The Indian courts’ misogynistic handbook for rape survivors

The Karnataka High Court’s observation that falling asleep after rape is “unbecoming” of an Indian woman is only the latest in a line of misogynistic judgements that comment on the behaviour of women. Along with law student Anupriya Dhonchak, we sift through the cases.

Image courtesy: @penpencildraw

The Karnataka High Court’s observations on 22 June 2020 while granting bail in a rape case follow a judicial tradition of commenting on the behaviour of women, particularly in rape cases, according to an Article 14 review of recent Supreme Court and High Court judgements.

“The explanation offered by the complainant that after the perpetration of the act she was tired and fell asleep, is unbecoming of an Indian woman,” said Justice Krishna S. Dixit in the case of Rakesh B vs State of Karnataka. “That is not the way our women react when ravished.”

The judge appeared also to be swayed by the fact that she was at her office at 11 pm and did not object to “consuming drinks with the petitioner and allowing him to stay with her till morning.”

The remarks sparked a storm of criticism.

Wage a battle against India’s rape culture

India can solve its rape problem. The question is: Do we want to?

Protest against rape/Creative Commons.

A week after an “encounter” with Telangana police left four rape and murder-accused men dead, it might not be out of place to ask if India has solved its endemic problem of violence against women.

Have men stopped raping women, or killing them, or dousing them with acid, or beating them just because women talked back, didn’t heat dinner adequately or simply because the men felt like it?

Sadly, no. We’ve done the easy part — brought in tough laws, sanctioned fast-track courts, reduced the age of juveniles, and raised the age of consent. Now comes the hard part of mindset change, of demonstrating the will to stamp out violence against women, of realising there are no short-cuts or half-measures. To stamp out rape, you must battle all forms of gender-based violence.

Are we beyond redemption? I believe we are not. The first prescription is to demonstrate political will. In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, he asked parents to rein in their sons. That message needs to be repeated. Often. We need a clear message of zero tolerance to violence.

The battle for gender equality in an era of machismo politics

The rise of fundamentalism, chauvinistic nationalism and macho leadership has made defending women’s rights that much harder, I report from Bangkok at the Beijing +25 review.

BRICS leaders at the G20 Summit, November 2015/Creative Commons

Away from the tight-lipped silence of government officials locked in negotiations, some 150 people sat huddled on the floor outside one of the cavernous conference halls of the United Nations (UN) building in Bangkok. The group was plotting and planning steps to take at the Beijing +25 review, a conference held to take stock of where the world stands on promises made on gender equality 25 years ago.

The mood of civil society organizations (CSOs)—meeting on the floor because there wasn’t a room available to them—was combative. After initially being locked out of the negotiation process, they had managed to get in—but only as observers. “Negotiations are never so hush-hush,” said Subhalakshmi Nandi, director, policy analysis, International Centre for Research on Women, Asia. “It’s common practice to have CSOs in the negotiating room.”

Government officials, deadlocked for 24 hours straight, quibbled over the words of an all-important outcome document that would be parsed for their country’s stand on gender rights. Premised on what this document might contain or omit, plans were being hatched on how best to protest: singing, chanting, holding signs, or even a walkout.

The anxiety of 230 CSOs from 35 countries in the Asia-Pacific region had been palpable since their arrival in Bangkok on 24 November for three days of stock-taking.

A Year of #MeToo: What it Achieved, and didn’t

A conversation that began after the 2012 Delhi gangrape has grown louder. We may be miles away from a world free of sexual violence, but we are certainly a few notches closer.

Pic taken by Namita Bhandare during the 2013 protests in Delhi

So, was it worth it, after all? One year after India’s MeToo movement, it isn’t out of place to paraphrase TS Eliot’s existential question.

On the face of it, there is plenty to be depressed about. A law student who has accused former minister Chinmayanand of raping her had to threaten suicide over the failure of the State to act. Police action was much delayed, though the accused has now been arrested.

The Bombay High Court has quashed a 2004 sexual harassment case against angel investor Mahesh Murthy, since the delay is not “properly explained”.

Actor Aamir Khan, who, in 2018, stepped down as the producer of Mogul after the director, Subhash Kapoor, was accused of sexual misconduct, is back in the film playing the lead. Khan says he was troubled that his decision might have cost Kapoor his “right to work”.

In October 2018, unshackled from decades of silence, an army of women in India joined a global outpouring against sexual harassment. This movement across 195 countries, expressed via 25 or so sister hashtags (#BabaeAko in the Philippines; #SendeAnlat in Turkey), garnered over 36 million impressions between 2016 and July 2019, found a United Nations report, “What Will it Take?” It “enabled conversations and connections that together have shaken hitherto stable systems of abuse and power”, notes the report.

This isn’t rape!

There are many words — cheat, lowlife, scoundrel — that describe men who lie to women and promise them marriage just in order to have sex with them. Rapist is not one of them. My Hindustan Times column:

He was a doctor, she was studying pharmacy. They met in 2009 and fell in love, or so she thought. They lived in different cities. He said he wanted to marry her. In April 2013, she boarded a train to come and meet him. They had sex.

He dilly-dallied about marriage. In June, she learned that he had married someone else. She accused him of rape; he was arrested; and a long trial began.

If rape is about consent — or the lack of it — then can consent obtained on false information truly be consent? And if it’s not true consent, then isn’t it rape? This past week, the Supreme Court weighed in and said it was indeed.

As many as 70-80% of the rape complaints received by Delhi’s Rape Crisis Centre fall in this grey category, says Zeenat Malick, a lawyer who was with the centre until October 2018 and now has her own practice. “We need to have some kind of separate provision for these types of cases where adult women agree to sex only because men have promised to marry them,” she says. Continue reading “This isn’t rape!”

India’s child rape crisis

When the religion of the perpetrators becomes more important than the crime of rape itself, then you know you are witnessing a civilisational breakdown. 

To find evidence of the epidemic of violence against young girls and women gripping India, you have only to flick through your newspaper.

In the recent past: Two minor sisters, 13 and 15, gang-raped at gunpoint in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh (UP). In Singrauli district, Madhya Pradesh, an eight-year-old gang-raped by two boys aged 15 and 16. Also in Madhya Pradesh, near Bhopal, a 10-year-old girl first murdered, then raped and sodomised.

These are a fraction of the horror stories in a country where, according to National Crime Records Bureau data for 2016, not updated since, 19,764 rape cases were registered — an 82% jump in rape cases from the preceding year, with the worst rise in UP where figures have trebled. These are, of course, reported cases in a country where, according to Mint, 99% of sexual assault goes unreported.

Continue reading “India’s child rape crisis”

“MeToo is a protest movement, doesn’t always lead to change”

Justice Sujata Manohar at the National Commission of Women office, New Delhi

I spoke to Sujata Manohar, the Supreme Court judge who wrote the judgment on workplace sexual harassment guidelines two decades ago, on what she thinks of a contemporary movement.

New Delhi: Before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of April 2013, there were the Vishaka guidelines passed by the Supreme Court in August 1997. Vishaka not only defined sexual harassment for the first time, but also included a broad sweep of offences from outright sexual assault to sexually loaded comments made in the presence of a woman employee. Relying on multilateral and international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN in 1979, it placed responsibility on employers to prevent or deter sexual harassment and set up processes to deal with and resolve complaints.

Vishaka acknowledged women as equal citizens in the workplace with equal rights to employment and opportunity. “The fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade or profession depends on the availability of a ‘safe’ working environment. Right to life means life with dignity,” noted the three-judge bench of Justice Sujata V Manohar, Justice BN Kirpal and the late Justice JS Verma who would subsequently go on to head a committee suggesting legal changes and reforms in the aftermath of the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012.

In the light of India’s MeToo movement, nearly 22 years after Vishaka and six years after the law on workplace sexual harassment, what are some of the core issues that remain? Is the law working or is it adequate to address the continuing malaise? Justice Sujata V Manohar, the second woman judge after Justice Fathima Beevi to be elevated to the Supreme Court, spoke to IndiaSpend:

Justice Sujata Manohar: ‘MeToo is a Protest Movement, Doesn’t Always Lead to Action’

One of three Supreme Court judges to pass the path-breaking Vishaka guidelines on workplace sexual harassment, Justice Sujata Manohar spoke to me about India’s MeToo movement and its larger implications.   

Before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of April 2013, there were the Vishaka guidelines passed by the Supreme Court in August 1997. Vishaka not only defined sexual harassment for the first time, but also included a broad sweep of offences from outright sexual assault to sexually loaded comments made in the presence of a woman employee. Relying on multilateral and international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN in 1979, it placed responsibility on employers to prevent or deter sexual harassment and set up processes to deal with and resolve complaints.

Vishaka acknowledged women as equal citizens in the workplace with equal rights to employment and opportunity. “The fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade or profession depends on the availability of a ‘safe’ working environment. Right to life means life with dignity,” noted the three-judge bench of Justice Sujata V Manohar, Justice BN Kirpal and the late Justice JS Verma who would subsequently go on to head a committee suggesting legal changes and reforms in the aftermath of the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012.

In the light of India’s MeToo movement, nearly 22 years after Vishaka and six years after the law on workplace sexual harassment, what are some of the core issues that remain? Is the law working or is it adequate to address the continuing malaise? Justice Sujata V Manohar, the second woman judge after Justice Fathima Beevi to be elevated to the Supreme Court, spoke to IndiaSpend:

India has, in recent months, seen its own MeToo movement where women are naming men who molested or raped them on social media. How do you view this trend?

MeToo is a social movement. It is not a legal movement. It shows that now it is at least possible for women to complain of what they could not in the past because of social pressure and stigma. To that extent it is a sign of empowerment. That’s one way of looking at it. The second aspect is to see it as an attempt on the part of women who have in the past been harassed by men in positions of power to shame them and possibly have some action taken against them.

But, whichever way you look at it, it is not a legal movement and it does not lead necessarily to any action against the man. The idea is ultimately to see that some action is taken, whatever is available under the law.

MeToo has its limitations. A woman can be harassed by someone on the street, for instance, not necessarily by a person with whom she is working. So, it is not an answer to anything. It is only a method of protest against exploitation.

Continue reading “Justice Sujata Manohar: ‘MeToo is a Protest Movement, Doesn’t Always Lead to Action’”

What made India’s #MeToo possible

In Foreign Policy, I write on workplace sexual harassment from Bhanwari Devi to the resignation of M.J. Akbar, what’s changed over the years and which way India’s  #MeToo movement is likely to go. 

For close to two weeks now, many of India’s women, particularly in the English-language media and entertainment businesses, have taken to social media to call out sexual predators: bosses who had demanded sexual favors, men who had sent unsolicited explicit photographs, and stars who had interacted inappropriately with underage fans. Among those caught up in the torrent of accusations have been editors, directors, actors, writers, stand-up comedians, an image consultant, and a minister in the current government.

In some ways, the groundwork for this movement was laid in the 1990s. Early that decade, the state government of Rajasthan hired Bhanwari Devi, a social activist, to join an ongoing campaign against child marriage. Some locals, however, were not happy. In 1992, as “punishment” for her vocal condemnation of the marriage of a 9-month-old girl to a child from the same village, Devi says that she was raped by two men while three others held her down. The men denied the charges.

When the case came up for trial in a lower court in 1995, a judge ruled that “since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place.” Devi, you see, was from a lower caste. The judge’s implication was that no upper caste man would “defile” himself by touching a lower-caste woman.

Weeks of marches and protests followed. And soon, a group of nonprofits came together under the name Vishakha. They petitioned the Supreme Court to create a legal framework for justice for women who had been sexually assaulted in the course of their work. In 1997, India’s highest court set specific guidelines that, for the first time, defined sexual harassment. The definition included not just physical contact but also sexually loaded remarks and comments.

Continue reading “What made India’s #MeToo possible”

My #MeToo moment goes back 30 years, and it still makes me angry

In The Print, I write about the current movement against workplace sexual harassment that for me has summoned up old ghosts and taken me back to my own #MeToo moment 30 years ago. Has nothing really changed? Or is it that a new generation of women journalists are telling predatory, entitled male bosses to back off?

My #MeToo moment goes back some 30 years. I was a young reporter in a new job in Mumbai and was visiting my parents who lived in Delhi. My new editor happened to be in town and the three of us – the New Editor, another journalist and I went out for dinner at a restaurant in Hauz Khas Village.

After dinner, in the car on the way back home, New Editor made his move in the back seat. I pushed him off but he kept coming back at me. I didn’t feel threatened or I would have yelled – there were two people in the front after all, the journalist and the driver, oblivious to what was happening. As New Editor, a tiny man with big hair, kept making ridiculous kissy faces, I had to fight the urge to laugh.

Back in Mumbai, I did speak about the incident, not that I was traumatised but as a ‘can you believe this ridiculous man?’ kind of way.

Word got around to New Editor who summoned me to his cabin. “You shouldn’t talk about it because people will think you are showing off,” was his gratuitous advice. I was not just angry but deeply insulted. Showing off about what? I left his cabin, walked straight to my desk and wrote out my resignation.

Continue reading “My #MeToo moment goes back 30 years, and it still makes me angry”