Justice Verma’s report besides covering sexual harassment at workplace also covers other crimes committed on women. Most of these questions were never raised or those who raised them were unheard. Nevertheless, for a civilized democratic nation, the existing social attitudes need to be challenged. India cannot become a global super power when it is the fourth unsafe country in the world for women, nearly 50% of its population. It is our duty to question existing archetypes, advocate change and bring about new thinking.
India was among the few countries that gave equal rights to women on Independence in its Constitution. Mahatma Gandhi thoughts reflected his open thinking in the following words. Let us make them a reality in this century.
“Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in the minutest details in the activities of man, and she has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him. She is entitled to a supreme place in her own sphere of activity as man is in his. This ought to be the natural condition of things and not as a result only of learning to read and write. By sheer force of a vicious custom, even the most ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying a superiority over woman which they do not deserve and ought not to have. Many of our movements stop half way because of the condition of our women.”
The issue is at the heart of Indian society and below are few points from the report that I wish to bring to your attention.
1. Rape and Sexual Assault
The Indian Penal Code defines rape as:
“A man is said to commit “rape” who, except in the case hereinafter excepted, has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under any of the six following descriptions:—
First.—Against her will.
Secondly.—Without her consent.
Thirdly.—With her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her or any person in whom she is interested in fear of death or of hurt.
Fourthly.—With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married.
Fifthly.—With her consent, when, at the time of giving such consent, by reason of unsoundness of mind or intoxication or the administration by him personally or through another of any stupefying or unwholesome substance, she is unable to understand the nature and consequences of that to which she gives consent.
Sixth.—With or without her consent, when she is under sixteen years of age.”
In Indian society, few women are able to exercise their right to object or say no. Men obtain consent through psychological, emotional, financial and physical coercion and threat. The popular concept is that rich men do not rape, it is only poor men who rape women. If a rich man obtains consent through coercion, the women agreed. The standard should be clear. Any man who forces himself on a woman when she has said no is attempting rape. Sex with a woman when she is opposing or resisting is rape. Consent given out of fear or criminal intimidation is rape. Period.
The situation of an Indian wife is the worst possible in the world. Every woman in the world has a right to say no, except an Indian wife. She is duty bound to have sex with her husband. For the first time Justice Verma has included marital rape. Wife is not a property of the husband and has the right to revoke her consent to sex during the course of her marriage. The report states- “A rapist remains a rapist irrespective of the relationship with the victim.” In mordern context, marriage is a relationship of equals and consent cannot be assumed as implied.
Secondly, rape victims face extreme humiliation in courts when their past personal life is dragged for discussion. The defense lawyers ruin the reputation of the victim by bringing past love affairs. In Indian society, if a woman has sex outside of her marriage she becomes characterless. The whole attitude adds insult to injury. Justice Verma has recommended that a woman’s past life cannot be a subject matter for debate in court in a rape case.
It requires extreme courage in India for a woman to report rape and most of the cases go unreported due to the social stigma a raped woman faces. She is ostracized and alienated by the society and her reputation is ruined. The abusive men proudly boast about their power and accomplishments in brow beating women into submission. This attitude needs complete revamping as it distorts the justice system. Society should view rape as a crime and not evaluate it on a shame-honor paradigm as it puts the victimized woman on trial instead of the rapist.
Sohaila Abdulali, a rape victim had succinctly put it – “Rape is horrible. But it is not horrible for all the reasons that have been drilled into the heads of Indian women. It is horrible because you are violated, you are scared, someone else takes control of your body and hurts you in the most intimate way. It is not horrible because you lose your “virtue.” It is not horrible because your father and your brother are dishonored. I reject the notion that my virtue is located in my vagina, just as I reject the notion that men’s brains are in their genitals.” This brave heart has the courage to break the rigid thinking and fight against atrocities.
2. Eve Teasing and Stalking
The Indian Journal of Criminology and Criminalistics (January- June 1995 Edn.) has categorized eve teasing into five heads viz. (1) verbal eve teasing; (2) physical eve teasing; (3) psychological harassment; (4) sexual harassment; and (5) harassment through some objects. In India the safety of women is at risk in all public places and not just the workplace. Women are sexually harassed in public spaces by men making unwarranted comments. In some cases, the obscene words and gestures seriously impact the dignity of women.
A minor girl in India from the time of achieving puberty becomes a target of eve teasing. As India is a conservative society, she learns to suffer the indignities quietly. As such with the parental attitude that girls are a liability, Indian girls have a low self-esteem. They are trained to behave according to “what will people say”. Hence, the young unsure girl suffers psychologically and emotionally without an outlet since she cannot share her “shame”. If she does so, she will be shunned.
For men it is just an entertaining pastime to demonstrate their machismo. They generally go unpunished due to the lax implementation of criminal action in these cases. Women hardly report the cases to police though eve-teasing is a criminal offence
Justice Verma’s report gives recommendations to curtail eve-teasing. He has suggested deputation of female police officers at public places, installation of CCTV cameras in public places, filing of police complaints by public transport and public place operators etc. These are steps in the right direction.
If a man wishes to talk to a woman, he can do so in a graceful and dignified manner without offending the sensibilities of the woman. He does not need to stalk a woman, behave in an uncouth and uncivilized manner to get attention. Moreover, if a woman has rejected his advances, he should accept that gracefully. His interest and her rejection do not give a right to harass and abuse her. The women should not adopt a defeatist attitude or try to convince themselves that the man is showing affection and liking. He is blatantly saying that he does not respect you or your wishes. Thankfully, Justice Verma’s report has included stalking as a criminal offense.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is about fighting fear tooth and nail in every step we take to define a new path. The educated women and men of India need to fight this battle for their less privileged counterparts. When Indian women could fight shoulder to shoulder in the non-violent struggle for Indian Independence, they can fight now too. In life, always the crazies have brought about change. Don’t be scared to be marked as quirky or non-conformist, you are in good company. Before Independence, British thought Mahatma Gandhi as a fruitcake. The point is, no one will fight your battle for you. We need to do it for ourselves. Progress of Indian women serves India’s national interest. Hence, let us move forward with courage and conviction to redefine the status of women in Indian society