Written by: SMIW editorial | Image: NBC News
This post is a part of our weekly roundup series. Every week, we will take a look-back at sexual harassment, gender violence and related incidents in India and beyond. Readers can submit their suggestions, comments and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org
This month’s major headline grabber has surely been the case of a Chandigarh based DJ Varnika Kundu who was allegedly stalked by the Vikas Barala, son of the BJP Haryana Chief and his friend.
The case has flip-flopped between the accused being in jail and getting bail, CCTV footage missing and being found again. Overall, it has kept us on our toes. As we all gave a collective “tut-tut-what-is-happening-to-our-country?”, there were also some other interesting reactions to this latest in the long list of crimes against women in India.
Perhaps some of the attention was due to the fact that the accused is a son of a politician from a ruling party detested by liberals, or that the woman is from an unusual (sic) profession and has no qualms about being open about her identity
Be that as it may, the aftermath of the actual incident is definitely more than just tut-tut worthy, whichever way you look at it.
Women (and people of other genders) who stand up against sexual assault are no strangers to victim blaming. Urban dictionary defines victim blaming as;
Not ones to disappoint, keyboard warriors pinned their opinion to the tired and tested accuse rape and get famous ideology. Many were quick to compare this incident to the (in)famous Rohtak sisters and Jasleen Kaur cases while providing straw-man analogies to belittle the gravity of Varnika’s charges.
But even more disgusting was the well-orchestrated shame campaign started by politically inclined individuals, including some politicians themselves.
Of these, the most shocking was a campaign a Supreme Court lawyer, named Prashant Umrao.
Umrao, whose Facebook cover photo pays homage to Hindutva poster boy Vinayak Sarvarkar, paused what must be an extremely busy life of litigation in the Supreme Court, to wade through Varnika’s profile and dig up a photo that had her and two male friends standing in a pose that probably conveys deep friendship and trusted comfort.
But of course, like any Sarvarkar loving sanskari-type, Mr. Umrao couldn’t leave well enough alone.
He uploaded the photo to his social media, claiming that Ms. Kundu’s companions in this particular photo are in fact the two accused, and since she knows them well enough to pose with them in a photograph (presumably), her claim of being stalked is baseless. More on the second insinuation in a bit.
However, as it turned out, the two men in the said photo with Varnika were not the accused, but two completely different individuals who happen to be her friends. Causing Mr. Umrao to find out how his own feet taste – a feeling Hindutva and its Mitron are all too familiar with since 1922.
Now, having got that out of the way, let’s talk about that other insinuation for a second.
Even if we were to assume that the survivor did know the accused before the night when they stalked, harassed and attempted to kidnap her, does it automatically mean she was lying about what happened? Because in Bharat, people known to a woman can never sexually assault her or harass her, right?
Many people follow this line of thought that sexual predators are always sociopaths hiding behind bushes waiting to pounce upon unwilling suspects as they just happen to cross by.
While that type of sex offenders exist too, most sexual assault cases involve family members and friends as accused. Just like a majority of gender violence cases involve an intimate partner.
Another dangerous notion is that such acts are unfortunate and unplanned, hence can’t really be prevented.
Those who commit sexual assaults know very well what they are doing. They either just don’t care about the consequences or, are convinced that they will get away with it. They also have a deep-rooted belief that they are justified in committing such acts.
They see their acts as a reasonable reactions or well-deserved punishment to ‘offences’ which can be as plain as the victim refusing their advances, refusing their *commands* or, doing / not doing certain things within the patriarchal construct that they subscribe to.
These incidents are stark reminders that patriarchal concepts like Raksha Bandhan or popular co-opting, lip-service campaigns like Beti Bachao are reduced to mere gimmicks in today’s day and age.
The reality is, that we continually fail to put a full stop to the rape culture which fosters victim blaming and encourages notions that certain forms of harassment are OK.
The biggest example here are films that we fail to boycott (with not just our words but also wallets), where a man stalks a woman, despite her refusal but instead of reporting him to police and getting a restraining order, she eventually falls in love with him.
**“Mommy, how did you meet daddy?”
“Oh, I was just walking by when your daddy slowed down his car to whistle and shout something vulgar. That moment, I knew he’s the one.”
Said no one ever.
Another case (international albeit) that grabbed our attention recently was Taylor Swift’s trail against former DJ David Mueller. Swift alleged that Mueller groped in a meet-and-greet during her Red Tour back in 2013.
To put it her words, “He stayed latched on to my bare ass cheek as I lurched away from him.” Taylor Swift is quoted in her testimony. “I got as far away from him as I could.”
All through the trial, one could not help but admire Tay-Tay’s responses to questions asked by Mueller’s attorney, McFarland.
During cross-examination, McFarland suggested that Swift could’ve taken a break from her concert meet-and-greet if she was so shaken up by Mueller’s alleged assault. (Swift previously said she was distressed by the incident but carried on with her schedule because she didn’t want to upset her fans.)
Swift’s reply was, “Your client could have taken a normal photo with me.”
Then, when McFarland questioned why no one witnessed Mueller grabbing Swift’s backside. She responded:
“The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.”
Admittedly, Taylor Swift has many criticisms to her credit, white feminism being one of them. But whatever one may think of her, beyond doubt, her responses in this trail are a case in point on how to tackle victim blaming and shaming.
Fittingly enough, Taylor went on to win the trial and the jury awarded her the symbolic $1 in damages, while throwing out Muller’s lawsuit that claimed $3 Million in damages from Swift, caused, as per him, to his reputation by her allegations. Of course, we don’t need to look farther than the President of Mueller and Swift’s native country to know how severely allegations of sexual assault can damage a man’s career and reputation.
Despite a positive verdict, we can’t help but feel horrible about the familiarity with this trial. Closer home, such cases drag on for years, and are emotionally difficult and extremely challenging for the women involved. These are challenges survivors of sexual harassment and assault in India must consider before filing complaints. We would be lucky if we face no hiccups from the police or moral policing from the judges. As a result, many victims never come forward – choosing to stay silent rather than face further humiliation and character assassination.
On the other hand, as Shruti Sunderraman explains in The Ladies Finger, you know what would’ve happened if Varnika Kundu was a guy, right?
But here’s the thing. The real devil in these situations, lies within.
Whether woman or man. It’s our refusal to accept our collective responsibility towards making better behaved citizens of our men, and holding our public institutions accountable for their many failures.
The devil lies in our collective comfort zone, where it is easier to let our family members, friends and colleagues continue thinking in such manner, instead of confronting them and risking their displeasure or lingering bitterness.
As we celebrate 70 years of Independence, we need to ask ourselves, do women in India have true freedom yet?