The view that women who dressed ‘provocatively' had it coming to them is deeply ingrained in the Indian male psyche.

What an amazing New Year gift for Indian women! A police chief and a Minister telling them that if they get harassed, molested or raped, it is actually their fault. We have heard this before on many occasions. But coming as it does just as the New Year dawns, it is a bit of a downer for all those who thought that perhaps our society would finally accept that women are equal citizens and that if they continue to be sexually assaulted, there is a sickness in our society that must be tackled. Not quite yet, it would seem.

According to media reports, the Director General of Police of Andhra Pradesh was quoted as saying words to the effect that if women wore flimsy clothes, they provoked rape. These remarks were recorded on camera and telecast. And have been played out on the Internet on multiple sites. Hence, it is strange that police officers defending the DGP should suggest that the remarks have been taken out of context. They were made in response to a question about the incidence of rape in Andhra Pradesh.

Meanwhile, a Karnataka Minister responsible for women's welfare, when asked what he thought of the Andhra DGP's views, was reported saying that while women were free to dress as they pleased, he was personally against them wearing ‘provocative' clothing and that they needed to be ‘dignified'. And to add further grist to the mill, the head of a panel dealing with sexual harassment in Bangalore University believes that only sarees with long sleeved blouses ensure that women are respected and that she is against women wearing ‘obscene' clothes.

The more things change

So, ‘provocative', ‘obscene' clothes equal an invitation to rape. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Despite decades of campaigns for women's rights, against sexual violence, for stronger laws, the deeply ingrained view that women had it coming to them has not changed. In fact, in my own experience of writing this column, whenever I write about violence against women, rape, or sexual harassment in the public space, as I did in my last column, there are more than a few letters suggesting to me that I have got it all wrong and that it is because women dress the way they do that all this is happening. The majority of these letters are written by men.

Here, for instance, is a quote from one such letter (unedited) in response to my last column (The Other Half, December 25, 2011): “You have written well but one vital point no want mentions whenever there is a case of sexual harassment: the point is the female, are they not seducing males by wearing sleeve-less tops and tight jeans. Sexual desire is hidden in all of us, and it needs a basis for arousal. The girls can bear to wear some decent clothes. When you need protection you have to pay some costs, why not pay by wearing decent clothes. You people should launch a campaign to aware the girls. I think if there is no such movements the situation will get worse in later years.”

Public memory is notoriously short on most issues and people like the young man who has written, presuming he is young, are probably unaware of the long struggle waged by the women's movement in India against rape. He and others like him have probably never heard of Mathura, a 16-year-old tribal girl who was raped by two policemen in the Desai Ganj police station in Maharashtra's Chandrapur district in 1974. Mathura had gone to the police to register a complaint about her missing husband. Even as her relatives waited outside for her, she was assaulted and raped by the two men. Did this attack have anything to do with what she wore? Did she invite the rape? It was a question of power. The police had the power; Mathura did not.

Unfortunately, the courts let off the two policemen on the grounds that there were no injuries on Mathura to establish that she had resisted. Hence the court gave the benefit of the doubt to the policemen. It was this judgment that triggered a campaign to change the rape laws so that the victim was not victimised further. It also established rules about police conduct; women cannot be summoned to a police station after dark and when they are, women constables have to be present. In 1983, the provision in the criminal law dealing with rape was amended so that the victim did not have to prove that she was raped; her statement was sufficient. The onus of proving innocence was on the rapist. These changes were made in recognition of the fact that the criminal justice system was skewed against women who turned to the law when they were sexually assaulted.

Or take a more recent case, that of the rape and murder of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama in Manipur in 2004, allegedly by the security forces. Did it matter what Manorama wore? Her rape and death triggered the iconic naked protest by a dozen elderly Manipuri women in Imphal, who stood before the headquarters of the Assam Rifles on July 15, 2004, with a banner stating “Indian Army Rape Us”. The “Imas” or mothers as they are called, have continued to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and are the main support group behind that determined and brave woman, Irom Sharmila, whose indefinite fast against AFSPA will soon enter its 12 th year.

It's not the dress

So, how is women's attire relevant when the subject is rape and sexual assault? When little girls are raped, can they be charged with being provocative? When old women are raped, can they be accused of wearing ‘obscene' clothes? When a woman is simply going about her daily routine, and she is sexually assaulted, can we turn around and tell her that she should be ‘dignified'? There is no dignity in being the target of violence for no other reason than that you are a woman — old, young, thin, fat, dark, fair, any caste, creed or class. To reduce the heinousness of this crime to such triviality, by bringing up women's attire, is a crime in itself. And for law enforcers and lawmakers to do so, is even worse.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com