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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  1. #1 megaloo 31 Jul 12

    NAME your abusers! Share their names and their faces for all to see. Women unite, and organize and fight back. The authorities such as the police and government might do nothing, but that doesn't mean you can't. Shame them because what they are doing is absolutely shameful! Expose them!

    I spent 3 months in India and had my breasts grabbed on 3 occassions. Why? Because the men believe that as a westerner, I am something like a prostitute. This is idiocy! Indian men need to learn how to respect women.

  2. #2 Meghan 31 Jul 12

    Absolutely women must name these men. Share their pictures. Expose these brutes!

  3. #3 TT 31 Jul 12

    excellent article! Many well made points - media, mainstream movies, lack of political will.

    I would add, the need for police sensitization.

  4. #4 mari 31 Jul 12

    a friend from germany who wishes to remain anonymous writes ’

    Mari, thanks for your blog. I have one comment, which I did not want to send through your blog.

    Naming and shaming of individuals, like you propose it, can go very wrong. I understand your feelings and the ’easy’ proposal, naming, blaming, shaming... and the problem ist out of the world.....

    BUT, it will not be this helpful, as it continouse..... and secondly, what about those who are namend and shamed but innocent, their lifes will be over...

    you never know about the abuse of such instruments.

    I cameroon, whenever a politicians starts becoming to strong or to popular he is blamed to be corrupt, next day he is blamed to be homosexual, next day to abuse boys and kids..... all by governmental news.

    you never get to know the real story, but his political life is over.

    I just had the feeling to send you this comment, you do not need to consider it.

  5. #5 ludwig pesch 31 Jul 12

    Many (not only women!) will be grateful to you to express the unspeakable, even though quick fixes aren't in sight. The earlier comments rightly pointed this out (indiscriminate ’shaming and naming’ may also invite abuse). Perfect solutions are the domain of those utopias appropriated by dictators and populists and will remains for some time to come. Yet by succumbing to fear nothing is achieved. This makes this discussion blog so important to keep alive.
    The recent history of this issue and its ubiquity beyond the big cities was brought home to me by the angry response from a woman friend some 10 years (happily married, lives and pursues a successful career in Mumbai): to my amazement this was triggered by mentioning my happy journey to her ’native’ place for the very reasons articulated by Mari. My friend turned out to be so disgusted that she wouldn't ever want to live or, if she can help it, return there. (Considering that one's ancestral home means so much more to Indians than to ’most of us’ in the west, this means more than disgust: it's more like that mixture of raudra, bibhatsa and bhayanaka rasas with some vira rasa thrown in, that ensures India's epics will never go out of fashion in drama and movies.) Suffice to clarify here that it was her own family who blamed her for being molested by a well placed predator, who continues to pose as ’family friend’. Sadly, hers is one of the most conservative as well as prosperous, picturesque small towns in central Kerala - you know, that's ’God's own Country’: her native place is even holier due to a number Hindu and Christian sanctuaries as well as places of higher learning.

  6. #6 Lalita Ramdas 31 Jul 12

    mari, I have enjoyed reading your blogs. Just sharing a few thoughts for what they are worth.

    I agree with a lot of what you say, and what agonised and seriously concerned women, citizens are saying. Yes the issue is complex, deep rooted, buried within our cultural, religious, and social identities and psyches. The present economic and political scenario is in many ways adding to the growing sense of arrogance and supreme confidence among these gangs of men that they can indeed get away with all their predatory behaviour.

    In addition to reclaiming spaces, tightening the laws, demanding action , I believe there is one important, longer term set of interventions we do need to examine - namely working within the educational system, in the classrooms, with teachers and teacher training institutes. For change to happen in hearts and minds, we need to be able to instil a whole different set of values, encourage discussion and debate among children and also with parents. many years ago some of us called it Development Education and just simply learning to be a good citizen. It seems to have vanished totally from the agenda and the curriculum. And the kind of work being done by a few groups on gender sensitisation with institutions like police, govt depts, private companies, colleges etc, needs to be multiplied and reach out to huge numbers. Alas such groups like Sangat, Jagori, Vimochana and others are all too few and far between.

    Perhaps We can revive this idea. My first introduction to New Internationalist was through I our dev Ed programme many decades ago!! And I have used the magazine extensively to provoke discussions and debates in schools where we worked . Sorry this has become so long. Look forward to reading more and taking this forward.

  7. #7 Aloke Surin 31 Jul 12

    As you rightly state, this is a complex problem. The use of blogging and social media can be a fairly effective tool in the Name and Shame process: this was clearly demonstrated here in Vancouver during the post Stanley Cup riots on 15 June 2011 when hooligans went berserk - a lot of footage surfaced on Facebook and Twitter and the police have used it to prepare their cases for prosecution. A similar use of social media also helped to oust Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Prosecution and punishment should follow, or else it becomes just another cyber sound byte soon to be forgotten in the deluge of internet chatter.

  8. #8 BM 01 Aug 12

    I'm not sure if naming and shaming will have any effect. The named and shamed would probably wear it as a badge of honour.
    I'd try organising a ’million person family march’ on the Home Office in Delhi to pressurise politicians to start criminalsing, prosecuting and handling out severe sentences to the perpetrators.
    A family values campaign by the Press in India targetted at Bollywood and the rest of the Indian film industry would help in changing attitudes.

  9. #9 April 01 Aug 12

    Thank you Mari for writing this article. It is so true... all that u have said. I just like to add one thought. This is my personal opinion. Majority of Indian men are bought up with a very negative attitude towards women. They are taught that women are lesser and therefore they can do what they please with them. Women are thought of as those who are only good enough to cook, clean, have and take care of children/family and these are wonderful in themselves but when a woman has no other identity outside of her 'duties' and when she wants to think for herself and have dreams and hopes and aspirations, then they are seen as 'bad' and these very same men think they need to become saviours of their 'tradition and culture' and put the women back in their 'rightful plce'. This I feel is where the real problem is. While we can rest the blame on many things, one major area that needs to be tackled is the 'mindset' that many have in our society. We need some serious teaching, enlightening and re-wiring of the wrong way in which women are perceived in our society. My prayer is that God would give us the wisdom as to how to go about it. Yes we must stand up but what is the use of 'retaliating' for the moment when the root of the problem is not dealt with... and that root being THE WRONG MINDSET AND NEGATIVE ATTITUDE THAT MOST HAVE TOWARDS WOMEN. I do see change in some areas but compared to our vast population it seems negligible but we must not give up hope and continue to renew people's mind towards women. In the Bible it is written that God created both man and woman in His image and He created them who gives anyone else the right to treat another person with disrespect.

  10. #10 mari 07 Aug 12

    Name and shame must include officials who do not act to take actions that prevent and punish wrongdoers.
    Name and shame includes exposing media coverage that titillates..
    It includes Bollywood and endless shameful movies

    It should challenge every male elected official at all levels to sign a statement authored by women's groups of policies to prevent and punish such actions.

    The absence of courage in elected officials is without end. In my country, even officeholders,\ I admire (Obama, for example) shrink from the power of the gun lobby as wanton and hate filled killings occur.
    David Cohen,
    Washington, DC

    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow,
    Council for a Livable Worl

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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