'It's a dress, not a yes,' a new mantra for India's men after gang rape
NEW DELHI // Somenath Ghosh has a simple rule for his fellow Indian men to live by: "It's a dress, not a yes."
In that line, said Mr Ghosh, a 20-year-old mass communications student in Kolkata, is an important lesson: "No matter how she dresses, or what she is wearing, or what time she leaves her house, that is no invitation to harass a girl or rape her."
Obvious as this rule sounds, Mr Ghosh thinks it bears repeating in a country where verbal and physical harassment of women in public is a common phenomenon.
Women routinely are stalked and catcalled on city streets, or groped on buses and trains.
The extensions of such sexual violence - such as the gang rape and killing of the university student in New Delhi that outraged the country last month - are now prompting men to look into the mirror and consider their own role in making India a less hostile place for women.
Mr Ghosh has no doubts that women should enjoy equal freedoms and feel as safe as men. But several male political and religious leaders in India have explicitly placed the blame for such attacks on the victims.
A minister in the state government of Madhya Pradesh has contended that women should not cross "certain moral limits" in their public behaviour. Asaram Bapu, a Hindu spiritual leader, said yesterday that "such mistakes are never committed from only one side." In Andhra Pradesh, a state government minister argued in a speech that the gang rape could have been avoided if "the girl did not travel by a private bus at that time."
Lastt week, the government of the small state of Puducherry, in south India, suggested that schoolgirls wear overcoats on top of their school uniforms, to forestall sexual harassment.
These regressive attitudes, said Kavitha Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, encourage "the rampant, everyday harassment a woman faces at all time".
Mr Ghosh has himself witnessed incidents where a woman walking down the street was subjected to a barrage of innuendo from a group of three men. But he is reluctant to exclusively blame male attitudes for such incidents.
"You cannot blame all men, all the time," he said. "The government has to focus on better protecting its women. Make the roads safer. When the street lights go out, replace them immediately. Little things matter."
Sunetro Lahiri, a 25-year-old web designer in Mumbai, called for severe punishment for convicted rapists, but he also took the long-term view that India was experiencing growing pains as it moved from tradition to modernity.
Indian society has traditionally been patriarchal but more women now have careers and work outside the home.
"There are changes taking place in our society [but] on the other hand, we continue being a traditional society in some regards," he said. "But change is coming, and it will affect everything."
The gang rape and the subsequent protests dominated headlines in New Delhi and other major cities, but Shiv Kumar, a 47-year-old contractor in the north Indian town of Panipat, told The National that he hadn't heard the news at all.
Mr Kumar was critical of the "deficiencies" in Indian policing that permitted such crimes to happen, "but these are deficiencies we have to live with for the moment, so we need to be practical about them."
It did show good common sense for women to take precautions, such as using state-run buses late in the evening and being careful about going out at night, Mr Kumar said.
Mr Kumar was also inclined to be more forgiving of the police.
"In a large city like Delhi, there will be pockets where it is difficult to detect or prevent crime, and I think the police force is doing a considerable job," he said. "And while we blame the police, what about us regular citizens?"
Citing a statement by the gang rape victim's friend, who claimed that the pair lay bleeding on the roadside for nearly 20 minutes without being helped by any passers-by, Mr Kumar pointed out: "Clearly we're not doing our duty ourselves. Who helped her? Not one person!"
V Rajiv, a corporate lawyer in Bangalore, noted that even in his own circle of educated male professionals, there was a need for introspection.
"I wouldn't go so far as calling it misogyny," he said, "but there is often a casual expectation of women falling into gender roles, which manifests as inconsiderate or discriminatory or, in extreme cases, violent."
"It's worrying," Mr Rajiv added, "because most of these men strongly protest rape, seeing it as something perpetrated by men who are alien to their own [circle], when in fact a lot of commonalities are shared, even if it is to a lesser degree."
Updated: January 15, 2013 04:00 AM