The curfew for women’s hostel was 8 pm while boys could stay out till 10 pm. This rule was for the safety of girls like me and many others at our campus. It was dark around 7.30 pm when my friends and I took an auto to get back to the hostel, after shopping. It was 15 minutes’ drive, and we knew we would reach before the hostel closes. Two boys on the bike started following us and shouted lewd comments. The middle-aged driver accelerated, and hence the speeding auto toppled. Both of us got several bruises. Seeing the hostel gate still open, we ran towards it, to save our lives. No one was around, we ran straight into our room to change our clothes and clean our injuries. At the dinner table, we shared this incident with our friends and one girl said ‘it was purely verbal, it did not involve physical contact, just ignore it. Someone else said, you should come back in day light. And then came the best piece of advice from one of the seniors who said, and I quote, ‘don’t worry girls, this is common, and you will get used to it and if rape seems inevitable, just enjoy it’. No one said you should have approached the Dean or Hostel Authorities to get a formal complaint lodged. I was naïve to think of taking any action and today when I look back and think had I filed a complaint, it would have made it so much easier for everyone to pin the blame on us to say that since we did not adhere to the rules, we ‘invited’ the harassment.
The most common advice that we get from everyone around us is to ignore the trauma we feel after such harassment. By the time we reach the age of 18, we get desensitized to it and stop complaining. But any such incidents of indecent behavior bring back all the memories of similar horrendous incidents we might have witnessed in the past. I was having a series of flashbacks when I heard the distance in Rahul’s voice saying, Rupal, ’why are you staring at the newspaper. Pass me, the paper, since I have to leave early, let me quickly go through today’s news.’ I stared at him blankly wondering, what triggered me to recall this traumatic experience. Was it the recent judgment in the seven-year-old rape case which was the first thing I read that morning? Rupal, are you ok? ‘May be yes, may be no’ I said in a fainted voice.
We all might be living a perfect life, but one wrong turn and things might come crumbling down like a pack of cards. And it can happen to anyone anywhere, be it at an office party, your own house, a bus or train, a park, or an alley. Sometimes it is a stranger, or a close relative, or a family friend, or your uncle who are rapists. Most of the times you have no witnesses to the abuse. The stress of trial and inhumanity that you face during cross-examination, the endless wait for justice and ‘the not guilty verdict’ leaves you overwhelmed with disgust, self-blame, and guilt.
Certainly, cinema reflects society, and the masses identify with it. A few decades ago, Bollywood movies were made which showed the rape victim would be the hero’s sister eventually committing suicide and the story would revolve around a dramatic hunt for the rapist. Cinema progressed and we saw movies made on women who fought back sexual harassment and sought revenge from the powerful man who raped her or who abducted her daughter from the party and raped her in the moving car. And, in the recent past we have seen movies like ‘Pink, a courtroom drama which established the misogyny that exists in the Indian society. It brings out the hypocrisy of our society that labels women as morally unsound if they are vocal about their sexuality and likes.
Several court proceedings and at times the final judgments in the recent past have been an eye opener in the context of how the society sees an independent woman living her life. Since time immemorial, it’s common for women to be blamed for inviting sexual assault in a patriarchal society. And it is a normal practice to intimidate women by asking embarrassing questions about their clothing and their sexual history. It seems rape is the result of poor choices made by women. Whether the choice is about being in a physical relationship with a man or wearing a short dress, drinking, attending late night parties, women are always at the receiving end and all this information is being used to prove that she is promiscuous. Under Section 155 (4) of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, the rape victims were put on trial and the accused were often allowed to go unpunished if they successfully proved that ‘the victim was of generally immoral character.’ While in 2000, this law which allowed victim shaming was deleted, saying it could destroy a victim’s reputation and self-respect, more than two decades later, victims continue to be shamed.
Like, in one case, the court granted bail to an accused in a rape case after observing that the victim felt tired and slept after the act. The court questioned the genuineness of the rape victim and said ‘it was unbecoming of an Indian woman’ to sleep after being ravished.
And, in another case, the victim was sexually assaulted by a person in position of authority in an elevator on two successive nights at an office event. The court questioned the behavior of the alleged victim and said that ‘the photographs taken shortly after the alleged assault, the young woman was ‘smiling and looked happy, normal in a good mood. She did not look disturbed, reserved, terrified or traumatized. Why did she share the event of alleged assault with her male colleagues and not her female roommates? Why didn’t she cry in the presence of her friends? The entire judgment was consistently implying that the young woman was often involved in sexual flings, and it is expected from Indian women to be submissive, if violated. In fact, they must appear shattered and socially dead. The women fraternity wonders, if the trial was about her rape or was it the assessment of the young woman’s morality.
With such incidents, Indian women are in dilemma whether they should report the matter of sexual assault or stay silent about their experience to avoid any negative reaction of being labelled immoral or report the matter only if they believe they are exceptionally good at demonstrating the kind of behavior that a victim is supposed to exhibit after being raped.
Many a times after the sexual assault happens, the brain struggles to cope with the traumatic event, stories do not add up affecting the information that was recorded in the memory. As a result, the order of the events gets mixed up. While she remembers the attack, she is not comfortable speaking up immediately especially if she gets the feeling of being invaded or helplessness because of other person’s actions. Also, saying ‘she didn’t act like a victim’ is victim blaming. People forget, there is no set way to respond to sexual assault. While there are several self-help guides for survivors of rape and sexual assault on the internet, there are counselling services, there are NGO’s which share information about the medical care after the sexual assault, the reporting, the coping strategies, how to deal with suicidal thoughts and self-harm, however, there is no information on how a victim should behave after sexual abuse. There is no such training manual or professional services available which teach us how to act depressed and fearful after experiencing abuse. Why is it hard to understand, everyone has their own way to react after a traumatic event?
One frequently contemplates whether a simply lawful investigation is possible of an assault judgment or would such an activity be overwhelmed by the interpretation of the language in the judgment. The language also reflects the thought process of the appointed authority and the view of the court.
While it’s so easy to tag-mark women as shameless wrong-doers and force them to feel ashamed for the physical and sexual outrage committed on them, why do men who whistle, wink, molest, stalk and violate women never feel ashamed of what they do? Why are insensitive questions being asked from a rape victim about her past sexual history and why the same standards are not used against men? Why women are cross-examined by being asked if she consumes alcohol or cigarettes, her views on consensual sex, whether she indulges in conversation with sexual undertones with friends and acquaintances, while there is no such information sought from a man. Why is a man not asked to describe events, produce witnesses where he demonstrated respect for women, especially in the moment of temptation when a woman is drunk that she could barely stand, he made the choice to walk her to her house.
Why treating women with respect in all circumstances should not be a rule but a responsibility of every man? Biologically men have stronger built than women and the stronger people do not put others down, they lift them up.