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This Is Exactly Why Women In India Hesitate To Report A Sexual Assault Incident

Posted: May 26, 2021

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There is a reason women often refrain from speaking up about and reporting sexual assault incidents – systemic social and even legal discouragement.

The recent acquittal of Tarun Tejpal in a sexual abuse case has revived the argument on why women in India refrain from reporting incidents of sexual assault — because of systemic social and even legal discouragement.

In the late 2000’s when I was a student residing in a paying guest accommodation in Bangalore, my friends and I experienced a harrowing incident where a man in the opposite building would flash when he saw the residents of the PG sitting on the terrace. We wanted to tell our landlady and approach the police about this harassment, but some friends pointed out that she might blame us and restrict our moments. As a result we kept quiet about it, and just stopped using the terrace.

Though this happened more than a decade ago, even today most women in the country would do the same.

From their early teens, Indian women are taught to ignore harassment on the streets — “Ignore the catcalls and just keep walking,” we’re told. “You should dress appropriately if you don’t want to invite trouble.” Those who broke this dictum to bring their ordeal into the open were admonished for “acting smart” or the favourite phrase “inciting the perpetrator”. We grew up with anger wondering why despite being wronged, we are put on trial?

The uproar after the Nirbhaya gang rape in 2012 and the subsequent amendment of the law gave hope that things were changing. But did we heave the sigh of relief too soon? The reality has revealed that the problem is far deeper than the adequacy of the legal provisions.

A man who confessed to committing the crime was still acquitted

The acquittal of former editor in chief and founder of Tehelka magazine Tarun Tejpal has outraged the women in the country, and rightfully so.

Tarun Tejpal had issued an unconditional apology to the accused early in the proceedings, through e-mail. In the excerpts released in the media, Tejpal has clearly stated “I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.”

However, in December 2017, Tejpal stated this statement was forcefully acquired before the Bombay High Court.

Though the reason for the acquittal is not clear, but as stated here, it could be because there was no evidence beyond reasonable doubt which could incriminate the accused.

Within minutes of the judgement being pronounced Tejpal issued a statement expressing how the  “false allegation”  had affected every aspect of the personal professional and public life of him and his family. The man who had confessed to the act being a ‘lack of judgement on his part’, wasted no time in claiming he was ‘falsely accused’ and elaborated his suffering to gain the support and sympathy which rightfully the survivor deserves.

Woman admonished and mocked for raising their voices

Under such circumstances the anger towards the judgement is valid. It clearly shows that in a case of sexual assault it is the survivor who is responsible for proving her truth. The man is in a position of advantage as the victim is put on trial and if he is a man in a position of power, he is in an entitled position.

The Me-too movement picked up momentum in India in 2018 and while several notable names came forward to support the survivors, some prominent and accomplished women demotivated and shamed the victims.

Celebrated actress of Tamil and Telugu cinema Sowcar Janaki, who is looked up to by many as an example of an independent woman for she was a single mother who also ran a business in addition to her acting career, panned the #MeToo moment, and stated that women complaining about stalking and groping are bringing shame to their own family. This left many shocked and disheartened.

The harassment singer and dubbing artist Chinmayi Sripada faced for being vocal about the sexual harassment she was subjected to by lyricist Vairamuthu at the start of her career, is an example of the unfair deal meted out to women who stand up for themselves. When a woman dares to raise her voice, all possible efforts are made to bully and break her down to submission.

Actress Rani Mukherjee’s comment in the wake of the #MeToo moment a couple of years ago, stating girls should be given compulsory martial arts training in schools and should take responsibility for their safety reflected the tone-deaf attitude of the entitled sections of our society.

Systemic pulling down, demeaning, and hostile legal proceedings

Upon Tarun Tejpal’s acquittal, several women activists rightfully pointed out that this verdict was going to further discourage women from reporting cases of rape or sexual assault. A lot of cases never come to light due to the fear of social ostracization and the uncalled for notion of shame attached to the survivors of such acts. Those who do report such cases to the legal authorities only have a more harrowing journey ahead, as has been seen in the present case.

As activist Kavita Krishnan says here “the court’s decision is unfortunate.” She further adds “this is a case where there was an enormous amount of evidence and courageous action on the part of the complainant who lost no time in telling people what happened.” But sadly, she has still been denied justice.

The Goa Government has decided to file an appeal against the judgement, which does give a ray of hope about seeing light at the end of the tunnel. But if we want a country where women feel safe, respected, and heard, we need to value them and their words above social prejudices and closeted mindsets. Until then, if you cannot support a woman who is fighting her battle, avoid pulling her down and questioning her.

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