Did she ask for it?

Published on Online Journal, by Pubali Ray Chaudhuri, Oct. 1, 2010. l

The spectacle of women being assaulted in public is nothing new in India. So when the Hindutva “moral police” party Ram Sene, headed by Pramod Muthalik, sent some thugs to beat up women in a Mangalore pub, the whole incident might have blown over in a few days — if it had not been for Nisha Susan.

Susan, a young journalist from Bangalore, started an online Facebook group called “A Consortium of Pubgoing Loose and Forward Women,” that urged members to send loads of pink chaddis (“chaddi” is Hindi for underpants) to Muthalik’s party office in Hubli as an ostensibly humorous, but really rather scathing, response to his attempt at moral policing. Susan’s group has since swelled to over 55,000 members from all over the globe, and its current activities are still available on Facebook. 

The consortium’s Valentine’s Day campaign was a success, too, with hundreds of panties winging their subversive way to Ram Sene headquarters. However, post-Valentine’s Day in the cities of Mangalore and Bangalore, several women were attacked and threatened by strangers. Susan and fellow activists responded by launching a “Take Back the Night” event and other initiatives. And so the struggle continues … //

… Imprisoned somewhere within this house of mirrors, though, are the real women — the women who laugh not to seduce, but because they are amused. Who walk confidently not to challenge “masculinity,” but because they feel good about themselves. Who wear jeans and a T-shirt because they’re easy to throw on, or because the color suits them, or for a variety of other mundane reasons. Who enjoy a beer at a local pub not to pollute “Indian culture,” but because they are tired at the end of a long day’s work. Ordinary women. Women like you and me.

In more than two decades in India’s cities and towns, I have experienced my share of male violence. I have been pinched, groped, shoved, stroked, jeered, and even spat at. I have protested, shouted, shoved back, and, on one occasion, physically thrown an attacker from his bicycle to the ground. Not once has a hand been extended to my aid, or a voice been raised in my defense, from the ranks of the numerous spectators, many of whom were women themselves. Violence against women is a spectator sport in India. Some avert their eyes; some enjoy the woman’s misery and humiliation; still others weigh in on the side of the perpetrator, with the same cry that in itself constitutes an assault on women: “She asked for it.”

I did not ask for it. Neither did any of the millions of other Indian women for whom this treatment is a daily reality. No woman ever, ever asks to be tortured or humiliated. Until all women walk India’s streets free from fear, laws that guarantee the equal rights of women remain a mockery, reminding us of what should be our civic birthright, but at the moment is only a bitter reminder of freedom that many of us have never tasted. And not only must this freedom ring out for Indian women, but for women all over the world, including here in the United States.

In this country, too, violence against women is all too often excused or minimized, confined to the space of “domestic dispute” rather than interpreted as a larger problem concerning perceptions of gender equality and social justice. Even when celebrities are involved, such as in the recent case of Rihanna and Chris Brown, we tend to keep a decorous distance. But when one woman is beaten, that action challenges all of us to take a stand against violence — whenever and in whatever corner of the globe it occurs. Our outrage at such crimes must burst the confines of legal writ and academic debate and come vividly to life in all our hearts. Only then, when we see a woman assaulted, will we stop asking ourselves the odious question: “But did she ask for it?”

Until then, we are all complicit. (full text).

(Pubali Ray Chaudhuri lives and writes in Newark, CA/USA. She can be reached by e-mail).

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