In the month since the mass molestation of women that took place on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016 in Bengaluru, Newindianexpress.com set out to ask a few questions to the general public — to understand people’s mindsets and to get them to #StopBlamingStartReasoning.
We conducted a survey, both online and in person by recording videos, to get a pulse of the people and to get them to examine their own beliefs about women and their roles in society and how it all ties up.
What does society say? Do clothes play a role in ‘provoking’ sexual assault? If so, then why do children also get preyed on often? Do we tend to blame parties and western culture for the crimes, whereas women face equal or worse kinds of unwanted advances in public places like buses, schools and colleges and offices? We asked some thought-provoking questions to more than 250 people in all (online and in person), and the responses we received helped us understand the problem a little better.
To find answers to why women are largely the victims of sexual assault, we needed to first challenge established notions about the gender. Politicians like Samajawadi Party’s Abu Azmi’s reactions to the Bengaluru New Year’s Eve incident are typical of the scourge of misogyny and the victim-shaming that it allows. Although his comments were widely condemned, they are also widely-held beliefs.
So, we removed the factor of the female gender from the equation and asked why men, too, get sexually assaulted? That’s when the truth revealed itself.
“Because the perpetrator was able to exercise power over the victim.” That was the overwhelming response of the respondents. Here are some samples: a man whose social standing was lower than that of a woman was sexually assaulted; a man who is effeminate and weak was molested; men don’t get assaulted because they exude physical strength; children are easy targets as they are weak and cannot stand up to the perpetrator, and so on.
A psychologist in the age group of 25-40 who took the survey summed it up thus: “Because the molestors do not understand the concept of respecting other people's rights. They are very self-centered when they feel sexually aroused, that they only seem to think about what they want, and for some people molesting seems to be a way of dominating to make themselves feel powerful in some way.”
The responses, in fact, concur with the definition given to sexual assault by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO also says it is women, as is commonly known, that are subjected to high incidences of sexual violence.
According to the WHO, Sexual violence is defined as: any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work. Coercion can cover a whole spectrum of degrees of force. Apart from physical force, it may involve psychological intimidation, blackmail or other threats – for instance, the threat of physical harm, of being dismissed from a job or of not obtaining a job that is sought. It may also occur when the person aggressed is unable to give consent – for instance, while drunk, drugged, asleep or mentally incapable of understanding the situation.
The act of a sexual assault, as the survey responses too revealed, is one where the perpetrator commits the crime because he believes he can dominate the victim. There is, on the part of the perpetrator, either no understanding of or willingness to acknowledge the rights of a woman as an individual — her right to make decisions about her own body, her right to public spaces, her right to be an active part of society. A man’s such rights, on the other hand, are taken for granted.
Prevalent as sexual assaults on women are, we examined if society itself was unwilling to concede women the rights they are due. Most respondents’ answers acknowledged that it was the circumstances — where men take liberties with women without their consent — that led to the rules that society expects women to follow to keep themselves safe. Most said that it was the mindset of the man that led him to commit a sexual crime, and that a woman does not ask for it, as the common victim-blaming narrative goes.
So does education lead to awareness? Most people agreed that the educated are not less likely to commit sexual crimes, as our schooling system neither provides healthy sex-education, nor does it teach values such as respect of women and equality of the sexes, at an impressionable age. In fact, the system prevents the mingling of the sexes, in most cases, and this leads to curiosity, which provokes sexual assault, said one middle-aged man.
Some respondents, in fact, said it was the educated that were more likely to commit sexual crimes, as they think they can cover it up because they’re intelligent enough to do so. An example cited was of those who use technology and social media to harass women and then wipe the traces clean because they had the know-how.
A wizened old man said both the educated and the uneducated commit sexual crimes, and that the only difference was that the educated were wily enough to pretend to be clean on the outside while using every opportunity they get to exploit those weaker than them, like women and children.
As for education, does it start and stop at school? One respondent pointed out how what is practised at home is what the children learn. If men of the house treat women as equals and with respect, that’s what the children would imbibe. But if men treat women disrespectfully, children learn that women are those they can have their way with, he said.
That brings us to the question, is everyone aware of what consent is? And does a woman have the right to express consent or dissent? The response of a school-teacher in the age-group of 25-40 was revealing. “Women lack independence and therefore have abdicated the right to consent and dissent,” she said.
One young male business analyst advocates respect of a woman’s independence and individuality, just as a man would expect that his independence and individuality be respected. “Men should know that a woman’s value does not lie in her adherence to culturally-imposed standards of conduct or beauty,” he explained.
What about independent women? Why are they scrutinised for their sartorial choices? Despite most people acknowledging that sexual assault is the result of one exercising power over another, when women are the victims, the respondents show a clear bias in how they judge the victim. For instance, in the case of sexual assault on women, one middle-aged respondent when asked about the Bengaluru incident, put the onus on the victim, saying her clothes may have provoked the assault, she should not have been out late at night, and she should not have gone to a party. But when we asked the follow-up question about why then children get victimised, the woman then shifted the onus on to the perpetrator, saying the man must have been a lust-crazed animal.
Another middle-aged woman, however, brought the focus back on the power equation, saying men who abuse children are feeding their ego.
What about prevention? Why are women asked to take the onus for prevention of sexual crime (given that women are largely the victims and men the perpetrators, as crime statistics both in India and abroad show)? Is it not better instead to sensitise men to respect women? A female lawyer thinks sensitisation is humbug and that only severe punishments will deter men from committing the crimes.
However, several respondents said parenting plays an important role in sensitising boys and girls before they become men and women, to help them understand consent, to accord each other mutual respect and to treat each other as equals.
The business analyst, who said women’s independence must be respected, is also of the opinion that when they are children, parents should keep tabs on boys too, like they do on girls, — find out where they are going, impose curfew, and watch what they’re up to in the real world and on social media, he says.
A young male engineer, however, brings us back to the reality of the times. “It is still man’s world,” he says, “and a male chauvinistic one at that”. He believes “men were built strong to protect and care for women but some of them misuse their power against the weaker sex.”