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Men in India have a notorious reputation for harassing women, especially when they are alone, or unobserved. So, it was no surprise, when a man on an Indigo flight from Mumbai to Bhubaneshwar in India, taking advantage of the turbulence, groped a woman sitting in front of him, through a gap in the seats. What followed, however, was totally unexpected by Indian standards and shocked him into silence. The woman whipped out her smart phone, and proceeded to confront and shame him in front of the other passengers, taping his reactions in a video, which she subsequently posted on YouTube. The video went viral.
In the video, the man believing that he could quash the incident mumbled an apology: “I’m sorry about it. Please ..” when the woman interrupts and responds heatedly: “Why, why please? I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry I’m a girl, please, forgive me ki mein akeli ladki akele travel karne ki himmat rakh rahi hoon (I am sorry because being a girl I have the courage to travel alone). I’m sorry for that.”
The incident got me thinking back to the days when I was living in India. The list of men who took advantage of me and touched me is long. Men like my tutor who blamed my math skills as being so rudimentary as to require individual attention and so, on the pretext of teaching me alone, he touched and rubbed up against me. Men like a friend’s husband who, because he was drunk, cornered me and tried to kiss me. And men, like the 60-year old neighbor, who was always on the lookout for me alone so he could fondle me.
I know I am not alone in living these experiences. Many women in India will have wild stories of how they are inappropriately touched by, both, strangers as well as men they know. Many women also accept these experiences as part of their daily life and do not complain about it for fear they will be held responsible and/or disgraced.
That is the saddest part of this debacle: the fear of being blamed. The woman in the video had the guts to stand up and shame the man who wronged her, but most of us, from an early age, are told to be quiet, not draw attention to the “experience” and forget about it like a bad dream because we may be held responsible, maybe called names and chastised as someone who invited the experience, perhaps, because we were wearing inappropriate clothing or spoke in an inviting way or simply gestured in a manner that girls from good families do not. The reasons are all created to put the victim to shame and lift the onus of responsibility from the party perpetrating the attacks.
In instances where victims are given some credulity, there is usually the problem of finding the attacker at fault or taking the issue of assault seriously.
Take the case of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior, who is carrying a mattress, like the one on which she was sexually assaulted, around campus as a statement of protest until her alleged rapist is expelled. After an investigation, the school did not find her alleged rapist responsible but Emma claims there were numerous flaws in the investigation and has now filed two federal complaints against the university.
In 2004, while at university, I was attacked by my ex-partner and after reporting the incident to the school, the President of the International Office encouraged me to withdraw the complaint asking me to consider the “young man’s future.” Undeterred, I took the case to court, but the charges were dismissed within seconds without the judge taking the incident too seriously.
Events such as mine and Emma’s not only belittle the victim but also discourage additional victims from coming forward and reporting their alleged abuse.
According to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), every 107 seconds another American is sexually assaulted and only 32% of the crimes are actually reported. Of the crimes that are reported, only 2 out of 100 rapists will ever be held accountable for their actions and serve a day in prison. Such paltry conviction rates send a message that attackers can commit horrible crimes and get away with them, further discouraging victims.
In India, the National Crime Records Bureau reported in 2014 that everyday 93 women are being raped. This is, of course, a measure of the cases that are reported. Hundreds go scot free, un-reported, unmarked and unpunished. The way the young woman on the Indigo flight stood up for her rights and faced her abuser is a mark of how the fairer sex in India are outraged by a pervasive societal evil, one that has little scope for redress unless more women find the strength to take on sexual violence on public forums.
Victim blaming is a serious issue and women assaulted all around the world have suffered it in the form of families not acknowledging them or husbands casting them out because they have been “dirtied” or blamed for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The victim is often punished and the attacker usually goes free to commit more crimes and ruin more lives.
Standing up for yourself is difficult; especially when you know you will most likely be alone and put to shame. But if we cast aside the veil of blame and join forces in supporting those who have been wronged, we can create a world where crimes against women are believed and taken more seriously. I laud the woman on the plane who stood up for herself and asserted her rights. More of us need to join her.
Rupande Mehta is a writer passionate about women’s rights and equality. Her aim is to bring change in the way women and men are treated around the world and especially in India. You can follow her on Twitter @rupandemehta or Tumblr at http://rupande-mehta.tumblr.com/