After decades of battles fought to achieve a facsimile of equal opportunities we were lulled into the comforting notion that the worst was behind us. But in light of the recent events in India and across the world, it looks like there’s an insidious little bug that’s become more prevalent than ever - the normalisation of sexual harassment. At what point did that just become ok? Men and women alike have felt the ripples of this issue, whether through physical, verbal, online or workplace abuse, nobody was spared. The #MeToo movement in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations demonstrated just how many people had at some point felt targeted and though there were so many victims, there seemed to be an strangely disparate number of perpetrators. Clearly there’s a huge culture that compels people to withhold the identity of their offender.
When Raya Sarkar published her list of offenders however, instead of being met with support, she was attacked by people questioning her sources. There was one phrase in particular that became the clarion call of the incident, ‘Due Process’, two little words with a disproportionately huge effect. Following due process involves fair treatment of the accused as well as a chance to reject those claims. Many women felt that Raya’s method of collecting statements and naming people without verification was unfair and detrimental to the collective image of feminists. Then again, many others supported her wholeheartedly. Suddenly amidst the big bad depths of the internet was a pocket of a ‘safe space’ where you could unburden and share, and perhaps create a launchpad from which to take action.
But where do you go from there? In India, there seems to an inherent distrust of the Government and by extension the Police force - not entirely without reason - especially from India’s lower classes, which makes everyone stop and second guess their choice to come forward and report an incident of harassment. There is also the underlying thought that in a sea of similar cases, where would your allegation stand in terms of severity and how long would you have to wait for justice. Another common claim for single women, is that any legal action comes with a snowstorm of character judgment, signalled by questions about what you were wearing, why you were out so late and the implication that the decision to be alone with a man dictates your complicity in any sexual advances that may ensue.
In the recent wave of #MeToo stories coming out of India, what is clear is the silence (and silencing) that has prevailed across industries, communities and other such social barriers. A lack of belief and distrust of the police, gaslighting, stigma and dismissal of individual experiences – what do we really fear when it comes to filing a case?
I. Media matters...
For 24-year-old Asa this was reality that became all too apparent when she decided to file a complaint against 3 aggressors in Pune and was refused and they told her to “Get a family member to accompany her instead of pursuing the matter alone.” After persisting, she managed to file a complaint, one intended to be an FIR - indicative of a cognisable, criminal offence but was actually submitted as a Non-cognisable matter, one that got relegated to the sidelines. She then turned to the media to share her story which resulted in the men being jailed, though it only lasted a day til they were out on bail and back on the streets. Today, one and a half years later with no court action even in the offing she has lost hope in the whole institution “I think using social media was much better of an option for those who faced any problem. They voiced their opinions and were at least heard. Some sort of justice is better than none.”
II. Home sweet home...
When the very legal measures designed to protect you have failed, it’s disheartening but as with so many of life’s worst experiences, it’s conditional upon many factors, the city and the people you’ve had to deal with. For others, like Avyakta, approaching the Mumbai police with her concerns ended very differently. She was new to city but luckily had found a home in a safe, family-oriented building in Khar. She had on occasion noticed the outline of a man standing outside her window in the communal passageway, but it wasn’t until her concerned neighbours asked about the two men who stood at her door every night, that she even realised she was being stalked. Living as a woman alone in a new city can be a terrifying existence as it is, but when this was brought to her notice, it made coming home a daily nightmare. Fearing for her safety, she took up the case with the local police station and was overcome by the support she received. They sent officers to her home to ensure there were no easy entry points for a possible robbery, stationed a car to patrol the area every evening and even assigned an officer - Mr. Pinto - to be on standby if ever she called and needed assistance. With that level of police presence, the men vanished without a trace and to this day haven’t been identified.
Having the backing of so many kind officials gave her the courage to remain in the city and not return home, which had been her initial response. However since the pair were never apprehended it left a shadow over her life, she cut her previously long hair and dressed down in an attempt to - in her mind at least - appear less attractive. Even in this, an ideal scenario of the situation, harassment left its mark.
III. Early lessons...
For 23-year-old Akashita, harassment found her at 7 a.m when she was 16 and attending a class at her Junior College in Mumbai. “My college was in a shady building because it was actually an IIT coaching centre that started a joint program for HSC” she mentions, and suddenly I realise that no amount of ‘shadiness’ can justify what comes next. With no warning, he kissed her and ran away. By they time she collected her thoughts enough to take action, he was long gone. A few months later however, he returned and dropped his pants in front of a group of girls from the coaching centre, ‘This time they managed to catch him and then called our college because they’d heard about my case. I came down to verify his identity and then we called the police.” They went to Oshiwara Station where female officers took their statements, the man was charged and detained. They later learned his identity, and that he was a student at Xavier’s College nearby and were unnerved to learn that someone from a supposedly ‘respectable’ background could do something like this.
IV. The monster within...
For Zaaria Patni, abuse didn’t come from a man she passed on the street but from the one that shared her bed every night. At 19, she chose to marry a man seven years her elder and until the honeymoon, it was everything she could have hoped for. But soon he’d let his true colours show, proving himself to be overbearing, controlling and aggressive. One night 6 months into the marriage he pinned her down and forced himself on her, soon afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant. He withheld her medication and soon was on the verge of collapse when he finally took her to hospital, where the nurse on duty said ‘I’ve to take you to the emergency room - and had you come a day later you would return to Bombay in a coffin’. She was kept there for 3 days and when she went home, he pushed her and although he waited a full 24 hours before taking her back to the hospital she was given a note saying ‘bled yesterday and brought to the hospital today.’ which ended up being the most precious piece of evidence she had. In Bombay, when she tried to file an FIR, the police were disinterested in her case saying things like ‘Madam, there are hundreds of cases like this, we don’t want to get involved in a marriage’. Later she was lucky enough to meet one officer who took up her case and helped her navigate the process. She managed to get a copy of the note from the hospital in Dubai, it was this note that was her only physical evidence of the abuse she suffered and the only leverage she had in the custody battle for her son. Today, 10 years on she fought her way to freedom and she and her son are living happily, the horrors of the past well behind them.
V. The man behind the screen...
If there’s anyone who knows the system and all it’s flaws, it’s Tara Kaushal. A outspoken feminist writer and creator of the social awareness portal ‘Why Indian Men Rape’, Kaushal spends every day dealing with the rampant atrocities women face so when she started receiving lewd messages and threats on social media, she didn’t hesitate to file a complaint. She leveraged her privileged position to make sure her case was heard, it appeared on major news channels but to no avail. After the widespread coverage the police officer with whom she was dealing suggested they catfish the abuser, setting up a meeting with Tara where the police would be lying in wait. She quickly pointed out the inefficiency of that plan “After all that press coverage they thought he wouldn’t know it was a set-up? Either he thought I was a chutiya or he was a chutiya” As far as possible she tries to follow due process but she’s aware of how difficult it can be to get a useful response. She realises that “With all the advantages I have in my life, I couldn’t successfully file this claim. What chance is there for women in less fortunate situations?” but she also believes that it’s still worth trying. “As much as possible we have to keep pressuring the system. It would be easy to give up on it, but one day hopefully it will break.”
Though there evidently needs to be an overhaul of the system to better equip some authorities to deal with harassment cases, if there are people continuously streaming into their stations with similar complaints, at least they won’t be able to ignore them. Over the last few weeks the Kolkata and Mumbai police have indeed issued public statements urging women “...to be strong, we want you to be very, very angry about the leering, jeering, threats, verbal and physical abuses, we are asking you to be not afraid and to report to the police every time,”
With every account the truth grows hazier, in some cases people are efficiently apprehended and in others the first question asked was ‘Were you dressed decently?’. There’s a flip side of course, with cases where women have punched through glass and fabricated evidence that put innocent men behind bars. As with most things, we circle back to an area dominated by grey. What does ring out however is that silence does more harm than good and that a consistent stand against harassment may not always yield exactly the results you were hoping for but will be another step towards a day when every case filed is considered important.
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Feature Image Credit: Anjul Dandekar
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