Friday, February 3, 2023

The Second Sex

In Kozhikode, Kerala, a sessions court referred to the victim’s attire as “sexually provocative” before granting bail to an activist in a sexual harassment case. Such mysogynistic attitudes are deplorable in the context of increasing crimes against women

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By Shaan Katari Libby

The headlines/news that drew our attention recently  included “Ganja smuggler’s 16-year-old daughter gang-raped by his friends in Kerala”; “32-year-old priest absconding over harassment of minor girl arrested”; “Eleven men convicted of having raped and killed the three-year-old daughter of Bilkis Bano during the Gujarat riots in 2002 have just walked free. The Supreme Court has referred this matter back to the Gujarat High Court following the strong public reaction to their release.”

Also, thankfully the Kerala High Court cancelled the anticipatory bail granted to the writer Civic Chandran in the sexual assault case and said that the Sessions Court judge’s observations on “sexually- provocative dress” could not be justified.

One only needs to look at mythology to understand that an Indian woman is expected to suffer. The logic goes: A woman has been created with the primary goal of bearing children, she is not physically strong, and one assumes also that she is therefore not mentally an equal to a man. Fortunately, thanks to strong women leaders and writers, this notion has been somewhat dispelled amongst the educated. However, as we know from the tragedy unfolding yet again in Afghanistan and probably in many parts of India, women continue to suffer badly.

We know for a fact that we don’t have to look too far to see women who are beaten mercilessly on a regular basis by their drunken husbands. Also, when they finally muster the courage to go to a police station, they are advised by the friendly neighbourhood misogynistic policeman to give the marriage another chance and an FIR is not written. The woman dejectedly returns to her tormentor and he lives to abuse another day.

Then in the late 1990s came the case of Bhanwari Devi—a social worker in Rajasthan who dared to stop a child marriage taking place amongst the upper caste community. She was just doing her job and not trying to be a hero in any way. Still, enraged that she had the temerity to interfere with upper caste functioning, these men gangraped her and wounded her husband. The local police did not get involved and so it was down to an NGO in Delhi called Vishaka to press this matter before the Supreme Court. The Court came down on the side of this social worker and issued a set of guidelines—the Vishaka guidelines—in order to protect women at the workplace. This has since become the Act (Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act)—often referred to by its somewhat unrelated acronym POSH Act. This has extended to being gender neutral.

This has been a massive step forward for women in this country. Several cases have been filed under this Act since its inception in 2013. Every company with over 10 employees is mandated to conduct regular workshops and training to make people aware of what could be sexual harassment. All of this has been like welcome rain to women who have been used to receiving second class treatment.

Despite these advancements for women at the workplace and women who are fortunate enough to be in a metropolis or educated, atrocities against women and girls have continued unabated. We had a string of young girls being raped and killed which brought India a great deal of unwanted attention. We also had a terrifying case in Chennai where a young 11-year-old girl was raped on a daily basis by the watchman and various servants from different apartments in the building. She was slightly mentally retarded and hence did not speak about this for a few months.

The exact section of the Indian Penal code that applies to such barbaric acts is Section 354A which deals with sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment. The Section says that anyone who commits the following acts shall be guilty of sexual harassment. They are: 

(i) physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or

(ii) a demand or request for sexual favours; or

(iii) showing pornography against the will of a woman; or

(iv) making sexually coloured remarks.

The Section also says that any man who commits the offence specified in clause (i) or clause (ii) or clause (iii) shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

The Section says that any man who commits the offence specified in clause (iv) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

Nothing in this Section would suggest that a sexually provocative outfit would negate sexual harassment. The main thing to consider is whether the overtures made were unwelcome. And it is the victim’s perspective that matters. So, however mistaken the accused might be and whatever signals he thought he might be receiving, it is not his perspective that matters. It is this basic concept that needs to be dinned into the heads of every Indian male—whatever his position. It is disheartening to see that even a judge is confused by this concept as seen in the Civic Chandran case.

The point is this: A woman can choose to walk semi-clad or even naked down the road and nobody has the right to touch her unless she wants them to. By telling our young that they need to cover up, they need to not go out after a certain hour, they need to be careful of what might be put in a drink…what kind of world are we introducing our young to? As cliched as it sounds, it is the men that need to be taught where their eyes can travel and how to control their urgest, and how to be civilized. It is not down to the second sex. 

One really hopes for broadminded liberal approaches to completely supersede some of the rather narrow-minded decisions we have seen recently.

—The writer is a barrister-at-law, Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, UK, and a leading advocate in Chennai

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