Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Women are told that they should speak up against harassment, and yet when two young women took on a bunch of men on a bus in Rohtak, they were described as ‘aggressive’

Published - December 08, 2014 01:52 am IST

SELECTIVE SUPPORT: “Women get sympathy only when they are brutally raped or killed.” Picture shows protests against the gang rape of a woman in Delhi. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

SELECTIVE SUPPORT: “Women get sympathy only when they are brutally raped or killed.” Picture shows protests against the gang rape of a woman in Delhi. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

When the video of two young women, Aarti and Puja, beating up a youth on a Haryana bus went viral recently, the nation sat up. Well done, was the initial reaction. The Haryana government announced bravery awards for the sisters who had shown the resolve to beat back their molesters. The incident was given wide coverage in the media and talk shows. People were justifiably excited as they had witnessed a rare instance in which a woman was not at the receiving end.

But the euphoria was short-lived. Reports began to surface about how the sisters were in the “habit” of beating up men at the “slightest” provocation. Visuals of them thrashing another man in a park were circulated widely to prove that they were “aggressive.” Affidavits were obtained from passengers who travelled on the same bus which said the young men were acting in “self-defence” after the girls attacked them following an altercation over a seat. People of Kansla village, to which the three accused belong, swore that the boys were innocent. The Haryana government, for its part, put the award on hold.

The social media went hammer and tongs with many pointing out how men are increasingly “victimised” by women, using the opportunity to cry foul over the misuse of Section 498A (dowry law), domestic violence laws and laws that seek to protect women from sexual harassment. Some argued that no one has the right to take the law into his or her own hands; the girls should have persuaded the bus driver to drive to the police station.

In the Rohtak incident and the Preity-Ness spat, the thrust is on proving that the men involved did not molest the women but only ‘reacted’ to a situation created by the women themselves

Following the rule book Whether or not the young men abused the girls as they claim, or the incident was actually an altercation over a seat, the fallout has been typical and the ‘message’ very much on expected lines: “good girls” should avoid getting into situations that can cause such ugly scenes, especially in public. Even under provocation (whether verbal abuse should even be a cause for provocation is another subject of debate), they should exercise restraint and follow the rule book.

This is certainly not to say the Haryana sisters are necessarily right and the three young men necessarily wrong. That is for the courts to decide. But the reasons being cited to prove the men’s innocence or at least mitigate their behaviour are unfortunate. If the girls refused to vacate a seat for an old woman, whose cause the men were supposedly espousing, the conductor or the driver could have been asked to intervene. If women being teased on the bus could approach them — which according to many responsible citizens would have been the right thing to do — surely a passenger whose seat had been encroached upon could do the same.

From the visuals of the girls beating up a man on a bus and in a park, one thing was evident. People around them were mere onlookers. If the argument that they would have intervened had it been a case of eve-teasing is valid, one wonders why they did not stop the two young women who, without any provocation, pounced on an “innocent” man just for the heck of it.

The future of the three young men will be rendered bleak if they are convicted, their villagers argue (two of the three accused were selected to serve the Army but the Army has said it will not recruit them), and their careers should not be compromised because of two “irresponsible” girls who are habitual fighters. Fair enough. But what if the men are indeed guilty of molesting and harassing the women? Can they be given responsible posts?

Vulnerable everywhere Women are extremely vulnerable both at home and outside. They are molested in buses, taxis, schools, in the workplace. They are raped and thrown out of moving trains. Verbal abuse and lewd gestures are everyday happenings. Unfortunately for women, their safety is their responsibility. They must get back home by sunset, avoid travelling late nights, avoid cinema and pubs, avoid partying, avoid wearing dresses that provoke lewd comments, avoid going out with boyfriends, ignore eve-teasers, and remain silent or quit their jobs if harassed at the workplace. If they talk and laugh loudly in public, challenge men, wear skirts or jeans, and have live-in relationships, they are easy targets and apparently deserve to be abused. As for the men who abuse them, well, boys are boys.

Didn’t one of our leaders famously say boys make mistakes; they can’t be hanged for that? The oppressive attitude is more evident in States like Haryana, where patriarchal khap panchayats hold sway even today.

When actor Preity Zinta complained a few months ago that Ness Wadia abused her in public during an IPL match, a few sympathised with her. But there were also many who said she was overreacting. Just as there are allegations now that the Haryana sisters escalated a row over a seat, the Ness-Preity spat was attributed to the actor’s refusal to keep seats in the Wankhede stadium reserved for Ness’ relatives. What a striking similarity! In both instances, the thrust is on proving that the men involved did not molest the women but only “reacted” to a situation created by the women themselves.

Just how are women supposed to respond to eve-teasing and harassment in public? People around them don’t care. The police do not take such incidents seriously; filing an FIR is next to impossible. It is very difficult to get witnesses to testify; the woman’s word is her only defence. In most cases of eve-teasing, the tendency is to portray the women who challenge the men as aggressors (“don’t invite adverse publicity, just ignore them” is the wise counsel). Add to that the thinking that boys will be boys; it is for girls to ensure they do not attract harassment.

Of course, women can keep quiet and suffer, as they have been doing for ages. But they are also told that they should speak up against harassment, as a first step towards empowerment. And when two young women from a nondescript village take on a bunch of men who were certainly not minding their own business in a park or a bus, they are described as an aggressive pair for whom beating men is a pastime. What a classic case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Unfortunately, women get sympathy only when they are brutally raped or killed. People congregate on roads with candles and talk about the need to change the patriarchal mindset and empower women. They even talk of how parents should raise their sons responsibly. What we as a society need to understand is when we condone or make light of Rohtak-like incidents for whatever reasons, we encourage men to commit graver crimes. Society’s obsession with the so-called “other side” when it comes to dealing with day-to-day crimes against women is one major reason laws cannot be implemented effectively.

In both reel life and real life, women who suffer endlessly in silence get all the sympathy and respect. The only difference — in films men repent in the last scene.

mythili.s@thehindu.co.in

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