After Bengaluru, this is what women should say loud and clear to men

What we need is a commitment to defending women’s unqualified, fearless freedom and a zero-tolerance policy for victim-blaming.

Seething with rage at the attitudes to violence against women that have surfaced since reports about mass molestation in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve came in, I’m left wondering: Are we outraged only over the detail that it was a mass molestation? That it happened in Bengaluru? That it happened on New Year’s Eve? Why aren’t we just as angry – furious – over the fact that women face violence in their daily lives?

The fact is we have so many ways of rationalising violence against women.

A close friend was assaulted recently in broad daylight at a petrol pump in Delhi. A man on a two-wheeler drove towards her, grabbing her bag, possibly to snatch it or to drag her towards him by her bag. She resisted and held on to her bag, dragging him down. He then repeatedly slapped and punched her and called her a whore. The petrol pump staff and bystanders did not note down his vehicle number despite her repeated appeals to them to do so. When she later asked them why they did not intervene or help in any way, they casually told her, “We thought he must be your husband.” Clearly, violence by an intimate partner is considered entirely normal – men are allowed to beat wives who are seen as their rightful property.

Can there be a more stark demonstration of the fact that men’s entitlement to inflict violence on “their own” mothers, sisters, wives, breeds social tolerance for violence against all women?

When men are taught to feel entitled to control the bodies and lives of women in their homes and allowed to feel free to abuse them at will, is it any surprise that they learn to feel entitled to extend those attitudes to all women?

“It was as if by calling me a whore,” wrote my friend about her experience, “a public permit had been won” by the attacker to hit and abuse a woman. Both “she must be a whore” and “she must be a wife” serve equally well to sanction violence against women.

#NotAllMen – #YesAllWomen

It is shocking that in the wake of the Bengaluru case, the hashtag #NotAllMen trended on social media. #YesAllMen enjoy this socially-conferred sense of entitlement to inflict violence on – and expect subservience and service from – “their own” women. #YesAllWomen are therefore unsafe in their own homes and on the streets. #YesAllWomen and #YesOnlyWomen get called whores. That is why #YesAllWomen should say loud and clear: “We’re not afraid of being called whores” – that’s what the Slut Walk protests were about.

Former Delhi Police Commissioner BK Gupta happened to be one of the participants in a television discussion on the outrage at Bengaluru. Gupta went on to say that the Bengaluru police should have been better prepared since they should have expected a large number of women to be out on New Year’s Eve. I was reminded of what he had told women entrepreneurs, professionals and social workers in an interaction in 2011. “Women cannot drive alone at 2 am on Delhi’s roads and then claim that the Capital is unsafe,” he had said. “You should take your brother or driver with you. These reasonable precautions are expected to be taken by all citizens of the city.” When I asked him about this 2011 comment, he was incensed. He insisted that police could be expected to prepare for women’s public presence only for New Year’s Eve – on ordinary nights women should arrange their own protection in the form of male companions.

The rules for women are endless. Women, according to policemen like Gupta, must show, what he called, “a valid reason” for venturing out alone at nights. Women are allowed to venture out on New Year’s – that’s once a year – but not every night, any night. Women must be accompanied by male companions. But here’s news for those like him – my friend was assaulted in broad daylight in view of scores of bystanders, who did not intervene because they assumed the assaulter was her husband or male companion and thus authorised to beat her. And on December 16, 2012, a young woman out with her male companion was gangraped and killed – perhaps the former police commissioner has forgotten?

When we expressed outrage against Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi’s remarks that women were attacked in Bengaluru because they were wearing “short clothes”, it was suggested by some that we would be better off ignoring rather than amplifying the views of such lunatics. But can we afford to ignore such views when such views influence the policies of police, women’s hostels, our own parents and families and affect the lives of women? Before that, none other than Karnataka Home Minister G Parameshwara said “such incidents happen”.

Azmi and Parameshwara are not alone. Here is one list of politicians who have expressed identical sentiments. And this list is far from exhaustive. Madhya Pradesh Minister Kailash Vijayvargiya declared that men could rape women only if the latter “crossed the Lakshman Rekha”. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s West Bengal President Dilip Ghosh said that Jadavpur women students who complained of sexual harassment were “below standard, shameless and always in search of an opportunity to be in company of male students,” and advised that women who were so concerned about their “modesty” should stay home. Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma advised tourists not to wear skirts if they wished to remain safe.

Can we really ignore such remarks by MLAs, MPs, ministers, police commissioners who wield power over our lives and have the power to shape public policy?

Azmi said, “You have to keep petrol away from fire. And if there is sugar, ants will come automatically to it,” to justify saying that girls have been given too much freedom. Azmis and Vijayvargiyas of the world need to clearly be told that by saying men can’t help being predators, can’t help being fire, can’t help being ants, we are giving men a licence to molest and rape.

Within boundaries

Every time we tell women to respect “Lakshman Rekhas” and remain “within boundaries” we are telling men they need not respect even the boundaries of a woman’s body. A woman’s own body is her Lakshman Rekha – a boundary that no one should cross without her consent! We need to teach men – #YesAllMen – to respect that boundary, to respect consent, to respect the right of a woman over her own body, and the world will be a safer place. But no – our male leaders are instead teaching men that women are sugar, women are gold – that is, women are objects of consumption or property to be owned or stolen. They are telling us that women are petrol and men are fire and so, if a man comes across an unaccompanied woman, it is “natural” for violence to “take place.”

When we tell women demanding freedom that “freedom comes with responsibilities”, we are in effect telling men that they need not be responsible for their own actions, that they can blame their own violence on women. And yes, by implying that men are “animals” who can’t control themselves, they are insulting men – #YesAllMen.

The anti-rape movement of 2012-13 said women have a right to “fearless freedom” and should not be asked to trade freedom for “safety”. The Why Loiter movement is asserting that the best way to fight street violence is to assert the unqualified right of women to loiter aimlessly and for pleasure on the streets. The Pinjra Tod movement is challenging all discriminatory hostel rules that lock women up in the name of safety.

But what angers me is that those who make policies and wield power continue to stick stubbornly to the old script. I cannot think of a single prime minister or chief minister or police commissioner or college principal or university vice chancellor who declares a zero-tolerance policy for victim-blaming and expresses a commitment to defending women’s unqualified, fearless freedom. Why isn’t there a single government-funded campaign against victim-blaming, and popularising the concept of consent? How many government-funded campaigns have we seen against domestic violence? Are such campaigns really too much to expect?

Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist).

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