MUMBIA, India -- On July 9, a group of men attacked a girl after she stepped out of a club on a busy street in Guwahati, Assam. A reporter, who was later joined by a cameraman, filmed the entire incident, and a local television channel released the footage the following day.
The girl was molested, burned, and beaten for at least half an hour. The men tried to strip off her clothes. The girl fruitlessly begged bystanders, passersby, and the men filming for help – nobody put a stop to it.
The police was informed, but they failed to respond in a timely fashion or make arrests at the scene. The mob continued to beat the girl while she was in the police jeep with two armed officers. Whether the men wanted to simply humiliate her, or if it would have escalated into gang rape, is a matter of speculation. Whether the mob included 20, 30, 40, or 50 men, depends on whose recollection is believed.
Within hours, the video was on YouTube. Then News Live editor Atanu Bhuyan took charge of the ‘story’. He maligned the girl for what she was wearing and tweeted: “Prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs”. Amid scandal that emerged, Bhuyan resigned.
As the channel played the video repeatedly, word began to spread. The story was picked up by the national press and moved quickly through social media. There was a national uproar.
A police sub-inspector was suspended for not responding fast enough. (Some reports suggest 45 minutes elapsed before the police arrived, although the nearest station is just a kilometer away.) Assam’s Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, asked police to make arrests within 48 hours. Seven of the twelve men whose faces could be seen clearly in the video were arrested over the next few days.
As horrified as India is at this moment, this isn’t an unusual story. Public molestation and sexual assault happens far too often to women. After the Guwahati incident, a mob assaulted a woman in Chandigarh outside a disco. Last month in Kolkata, a girl was molested, chased, dragged off a bus, and beaten by a group of men. This happens all the time.
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What makes the Guwahati case particularly horrifying is that the reporter who filmed the attack has now been arrested for inciting it. Media goes to great lengths to capture ‘sensational’ events. As the video went viral, News Live’s ratings shot up too.
Atanu Bhuyan resigned his post, but others who’ve kept their seats aren’t much further down the moral grandstand. Most reports mention that the girl had been drinking in a club. They relay how she and her friends were thrown out over a payment dispute. The nauseating assumption is that there is a right kind of victim, whom we should defend, and a wrong kind, who invites trouble, creates her fate, and is no victim at all.
Even the State response has been of the dodgy, blame-shifting variety. Tarun Gogoi asked the district administration to monitor Guwahati’s bars and pubs. They’ve been asked to shut at 10 p.m., and not play music. There’s emphasis on surveillance cameras and verifying the age of drinking customers.
But this crime was committed on the street by men who were neither drunk nor underage. They certainly weren’t listening to music and the presence of a camera did nothing to stop them.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) demanded more night patrolling and policewomen in public spaces. But night had nothing to do with it and policewomen don’t have magic wands that can thwart would-be assaulters. NCW Chief Mamta Sharma put the icing on the cake by advising women to ‘dress carefully’.
Consider following this reasoning to its logical conclusion. Laxmi Orang was stripped and beaten by a mob at a political rally in Guwahati. Should we ban political rallies? A journalist was molested by a mob of schoolboys, right outside of school. Should we shut schools down? A friend was groped during Ganpati festivities by a group of ‘devotees’. Are religious festivals to be forbidden?
It’s frightening how deeply lies about sexual harassment and assault are embedded. These myths – it’s dangerous to step out at night, certain kinds of clothing read like an invitation, you need a man to protect you – are repeated ad nauseum.
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Blank Noise (where we volunteer) has been busting these myths for years. It runs campaigns like ‘I Never Ask For It’, where women donate garments they were wearing when harassed or molested. These garments include sarees, school uniforms, jeans, and salwar-kurtas.
So, what are we to make of an incessant harping on what a woman wears, what time she steps out, and how much she drinks? What does it achieve, except assure that all women are never safe and cannot hope for justice if attacked?
People have responded to the Guwahati case by describing the culprits as ‘animals’. This doesn’t help. We must acknowledge that these are men. They work. They attend school. They vote. They might stand for election. They must be punished, yes. But we must look deeper and face up to the fact that society creates men who treat women like prey.
An editorial recently posed this question: “What is this awful sickness that lies within us? What malodorous disease…?” When we have honestly answered this question, we will find the answer to the troubling issue of how to prevent a mob of men from attacking an inculpable girl who never asked to be the target of sexual harassment and abuse.
Annie Zaidi (www.anniezadie.com) is the author of Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, 2010, and Crush, 200). She has been a journalist for a decade and has written for several newspapers and magazines including Frontline, Tehelka, Mid-Day, and Deccan Herald.
Mandy Van Deven (www.mandyvandeven.com) is a writer and global advocate. Her work exploring contemporary feminisms, global activism, and sexuality has been published in Salon, AlterNet, RH Reality Check, and Marie Claire.