi five-star hotel’s bar hurling threats of “I’ll rape you now…I’ll teach you a lesson” for reasons unknown to a terrified young teenaged girl. Thrown out of the hotel for his unruly behaviour, he drove off in a fit of rage with his friends in a brand new Mercedes—clearly indicating that some men use rape or the threat of sexual violence as a tool to punish women, irrespective of their socio-economic or educational status.

Why are such attitudes and acts of violence towards women still being tolerated in India today? The big challenge for those seeking to address the situation is that gender inequity has been inherited from India’s past. For instance, in northern Indian states where kinship structures are more patriarchal and male-centred, it is more likely that males and not females are perceived as the major source of economic, social, and political power. Consequently, scarce economic resources are allocated to male children, whereas females are neglected and regarded as contributing to the family’s debt rather than its assets. Other inherited cultural norms demand that cooperation and economic assistance be sought only from male relatives, or equate ‘family honour’ and lineage on the birth of male children, while inheritance rules prohibit women from receiving family assets. Sadly, the lower social and economic worth attributed to women has led to high rates of female foeticide and infanticide.

All of these discriminatory cultural norms ensure the undervaluation of females and their relegation to the bottom rank in a patriarchal society. While the persistence of traditional cultural norms reinforces gender inequality in India, the empowerment of women through higher education and greater economic independence has paradoxically led to a situation where women are regarded as being morally ‘loose’ for returning late from work, dressing in jeans, dancing, drinking with friends, driving cars, or for looking sexy. Unfortunately, men are using these unacceptable stereotypes to blame women for unwanted sexual advances.

The key point that emerges from the above overview of perceptions of sexual violence in India is this: In a society with ingrained patriarchal positions where males are generally favoured over females from the womb to adulthood, a combination of coercive laws further criminalising sexual violence, backed by an enhanced policing presence to protect women—although necessary—is insufficient. Demands for judicial reform and enhanced policing presence are necessary, but more important is the need for a sustained dialogue that wrestles with codified gender-based discriminatory cultural norms and practices. Until then, it is fanciful to think that harsher punishment (including the death penalty) will deter perpetrators from committing acts of sexual violence against women or for that matter result in changing the attitudes of so-called ‘eve teasers’, let alone sensitize the police force’s attitude in relation to victims of sexual harassment and assault.

Realisation that sexual violence in India is a gendered issue and that certain deeply skewed cultural norms and practices are responsible in perpetuating it will help challenge and eventually reform distorted values and principles of male-gender superiority. However, countering these issues will require intergenerational commitment from both men and women across the full spectrum of socio-economic, caste, class, race and religious divides. Given that harsher penalties have little effect, contesting moral fault lines that give rise to gender inequity holds the key to challenging the pervasiveness of sexual crimes in India. Altering deeply entrenched, gender-based discriminatory practices and perceptions will require a long term commitment by governments and the public alike to actively promote and codify gender equality at all levels of the Indian education system.

Nishank Motwani is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales (Canberra) and co-editor of South Asia Masala

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