Question: What do Bhawari Devi, Sohaila Abdulali and Varnika Kundu have in common?
Answer: All three survived sexually motivated crimes and chose to speak out about their experiences.*
In a country such as India where survivors of rape and other forms of sexual assault and harassment (including sexually coloured remarks, groping and inappropriate advances) often remain silent for fear of being shamed or ostracised it takes remarkable courage to come forward and recount one’s experience. Very often on-lookers, investigators and the survivor’s family and friends inadvertently or deliberately reinforce the culture of silence. Here are five common ways in which they do so:
Victim blaming takes focus away from the perpetrator by suggesting that the victim’s behaviour has caused the crime. It can take several forms, including asking what she wore, said or did which might have instigated the perpetrator. It can also involve looking into her sexual history or seeking evidence of promiscuity in her previous behaviour. In her article on the subject, Sreeparna Chattopadhyay discusses in depth how such questions and comments reassign responsibility for the crime, and fail to hold the harasser accountable for his actions.
My study of the IT industry (published in 2013, before the enactment of the law against Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace) found that human resource managers often counsel women about appropriate attire and behaviour to “avoid harassment”. Such counsel, however well meant, is founded on erroneous assumptions. Studies have shown that harassment is an act of power which has little to do with the victim's behaviour. A more effective strategy would be for organisations to help both men and women identify behaviours that are harassing.**
Suggesting that the intentions of the accused are frivolous rather than harmful. For instance when we use the term ‘eve-teasing’ rather than harassment for a host of behaviours including catcalling, leering, making suggestive and threatening gestures, stalking, groping or whistling, we imply that women pose a natural temptation to their male harassers and that the latter’s behaviour occurs in a spirit of light-hearted camaraderie.
Minimisation is a common response to complaints of verbal harassment (sexist jokes and overly personal remarks for instance). Women who protest verbal harassment are often told to “relax” or “chill”. Telling a woman to chill or relax is to belittle her feelings of hurt and anger. Similarly when investigators describe a victim as aggravated, overly emotional or hysterical, they trivialise and delegitimise her reaction to the threatening or humiliating behaviour she has experienced.
Excusing harassment based on the perpetrator’s youth, inexperience or lack of understanding, or suggesting that he was inebriated or under high stress. Such explanations are rarely to excuse crimes which are not sexual in nature such as assault, robbery or public disturbance.
A common justification for sexual crimes is “boys will be boys” (suggesting that this is natural male behaviour) but what is common is not always normal or ethical. British social scientists Liz Stanley and Sue Wise use the analogy of an overlooked dripping tap (which creates unnoticed background noise) to explain our collective desensitisation to sexual crimes.
While it is important to break the culture of silence around sexual crimes, violating the survivor’s privacy, sharing graphic photographs or using sexually-suggestive language to describe the crime in the media or in interpersonal conversation is disrespectful of survivors and reinforces the practice of treating women as sex objects.
Based on an in-depth study of news reports Anusha Shah argues that the media reports sexual crimes as ‘episodic’ rather than linking them together as part of a culture of gender based violence. She suggests that rather than repeatedly focussing on the heinous details of individual crimes, the conversation needs to address how entrenched gender inequalities in a patriarchal culture promote sexual crimes.
A misplaced focus on “honour”: In the immediate aftermath of the crime survivors often experience pain, confusion, revulsion and fear. Many show prolonged symptoms of trauma but as Sohaila Abdulali’s evocative essay tells us, with the right support, they go on to build happy, meaningful lives and enjoy love and intimacy.
Unfortunately in South Asia women tend to be regarded as symbolic of the honour of their families and communities (a major factor in sexual assaults during war and communal conflict - see Urvashi Bhutalia’s book The Other Side of Silence on rape and abduction of Indian and Pakistani women during Partition). While survivors need care and empathy, remarks about “dishonour”, or suggestions that their lives have been irrevocably destroyed, only delay their recovery and increase the possibility of further crimes against women from vulnerable communities.
All the behaviours listed above are forms of re-victimisation. If you find yourself or others engaging in them whilst discussing sexual crimes, call them out and find more effective ways to support and empower survivors, keeping blame where it lies: with the perpetrator.***
* While Bhawari Devi and Sohaila Abdulali were gang raped, Varnika Kundu narrowly escaped thanks to the intervention of the police and her own presence of mind. As I write this, a case of stalking has been registered against the men who followed and intimidated her.
** For a longer discussion of the findings of this study see the following link:
*** My sincere thanks to Bangalore based trauma psychologist, Dr Divya Kannan, for her suggestions on this article.
Jyothsna Belliappa is a scholar, teacher and writer whose interests include gender, work, personal life and the self. Her book, Gender, Class and Reflexive Modernity, published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan discusses the experiences of women working in the IT industry. She is currently engaged in research on the functioning of Internal Complaints Committees investigating sexual harassment in organisations. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org