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The spectacle of women being assaulted in public is nothing new in India. So when the Hindutva “moral police” party Ram Sene, headed by Pramod Muthalik, sent some thugs to beat up women in a Mangalore pub, the whole incident might have blown over in a few days—if it had not been for Nisha Susan.

Susan, a young journalist from Bangalore, started an online Facebook group called “A Consortium of Pubgoing Loose and Forward Women,” that urged members to send loads of pinkchaddis (“chaddi” is Hindi for underpants) to Muthalik’s party office in Hubli as an ostensibly humorous, but really rather scathing, response to his attempt at moral policing. Susan’s group has since swelled to over 55,000 members from all over the globe, and its current activities are still available on Facebook. The Consortium’s Valentine’s Day campaign was a success, too, with hundreds of panties winging their subversive way to Ram Sene headquarters. However, post-Valentine’s Day in the cities of Mangalore and Bangalore, several women were attacked and threatened by strangers. Susan and fellow activists responded by launching a “Take Back the Night” event and other initiatives. And so the struggle continues.

But I don’t intend simply to recount the Consortium’s successes or analyze Muthalik’s actions and the ongoing attacks on women. Rather, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the way that violence against women is perceived in India.

As one of the very first members of the Consortium, I was asked to draft a letter of protest to be sent to the authorities as part of a mass email campaign. “Dear Sir,” I began. “In the last week women in the cities of Bangalore and Mangalore have faced physical attacks by gangs of strangers. These women, without the slightest provocation …”

Here I stopped, arrested by the caveat that I had inserted almost unconsciously as I wrote. “Without the slightest provocation?” Where had that come from? Why did I feel obliged to reassure my readers that the women in question had done nothing to provoke the attacks? I tried to think of a time when I had seen or read about women in India attacking men in public, thereby “provoking” the hapless men to strike back in self-defense. My memory ranged back, covering over three decades of personal experience, as well as all the newspaper and magazine articles I’d ever read concerning violence against women. I could not recall a single incidence of women “provoking” such attacks, nothing that would justify my apparent need for caution. No, I’d never seen Indian women attacking men. This must mean, then, that men could be “provoked” into assaulting women even when there was no physical threat.

Non-physical, intangible danger constitutes culturally acceptable grounds for physical chastisement of women. Such was obviously my own underlying assumption—or that of my superego, the result of the lessons of self-hatred handed down by generations of social conditioning. Unaware, I had drunk of this poisoned chalice, and now here was its venom, so much a part of me that I hardly noticed its presence until it poured forth onto the printed page and became impossible to ignore. I call myself a feminist, and yet I felt the presence of an invisible, but very real vox populi that seemed to be saying: “Ah, yes! Very sad. But,”—meaningful pause—“did she ask for it?”

There it is. It’s out. Sympathy—but with the ugly, toxic word “provocation” quivering at its nucleus. Did the women do anything to somehow “provoke” the attacks on them? Did they talk or laugh a little “too loudly,” dress a little “too attractively,” walk a little “too confidently”? Did they somehow challenge the “masculinity” of the men who assaulted them? Perhaps these men were merely disappointed suitors seeking vengeance on a cock-tease, in which case, we can all agree, the women were—in that venerable phrase that crosses cultures with pan-misogynistic ease—“asking for it.”

Even well educated, seemingly “liberal” Indians will pause to ask some variation of the above questions before they will unequivocally condemn the attacks on women. It is as though they wish to be perfectly convinced of the woman’s innocence. Being outnumbered and brutally beaten up is something, but it is clearly not enough. There are “good beatings” and “bad beatings.” Before we open ourselves up to sympathy, then, we want to be reassured that this was a “bad beating,” an act of unalloyed brutality perpetrated on a woman who must be correspondingly as far above reproach as her attacker may be presumed to rank low in the scale of human iniquity.

What does it mean to be above reproach, to be a Caesar’s wife or a Sita? No Indian woman I know—indeed, no woman I have ever known—has even approached this ideal. And with good reason, for this “ideal” woman, the one who could never “provoke” a beating, does not exist. She is a monster born out of the sterile and reductive brooding of the misogynistic cultural imagination. Alternately goddess and whore, her phantom figure floats between our human selves and living female reality. This “Adarsh Bharatiya Naari” (“Ideal Indian Woman”) is boring, unidimensional and repulsive in her very blankness, a tabula rasa whereon the patriarchal codes of virtuous femalehood can be indelibly inscribed. And she is dangerous, for, in the hands of self-appointed enforcers of morality like Muthalik and his ilk, this imaginary woman becomes a weapon with which to assault real women. These women then become themselves responsible for the atrocities perpetrated on them. Rather than masculine inadequacy, religious fanaticism or misogynistic hatred, the women get locked into a narrative that ultimately assigns them the dual—and contradictory—roles of both victim and perpetrator. And, as in a house of mirrors, there is no one there to accuse.

Imprisoned somewhere within this house of mirrors, though, are the real women—the women who laugh not to seduce, but because they are amused. Who walk confidently not to challenge “masculinity,” but because they feel good about themselves. Who wear jeans and a T-shirt because they’re easy to throw on, or because the color suits them, or for a variety of other mundane reasons. Who enjoy a beer at a local pub not to pollute “Indian culture,” but because they are tired at the end of a long day’s work. Ordinary women. Women like you and me.

In more than two decades in India’s cities and towns, I have experienced my share of male violence. I have been pinched, groped, shoved, stroked, jeered, and even spat at. I have protested, shouted, shoved back, and, on one occasion, physically thrown an attacker from his bicycle to the ground. Not once has a hand been extended to my aid, or a voice been raised in my defense, from the ranks of the numerous spectators, many of whom were women themselves. Violence against women is a spectator sport in India. Some avert their eyes; some enjoy the woman’s misery and humiliation; still others weigh in on the side of the perpetrator, with the same cry that in itself constitutes an assault on women: “She asked for it.”

I did not ask for it. Neither did any of the millions of other Indian women for whom this treatment is a daily reality. No woman ever, ever asks to be tortured or humiliated. Until all women walk India’s streets free from fear, laws that guarantee the equal rights of women remain a mockery, reminding us of whatshould be our civic birthright, but at the moment is only a bitter reminder of freedom that many of us have never tasted. And not only must this freedom ring out for Indian women, but for women all over the world, including here in the United States.

In this country, too, violence against women is all too often excused or minimized, confined to the space of “domestic dispute” rather than interpreted as a larger problem concerning perceptions of gender equality and social justice. Even when celebrities are involved, such as in the recent case of Rihanna and Chris Brown, we tend to keep a decorous distance. But when one woman is beaten, that action challenges all of us to take a stand against violence—whenever and in whatever corner of the globe it occurs. Our outrage at such crimes must burst the confines of legal writ and academic debate and come vividly to life in all our hearts. Only then, when we see a woman assaulted, will we stop asking ourselves the odious question: “But did she ask for it?”

Until then, we are all complicit.

Pubali Ray Chaudhuri writes from Newark, Calif.

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