New Internationalist

India needs to stand up to sexual predators


‘Assam’s night of shame.’ ‘Sex in the City.’ The clichéd headlines abound.

Every newspaper had an article about the young woman stripped and sexually attacked by a mob in Guwahati, Assam, earlier this month. The news was even covered in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Assam is an Indian state previously considered safer than places like Delhi. But now statistics have been trotted out claiming that in 2011, Tripura had the most registered cases of crime against women at 37 per cent, with Assam close behind at 36.9 per cent.

It’s easy to see why crimes against women continue unabated. Nothing happens, the perpetrators walk away scot free. There’s almost total impunity.

There was once a time when a sexual predator – and I refuse to use the ludicrous and trivializing term favoured by the Indian media, ‘eve teaser’– would be stopped by ordinary passersby. Not anymore.

People are afraid, because the goons have knives and guns these days. Last week, a man was killed in Coimbatore, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu because he tried to protect his young niece from harassment. Bangalore, also in the south, has been listed the second most unsafe Indian city for women after Delhi. People always assumed the south was safer, saner. Not any more.

All over India, women’s groups held protest meetings in solidarity with the victim in Assam. But there’s a feeling of helplessness, frustration and despair in the air, even among the most courageous feminists. It seems like the situation has gone totally out of control.

Donna Fernandes of Vimochana, a Bangalore women’s rights group, has been working on these issues for over 30 years. ‘What’s really disturbing is there is not a word from the powers that be,’ she says. ‘Perhaps it’s the fact that women are becoming assertive and the men are telling them “go back home where you belong”. It’s depressing and frightening.’

It was definitely safer for girls to walk down the street unaccompanied 20 years ago. Yet, why should the culprits get away with sex crimes now, with modern technology available? More police vans are on the streets with mobiles, helplines and hidden cameras.

The answer lies in another cliché: Lack of political will. Often, in Delhi, the perpetrators have political connections. They threaten the constables on duty. Police are often transferred and penalized for taking action against politicians’ sons and their friends. We need a dedicated group of police personnel, trained, motivated and allowed to do their jobs without interference.

Media coverage is another problem. We need to penalize those who use footage to titillate their viewers. In the Assam case, TV crews were busy filming the molesters in action. Their cameras focused on the groping, on the victim’s breasts and thighs. None of the camera crews tried to help her, or stop the attackers. What kind of sick society are we? And where is the Press Council? The media exposes crime but who will expose the media when it desperately needs watchdogs?

Bollywood and many regional language films glorify sexual harassment by portraying it as macho behavior, often exhibited by the hero. They treat the sexual harassment and stalking of the heroine by the hero as romantic wooing. This gives the behaviour a sense of normalcy, making it an acceptable means to an end – winning the girl.

Obviously, a few facile solutions cannot change sexual predators; the issues are complex. But definitely, it’s time the women of India got together and put up a fight. In Bangalore, Jasmeen Patheja, started a ‘name and shame’ blog called Blank Noise, asking women to take photos of the men who molest them on their mobile phones, and post their faces on the site. It’s a brilliant site and a superb start for an action plan.

I suggest every Indian city starts a similar page to name and shame men who molest. We’ve had enough platitudes and clichés. Let do something for a change. The violence must end.

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