In addressing sexual abuse, no society, and no community, has a good record. In India, great evils such as patriarchy, the caste system, endemic corruption at all levels but especially among the ruling elites, gerontocracy, nepotism, dowry, infanticide, obscene contrasts between opulence and poverty and squalor, and so forth, make issues particularly acute.
The question arises: How can India – which hotly competes with China for superpower status – expect, with any self-respect, to join other countries which make signal efforts in providing strong legislation and provision of effective and humane services to deal with sexual abuse? Of the Indian media, hardly any were of use to us in our exhaustive effort to expose Sathya Sai Baba and his worldwide cult. This failure – not of our own making – was in marked contradistinction to our dealings with world media. As the editor of one of India’s top newspapers admitted in private: Sai Baba and his people are too powerful. The rare exceptions whom we could respect were India Today, whose proprietor knew, all too directly and painfully, from his own family of Sathya Sai Baba’s pedophilia, and Tehelka, which has put up a huge struggle over decades to prevent itself from being wiped out. In Indian Media and Governments Heedless of Decade of Foreign Media and Sai Baba Critics’ Revelations, I wrote:
To the profound shame of the Indian media, leading newspaper and television organizations heeded our representations:
For example, BBC, CBC (Canada), DR (Denmark), Salon.com (USA), SBS (all television), ABC (Radio Australia). In newspaper media – Times of London, Daily Telegraph, Guardian (UK), Marie Claire Magazine, Salon.com, BT, Bild, Focus, Trouw, Speegelbield, Noordhollands Dagblad, Sokaren, Gatopardo, Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, Age, Australian Financial Review, West Australian (a major front page article by an award-winning journalist (Torrance Mendez) was pulled at the 11th hour!), Adelaide Advertiser, etc., ….. It was not until a close friend of ours, at the top of a notable profession, was able to dine with an official of the Indo Asian News Service that our Duke of Edinburgh story concerning Sai Baba’s propaganda people that we were able, after many futile attempts, to make some inroads on a small section of the Indian media.
Extraordinarily, in the last days, wide sections of the Indian media are surfacing evidence that powerfully tells against Sathya Sai Baba and many of his core servitors. It is, of course, to the historic shame of the Indian media (with the honorable exception of India Today) and successive, typically corrupt Indian governments, national and state, that we long remained voices crying out in the wilderness. For my appreciation of India Today’s publisher Aroon Purie and his team, see: Sai Baba Treasure Scandals: His Big Political Protectors Now Run For Cover. Posted by Barry Pittard on June 27, 2011.
See also: Sai Baba Treasure Scandals: His Big Political Protectors Now Run For Cover. Posted by Barry Pittard on June 22, 2011
In 2007, the Government of India released its landmark survey on sexual abuse in that country. (See: Over 53% children face sexual abuse: Survey. TNN Apr 10, 2007, 12.00am IST:
NEW DELHI: In a shocking revelation, a government commissioned survey has found that more than 53% of children in India are subjected to sexual abuse, but most don’t report the assaults to anyone.
The survey, released on Monday and which covered different forms of child abuse — physical, sexual and emotional — as well as female child neglect, found that two out of every three children have been physically abused.
Sai Baba Promised to Transform India. But Child Abuse Rampant. Posted by Barry Pittard on April 11, 2007, and Child Abuse in India. Will Minister Renuka Chowdhury Act? Posted by Barry Pittard on April 11, 2007). I have written of our vast, uphill climb – including of our Indian colleagues – to make meaningful headway with India’s foremost political, government and religious authorities, and most of the media, even though, in some quarters, we had high-level backdoor access. See: Indian Media and Governments Heedless of Decade of Foreign Media and Sai Baba Critics’ Revelations. Posted by Barry Pittard on June 27, 2011.
Whether in our contacts with Vajpayee’s or Sonja Gandhi’s or Manmohan Singh’s officials, we found the taboos against raising sexual abuse issue extreme. In our networking, we saw how extraordinarily courageous Indian activists daily fight for social justice in India. They face death, grave injury, gaol, persecution, defamation, and profound denial of their civil liberties ostensibly guaranteed under Indian law. See: Open Letter to Prime Minister of India, Hon. A.B. Vajpayee, By Barry Pittard, Australia, former Lecturer, Sri Sathya Sai College of the Arts, Science and Commerce, Whitefield, Karnataka.
Sonia Gandhi and current PM Manmohan Singh at Sathya Sai Baba’s funeral. Both leaders assisted, as had Vajpayee earlier, in the cover up of Sai Baba’s serial sexual abuse of countless boys and young men from around the world.
If my reader is very busy, at least you may find time to view a concise and hard-hitting IBNLIVE.com (India) report (2 minutes, 10 seconds): India: world’s most sexually abused children!
Worldwide, statistics show that sexual abuse, far more than being a ‘stranger danger’ issue, secretes itself among our own families, friends and acquaintances. We need to squirm – without running away. We need to face our own consciences – without thinking there is nothing we can do. We need to speak – without retreating into a numb, corroding silence. We need to love and protect children – properly.
The furore at the moment over the Delhi rape case elicits some action. See Robert Priddy’s article: Tehelka.com and the Delhi rapes – new India’s media conscience. Posted by robertpriddy on January 5, 2013
Again, ordinary Indian people stir and protest – making life more difficult for the Indian power elites who have tried heavily and constantly to throttle such issues, as they did with decades of scandal after scandal about Sathya Sai Baba and his cult.
At least the Delhi case has penetrated the Indian and international media. And yet rape and other forms of abuse are endemic throughout India, almost sanctioned by large sections of her police forces whose officers frequently hold extremely chauvinist attitudes toward women.
But essentially, Indian authorities do not even heed and act on this 2 minutes and 10 seconds of information.
In marked contrast to the decade in which my colleagues and I have worked to expose Sathya Sai Baba and his international cult, more articles in leading Indian media begin to surface, such as yesterday’s Hindustan Times, with its hard-nosed practical recommendations. The Guardian article, which has many useful links, is a strongly researched piece, again giving indications of a groundswell of public anger in India, which we have also seen in the recent and pan India demonstrations against political and corporate corruption.
How should the state respond?
Curb entry of criminals into politics: Members of political parties with criminal charges against them should not be allowed to contest elections. Six sitting MLAs face rape charges and two MPs have been charged with sexual assault. Another 36 politicians also face charges.
Moral charters for political parties: There is a need for a normative charter of moral behaviour for parties.
Passing key legislations: Key bills are left hanging in Parliament. The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill 2012 is crucial as it seeks to make rape gender neutral by widening its definition. The bill also defines acid attacks with separate punishment. Also, under current and proposed laws, marital rape is not defined and falls under the domestic violence act as cruelty.
Define stalking: Stalking was dropped from the Criminal Laws bill. There is no law or punishment to deal with it. Sexual assault does not need intent: Anything short of rape is considered bailable under section 354 CrPC. This is antiquated and needs amendment. A major flaw is that it looks at intent of sexual assault – whether aimed at outraging modesty of a woman or not.
Sexism of public officials: Public officials who make sexist comments – about attire or behaviour of women – should be taken to task. Although the penal code protects women through the Indecent Representation of Women Act, the law needs amendment for strong punitive mechanisms.
How should judicial process be swifter?
Modernising courts: Technology in courts needs drastic improvement to speed up the judicial process. Indian courts should have video recording of witness statements and testimonies with automatic transcription machines.
Indian judges can currently dictate upto 25 pages of an order in a day while American judges can go through at least 300 pages.
“There is nothing wrong with the law. It just moves at bullock cart speeds,” says senior advocate KTS Tulsi.
He adds, “It’s ironic that an IT superpower like India cannot even provide better technology to enhance the criminal justice system.”
Speedier processes: The real need is permanent fast-track courts on the basis of a regular structure (not in an ad-hoc manner on the basis of a social outcry). Fast-track courts were earlier set up in 2001 but the Centre refused to finance them beyond March 2011. The courts also need to ensure day to day trials in such cases.
How should corporates reinvent?
Ensure equality: From recruitment and leaves to promotions and wages, women (who make up 29% of the workforce, down from 39% in the last ten years) need equality. According to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, only 6.9% of women are board members in listed companies, compared to 10.3 among other OECD members.
Balance the gap: An OECD study says Indian women spend 351.9 minutes per day in unpaid work, while men spend only 51.8 minutes. Of all the countries surveyed – United Kingdom, Australia, France, China – the average unpaid work time for women was 277 minutes.
Indu Agnihotri, Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, says more women should be hired to balance the gender gap. Leave, in particular maternity leave, should be flexible. Promotions should not be discriminatory.
Break the glass ceiling: Sensitising male colleagues helps break this invisible barrier that keeps women from rising to the top. Most companies still don’t follow the Vishaka Guidelines by the Supreme Court which recommend steps such as a compulsory sexual harassment cell.
How should cities be designed?
Gender-friendly architecture: Forty percent of India’s population are expected to be city dwellers by 2030.
That demands a gender-friendly planning of cities and implementation. Daf Ne, a Spanish architect working on gender-friendly architecture, says “developing gender-friendly architecture is not only building new infrastructure, but more about improving the existing one. India has potential to move ahead.”
The most frequented area for a woman is her neighbourhood.
“Its the most productive part for a woman as a key producer of any residential environment, but our city planning doesn’t reflect that,” she says.
Make colonies self-sufficient with nearby stores and offices to reduce transport.
Calming cities: Urban designer KT Ravindran says there is a general increase in the speed of cities which makes activities on road unnoticeable for speedy vehicles.
He suggests a “calming of the city” with proper traffic management. Visibility of the city has to increased with small steps like lower or netted boundaries in your houses, proper lighting at intersections and street lights on the sides of the road.
How should policing improve?
Increasing strength: Over five lakh posts lie vacant against the sanctioned 20 lakh all over India. The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) puts the number of policemen at 81-131 per 100,000 across states, compared to the required 174.
Separate VIP duties: 7% of the Delhi police is dedicated to VIP duties. Besides those, nearly half the force is used in doing odd jobs.
Increasing female force: 7% of the Delhi police is female and most are on the desk, leaving few in the field. The home minister ordered recruiting female cops in each Delhi police station, a step required across country.
Sensitisation: Citing the Zee news interview of the victim’s friend who revealed how three PCR vans wasted time instead of helping, BN Chattoraj, a criminology expert says, “Not just gender sensitisation but a general sensitisation is also necessary.”
Upgradation: The weakest links are the police stations in the country which need drastic changes. Senior advocate KTS Tulsi said that if there were standardised designs for stations with tamper-proof recording of processes, there would be no hostile witness.
How should families adapt?
See-saw family structures: While Indian families are glorified for their close-knit joint family structure, this is also where problems like a disjointed attitude towards women stems from, a fact that can be corroborated by figures too.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau figures of 2011, out of 22,549 reported rape cases in India, 1,560 rapes were committed by relatives and 267 by parents and family.
The attitude where a woman is regarded less as an individual but known more by familial ties, subconsciously shapes the behaviour of male members towards women say experts.
Provide a happy environment: Most crimes are committed by individuals who had a troubled upbringing. If a woman is ill-treated in a family, it serves as a case of bad solidarity amongst other male members.
Check for deviant signs: One should report deviant behaviour in the family at the onset. Abnormal behaviour should be brought under mental health surveillance at the earliest.
How should culture engage?
Re-look at older tribal cultures and bring those ideas into the mainstream. People shouldn’t feel pressured to conform to set notions.
“Every human is a composite of both genders and older societies recognised that,” suggests critic Sadanand Menon.
There also has to be a return of the feminist movement of the 80s and 90s.
“Women have to display militancy.”
Sense of volunteerism from all including culture practitioners. Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), billed as India’s first anti-rape film, had seven rape scenes.
“People felt uneasy whether it condemned or sensationalised rape,” says Menon.
“Acquiescence, male aggression and stereotyping in cinema reflects society and endorses sexual violence. But censorship is not the answer,” he explains.
There has to be a change in consciousness, for example creating a song/piece of art that celebrates the equality of sexes.
Pay attention to popular culture: “Unless consumers are vigilant, you can’t expect much from producers of pop culture. They’ll continue to hit the lowest common denominator dictated by market logic. For example the Honey Singh rape rap,” says playwright Sudhanva Deshpande.
How should education evolve?
Starting young: For lasting change start with young children now. Show them important films/documentaries. Teachers can weave in ideas of gender equality in social sciences; principals can speak to students about gender issues and open them to different ideas at a young age.
Spirit of enquiry: It is better than prescriptive teaching. “Instead of a book on life-skills, equip children to question and analyse their lives,” suggests educationist Abha Adams. The national curriculum framework says that till class eight, schools can devise their courses.
“But nobody is prepared to break free or train their teachers,” she says.
Boys end up growing up with misogynistic views, which could be helped by gender interaction.
“Teach boys to respect girls as equals,” says Adams.
Other problems include outdated curricula and lack of appreciation for a teacher as a professional.
Teacher, leave those kids alone: There’s a kind of exclusive division among boys and girls aged 11-12. Some suggest letting them work out their sexuality without policing/over-bearing moralities. Complex issues need to be addressed at various levels.
How should women change?
Fight for it: While awareness about individual rights and sexuality is increasing and the phenomenon can be compared to the sexual revolution in the west during the 1960s and 1980s, most women in India do not understand their rights completely, leave alone standing for them.
Also, just because Indian women didn’t have to revolt for a right to vote like the 19th century women suffrage movement of Europe, they cannot hope that their liberation would come easy.
Instinctive fear response: Women need to listen to instinctive responses. Being brave is different from being sensible. A woman should try to get out of a situation that she knows she cannot control.
Understanding violence: Often violence begins at home. Dowry demand, verbal, physical abuse, glass ceiling are all manifestations of larger ills. The Women’s reservation Bill continues to be pending. Unless women are in power there is precious little that can be done just by protests. Women need to identify what will bring difference and strive for it.
How should men change?
Change the macho image: The cultural macho image needs to change. Men need to get comfortable with women asserting their rights.
Emotive beings: In our patriarchal society it’s regarded less manly if a man shows emotions.A man who shows his sensitive side is more likely to be gentle towards women.
Scared of sexuality: While it may be the new cosmopolitan culture to talk about women asserting their sexuality, lawyer Rekha Aggarwal says, “Men continue to be narrow minded. Neither have they understood the real meaning of the cosmopolitan culture nor are they comfortable with it.”
It’s time that men start from their homes and give rights to female members at micro and macro levels.
“Men in particular need to stop looking at the excuse of provocation,” says Dr Sameer Malhotra.
He adds, “It’s easy to hide behind an excuse that it was the woman who provoked a crime. One has to get real and understand that the fault lies within.”
What constitutes violence against women?
The UN definition
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”. It encompasses, but is not limited to, “physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation; physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere; trafficking in women and forced prostitution; and physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the state, wherever it occurs.”
The who perspective
Violence against women takes many forms, from the overt to the subtle. World Health Organisation has adopted the following definitions of physical and sexual violence to aid in research and programming, concentrating on identifiable acts. Physical violence means a woman has been: slapped, or had something thrown at her; pushed, shoved, or had her hair pulled; hit with a fist or something else that could hurt; choked or burnt; threatened with or had a weapon used against her. Sexual violence means a woman has been: physically forced to have sexual intercourse; had sexual intercourse because she was afraid of what her partner might do; or forced to do something sexual she found degrading or humiliating. Though recognised as a serious and pervasive problem, emotional violence does not yet have a widely accepted definition, but includes, for example, being humiliated or belittled; being scared or intimidated purposefully. Intimate-partner violence (also called ‘domestic’ violence) means a woman has encountered any of the above types of violence, at the hands of an intimate partner or expartner; this is one of the most common and universal forms of violence experienced by women.
India ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1993. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 tries to be in line with this convention.
According to NCRB, crimes against women increased by 7.1% nation-wide since 2010. The total number of crimes against women reported was 2,28,650 in 2011.
Across the world
Globally, up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
– Compiled by Neyaz Farooquee, Samar Khurshid, Zofeen Maqsood, Furquan Siddiqui and Shalini Singh with opinions of experts: lawyers KTS Tulsi, Pinky Anand, Rekha Aggarwal & Aarthi Rajan; sociologist Surinder Jodhka; founder member of National Election Watch Jagdeep Chhokar; educationist Abha Adams; critic Sadanand Menon; playwright Sudhanva Deshpande; former DGP Prakash Singh; criminology professor BN Chattoraj; Delhi Police spokesperson Rajan Bhagat; psychiatrist Sameer Malhotra, psychologist Pulkit Sharma, Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies Indu Agnihotri; DU professor Madhu Vij; urban designer KT Ravindran and architect Daf Ne
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.
In an ashram perched high on a hill above the noisy city of Guwahati in north-east India is a small exhibit commemorating the life of India’s most famous son. Alongside an uncomfortable-looking divan where Mahatma Gandhi once slept is a display reminding visitors of something the man himself said in 1921: “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex).”
One evening two weeks ago, just a few miles downhill, a young student left a bar and was set upon by a gang of at least 18 men. They dragged her into the road by her hair, tried to rip off her clothes and smiled at the cameras that filmed it all. It was around 9.30pm on one of Guwahati’s busiest streets – a chaotic three-lane thoroughfare soundtracked by constantly beeping horns and chugging tuk-tuks. But for at least 20 minutes, no one called the police. They easily could have. Many of those present had phones: they were using them to film the scene as the men yanked up the girl’s vest and tugged at her bra and groped her breasts as she begged for help from passing cars. We know this because a cameraman from the local TV channel was there too, capturing the attack for his viewers’ enjoyment. The woman was abused for 45 minutes before the police arrived.
Within half an hour, clips were broadcast on Assam’s NewsLive channel. Watching across town, Sheetal Sharma and Bitopi Dutta were horrified. “I was fuming like anything. There was this horrible, brutal assault being shown on screen – and the most disturbing thing was, the blame was being put on the woman, who, the report emphasised, was drunk,” says Sharma, a 29-year-old feminist activist from the North-East Network, a women’s rights organisation in Guwahati. “The way it was filmed, the camera was panning up and down her body, focusing on her breasts, her thighs,” says Dutta, her 22-year-old colleague.
When the police eventually turned up, they took away the woman, who is 20 or 21 (oddly, Guwahati police claimed not to know exactly). While NewsLive re-played pixellated footage of her attack throughout the night, she was questioned and given a medical examination. No attempt was made to arrest the men whose faces could clearly be seen laughing and jeering on camera. Soon afterwards, the editor-in-chief of NewsLive (who has since resigned) remarked on Twitter that “prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs”.
It was only a few days later, when the clip had gone viral and had been picked up by the national channels in Delhi, that the police were shamed into action. By then, Guwahati residents had taken matters into their own hands, producing an enormous banner that they strung up alongside one of the city’s arterial roads featuring screen grabs of the main suspects. Six days after the attack, the chief minister of Assam, the state where Guwahati is located, ordered the police to arrest a dozen key suspects. He met the victim and promised her 50,000 rupees (£580) compensation.
The damage was already irreversible. Most Indians know full well how tough life as a woman can be in the world’s biggest democracy, even 46 years after Indira Gandhi made history as the country’s first female prime minister in 1966. But here, caught on camera, was proof. And in Assam – a state long romanticised as the most female-friendly corner of the country, largely thanks to the matrilineal Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. The nation was outraged.
“We have a woman president, we’ve had a woman prime minister. Yet in 2012, one of the greatest tragedies in our country is that women are on their own when it comes to their own safety,” said a female newsreader on NDTV. She went on to outline another incident in India last week: a group of village elders in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, central India, who banned women from carrying mobile phones, choosing their own husbands or leaving the house unaccompanied or with their heads uncovered. “The story is the same,” said the news anchor. “No respect for women. No respect for our culture. And as far as the law is concerned: who cares?”
There is currently no special law in India against sexual assault or harassment, and only vaginal penetration by a penis counts as rape. Those who molested the woman in Guwahati would be booked for “insulting or outraging the modesty of a woman” or “intruding upon her privacy”. The maximum punishment is a year’s imprisonment, or a fine, or both.
As a columnist in the national Hindustan Times said of the attack: “This is a story of a dangerous decline in Indians and India itself, of not just failing morality but disintegrating public governance when it comes to women.” Samar Halarnkar added: “Men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male.”
Halarnkar then offered as proof a survey that caused indignation in India last month: a poll of 370 gender specialists around the world that voted India the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries. It stung – especially as Saudi Arabia was at the second-worst. But the experts were resolute in their choice. “In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour,” said Gulshun Rehman, health programme development adviser at Save the Children UK, who was one of those polled.
Women travelling on a bus in Chennai, southern India. Photograph: Gustafsson/Rex FeaturesLook at some statistics and suddenly the survey isn’t so surprising. Sure, India might not be the worst place to be a woman on the planet – its rape record isn’t nearly as bad as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, where more than 400,000 women are raped each year, and female genital mutilation is not widespread, as it is in Somalia. But 45% of Indian girls are married before the age of 18, according to the International Centre for Research on Women (2010); 56,000 maternal deaths were recorded in 2010 (UN Population Fund) and research from Unicef in 2012 found that 52% of adolescent girls (and 57% of adolescent boys) think it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife. Plus crimes against women are on the increase: according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, there was a 7.1% hike in recorded crimes against women between 2010 and 2011 (when there were 228,650 in total). The biggest leap was in cases under the “dowry prohibition act” (up 27.7%), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4% year on year) and rape (up 9.2%).
A preference for sons and fear of having to pay a dowry has resulted in 12 million girls being aborted over the past three decades, according to a 2011 study by the Lancet.
A glance at the Indian media reveals the range of abuse suffered by the nation’s women on a daily basis. Today it was reported that a woman had been stripped and had her head shaved by villagers near Udaipur as punishment for an extramarital affair. Villagers stoned the police when they came to the rescue. In Uttar Pradesh, a woman alleged she was gang raped at a police station – she claimed she was set on by officers after being lured to the Kushinagar station with the promise of a job.
Last Wednesday, a man in Indore was arrested for keeping his wife’s genitals locked. Sohanlal Chouhan, 38, “drilled holes” on her body and, before he went to work each day, would insert a small lock, tucking the keys under his socks. Earlier this month, children were discovered near Bhopal playing with a female foetus they had mistaken for a doll in a bin. In the southern state of Karnataka, a dentist was arrested after his wife accused him of forcing her to drink his urine because she refused to meet dowry demands.
In June, a father beheaded his 20-year-old daughter with a sword in a village in Rajasthan, western India, parading her bleeding head around as a warning to other young women who might fall in love with a lower-caste boy.
This July, the state government in Delhi was summoned to the national high court after failing to amend an outdated law that exempts women (and turban-wearing Sikh men) from wearing helmets on motorcycles – an exemption campaigners argue is indicative of the lack of respect for female life.
But the story that outraged most women in India last week was an interview given to the Indian Express by Mamta Sharma, chairwoman of the National Commission of Women (NCW), a government body tasked with protecting and promoting the interests of Indian women. Asked by the reporter if there should be a dress code for women “to ensure their safety”, Sharma allegedly replied: “After 64 years of freedom, it is not right to give blanket directions … and say don’t wear this or don’t wear that. Be comfortable, but at the same time, be careful about how you dress … Aping the west blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.”
She added: “Westernisation has afflicted our cities the worst. There are no values left. In places like Delhi there is no culture of giving up seats for women. It is unfortunate that while the west is learning from our culture, we are giving ourselves up completely to western ways.”
Her remarks caused a storm. As Sagarika Ghose put it in the online magazine First Post: “It’s not just about blindly aping the west, Ms Sharma. It’s also about the vacuum in the law, lack of security at leisure spots, lack of gender justice, lack of fear of the law, police and judicial apathy and the complete lack of awareness that men and women have the right to enjoy exactly the same kind of leisure activities.”
The Guardian asked Sharma for an interview to clarify her remarks but our requests were ignored.
Maini Mahanta, the editor of the Assamese women’s magazine Nandini (“Daughter”), believes the NCW chair’s remarks are indicative of what she calls the “Taliban-plus” mentality that is creeping into Indian society. “In this part of the world, it’s worse than the Taliban,” she insists in her Guwahati office. “At least the Taliban are open about what they like and dislike. Here, society is so hypocritical. We worship female goddesses and yet fail to protect women from these crimes and then blame them too.”
Indian women, such as these three in Bawana, on the outskirts of Delhi, frequently come under pressure to abort female foetuses. Photograph: Gethin ChamberlainMahanta explains how traditions still cast women as helpless victims rather than free-thinking individuals in control of their own destiny. Girls still tie Raksha bandhan or “safety ties” around their brothers’ wrists as a symbol of their duty to protect them, she says. She complains, too, about the Manu Sanghita, an ancient Indian book that she claims preaches: “When a girl is young, she is guided by her father; when she is older, she is guided by her husband; when she is very old, she is guided by her son.” She despairs of the cult of the “good girl, who is taught to walk slowly ‘like an elephant’ and not laugh too loud”.
Even in Mumbai, India’s most cosmopolitan city, women have been arrested and accused of being prostitutes when drinking in the city’s bars.
Sheetal Sharma and Bitopi Dutta, the young feminists from the North East Network, complain that modern women are divided into “bad” and “good” according to what they wear, whether they go out after dark and whether they drink alcohol. “We are seeing a rise of moral policing, which blames those women who are not seen as being ‘good’,” says Sharma. “So if they are abused in a pub, for example, it’s OK – they have to learn their lesson,” adds Dutta, 22, who grumbles that young women such as herself cannot now hold hands with a boyfriend in a Guwahati park, let alone kiss, without getting into trouble with the moral police, if not the real police.
Many women agree the response from the Guwahati authorities shows they are blind to the root cause: a society that does not truly respect women. Instead, a knee-jerk reaction was taken to force all bars and off-licences to shut by 9.30pm. Club Mint, the bar outside which the young woman was molested, had its licence revoked. Parents were urged to keep a close eye on their daughters.
Zabeen Ahmed, the 50-year-old librarian at Cotton College in Guwahati, tells how she was out for an evening walk not long ago when she was stopped by the police. “They asked me what I was doing out at that at that time – it was 10.30pm or so – and they asked me where my husband was.”
The fact that India has a female president – Pratibha Patil – and Sonia Gandhi in control of the ruling Congress party means very little, insists Monisha Behal, “chairperson” of the North East Network. “In the UK, you have had Margaret Thatcher – if you are being harassed by a hoodlum in the street there, do ask: ‘How can this be when we have had a woman prime minister?'” she says.
Every Indian woman the Guardian spoke to for this article agreed that harassment was part of their everyday lives. Mahanta revealed that she always carries chilli powder in her handbag if she ever has to take public transport and needed to throw it in the face of anyone with wandering hands. Deepika Patar, 24, a journalist at the Seven Sisters newspaper in Assam, says city buses were notorious for gropers. “If women are standing up because there are no seats, men often press up against them, or touch their breasts or bottom,” she explains.
In June, an anonymous Delhi woman wrote a powerful blog post detailing what happened when she dared not to travel in the “ladies carriage” of Delhi’s modern metro. After asking a man not to stand too close to her, things turned nasty. Another man intervened and told the first to back off, but soon the two were having a bloody fight in the train carriage. Rather than break up the brawl, the other passengers turned on the woman, shouting: “This is all your fault. You started this fight. This is all because you came into this coach!” and “You women always do this. You started this fight!” and “Why are you even here? Go to the women’s coach.”
Speaking under condition of anonymity, the 35-year-old blogger says she had experienced sexual harassment “tonnes of times”. “I hate to use the word, but I’m afraid it has become ‘normal’,” she says. “Like if you’re in a lift, men will press up against you or grab you or make a comment about your appearance. It’s because of this that I stopped travelling by buses and started travelling by auto rickshaws, and eventually got a car myself – to avoid this ordeal. When the metro was launched I loved it – it’s an improvement in public transport, very well maintained, you feel safe. Then this happened and I was blamed.”
By Thursday last week, the Guwahati molestation case had become even murkier. Police had arrested and charged 12 men with “outraging the public decency of a woman”, and on Friday they charged journalist Gaurav Jyoti Neog of NewsLive with instigating the attack he filmed. Neog denies orchestrating the attack or taking any part in it, apart from filming it “so that the perpetrators can be nabbed”. But police have forced him to give a voice sample, which has been sent to a forensic laboratory for analysis, to compare with the footage. The verdict is out on that case, but one thing is clear: 91 years after Gandhi urged Indian men to treat their women with respect, the lesson has yet to be learned.
• This article was amended on 24 July 2012. The original said brothers tied Raksha Bandhan threads around their sisters’ wrists, when it is the sisters who put the threads on the wrists of their brothers.
Excerpt From Public Petition (and introduction)