A teenager near Mumbai, assaulted with bricks; gang-raped. A bride gang-raped on her wedding night by her husband and his friends. In Satara, a newly-wed couple attacked outside a temple; robbed and beaten. The bride tried to resist sexual assault, was thrown off a cliff; groom beaten almost to death, thrown off a cliff.
I read this and then I read about VHP’s Durga Vahini in Mangalore, sneaking around a restaurant’s smoking section, on the lookout for girls who smoke. Not on the lookout for rapists or harassers. And definitely not on the lookout for men who attack women at birthday parties.
But the police isn’t arresting these ladies who give Goddess Durga a bad name. Nor is the Karnataka government concerned. Instead, they go after journalists like Naveen Soorinje, who reported the attack at a house party in Mangalore in July 2012.
Attacks targeting young women and couples weren’t new in Karnataka. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) had noted at least 140 such instances since 2007. But it was only after Soorinje’s report that 43 people were arrested.
By November, Soorinje himself was in jail, and was charged with helping people to riot “with deadly weapons”, “using criminal force on a woman with the intention of outraging her modesty”, etc. He was denied bail even by High Court in Bangalore. Journalist groups had to intercede. Some went on a hunger strike and finally the state’s home minister assured them that charges against Soorinje would be dropped. We hear that this is now imminent.
Another journalist, Sudipto Mondal had gone to record to say that he was attacked thrice in Mangalore. Yet the state offers no assurances about how it will deal with the VHP, Sri Ram Sene, Hindu Jagriti Vedike who organise such attacks. If Muthalik had been locked up after the pub attacks in 2009, for a long, long time, fresh attacks may not have happened.
So yes, rape laws must change to make our country safer. But laws against any assault must be implemented first. The state must send out a clear message that women are free to smoke or drink or have sex if they please.
The Justice Verma Committee has recommended a ban on the two finger test for rape cases. But in 2010, a Human Rights Watch report had already called the test “unscientific, inhuman and degrading”. The SC had already made it legally irrelevant by saying that a woman’s “habituation to sexual intercourse” is immaterial. Yet, High Courts go on asking for examinations to determine ‘hymenal orifice size’.
For too long, we have put up with the idea that an adult woman who expresses her social or sexual desire can be punished, that she doesn’t deserve to be safe. That is why it is imperative that Parliament take a stand. It needs to stop looking at citizens and their bodies in terms of ‘decency’ and start looking instead at our rights to our own bodies. We must do away with words like ‘modesty’ in law.
Next, the government will try to push through the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Amendment Bill. And we have to stop making this about decency. Women can choose to be represented any way they like. There is nothing illegal about anatomy, male or female or transgender. What is indecent is the violence we inflict upon each other’s bodies in the name of decency or morality. That must not go unpunished.
Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)