Our media coverage of sexual harassment and molestation is imbued with a colonised mindset and reality-show commercial interests.
It was meant to be a celebration. Thousands of people, shouts and laughter and cheer; all fun, until some men started squirting the women with water, soaking their clothes. They resisted and tried to escape, but it was already out of control. The groping began. Their shirts were torn, shorts and underwear pulled down. At least 25 men surrounded them, grabbing their breasts and touching their genitals, as hundreds of men watched, cheering and shooting on their cameras. Families with children took them to a safe distance but continued to watch.
This depraved behaviour did not take place in Bengaluru on last New Year’s Eve. This was during a parade in New York City’s Central Park on Sunday, June 11, 2000.
Few in India would recall this incident in a country often believed by many in India to be a bastion of peace and order where women are safe and respected. Nor was it an isolated one. In 2001, at the Mardi Gras celebrations in Seattle (home to Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, and techie and trendy enough to be one of the Bengalurus of America, one might say), dozens of men started groping women, culminating in mass vandalism, violent riots—and the death of a man.
Before both these eruptions of mass molestation, there was another notorious and widely publicised case too that is now almost forgotten: the 1997 Woodstock festival where four crowd-surfing women were passed forward by the thousands of people in the audience to the crowded mosh pit right in front of the stage where they were pulled down to the ground and raped. The rapists took turns, even as the rest of the head-banging revelers laughed and made faces at the screaming women. This took place at the foot of a stage where top-list celebrities were performing. And two more women were raped in the campgrounds nearby.
Let us now turn to the “Bengaluru mass molestation” before it is spent in a spate of performative verbal rage and forgotten altogether (already, the phrase has dropped from Google Trends, and we are back to the usual things—cricket and Bollywood). Television news channels played repeated loops of people standing or running, or being comforted by friends or policewomen. Opinion writers and social media users poured out their outrage, and once again, a pall of great pessimism came and went about the future of women in India, and specifically, about the seemingly relentless brutality and sexual rapacity of the Indian male. Headlines named and shamed the “Indian male” as the source of all this trouble. After all, some said, no Indian woman ever feels unsafe when she is in Western countries. In the West, women can wear what they want and go where they please and no males bother them. In India, on the other hand, paternalistic and sexist authority figures seem to blame the victim and try moral policing skirt lengths and so on.
However, there was a small number of responses in the media that also questioned the dominant narrative and mood of the coverage of the Bengaluru incident. Some of these cautioned against sensationalising outrage, considering that no specific police complaints were filed, and no footage of the actual “mass molestation” ever showed up from any CCTV cameras (or bystanders’ phone cameras on YouTube for that matter). Sceptics also called out the fact that news channels seamlessly used CCTV footage of another act of harassment in another part of Bengaluru that night (which obviously was obnoxious to say the least). Some citizens of Bengaluru were also offended by the sensationalistic generalisations of their city as being unsafe for women. They pointed out that it was probably the context of drunkenness specific to a Western calendar-concocted celebration that was more at play here. After all, they argued, hundreds of women and men attend religious fairs and festivals at night without any such misbehaviour taking place.
Irrespective of what may have happened at the New Year’s Eve gathering, the sad truth is that “mass molestation” is not new to India. Girls and women who have experienced it at Holi celebrations, on college campuses, at melas, at water sports parks, or at rock concerts can vouch for it.
Actresses, models and even journalists have faced such attacks in public places for decades, and many such incidents have been widely reported in Indian newspapers. Large groups of men attacking a single woman in public places is just an extreme case of the usual sexual harassment faced by women—cat calling, following, brushing, touching, grabbing, groping—on streets and public transportation which is much more widely prevalent.
Social media has helped lend voice to a large number of women who speak out against this. Media has retained a high visibility on such incidents in their reporting, keeping the pressure on law enforcement authorities to work harder to make quick arrests and prevent such incidents. But at the same time, some questions remain unanswered.
Are concerned citizens able to form an accurate picture of the problem, or are they being swayed by the media environment into assuming causes and factors that do not really exist, or at least matter less than what the media noise machine makes it out to be?
One sees many insinuations and assumptions in the discussion on crimes against women in India; for example, that there is more sexual crime in India than in the West, or that such higher incidence is somehow related to Hinduism and “the caste system”, or is simply the “way it is” in India. Without falling into the grand universal explanations of either gender, race, religion or nationality, we examine some of the data on the actual incidence of crimes against women, and on the reporting of the same in news media.
We do so not because we wish to dilute the pain of women who have faced this problem in India, but only because we have a duty to go beyond mere clichés.
Violence Against Women in the West and in India: Myths and Facts
Some common assertions that well-meaning men and women often make about public safety for women in India and in the West:
(1) Public spaces in the West are safer for women. “We have roamed many cities in West alone in the night using public transportation, been to New Year Eve celebrations, but never faced any molestation. Unlike in India where there was never an instance when we didn’t face any molestation.”
(2) Date rape on college campuses may be common in the West, but not sexual molestation on streets. If there was any, it would have been reported.
(3) Incidents like the “mass molestation” at Bengaluru are unheard of in the West; the only exception is the recent incident at Cologne by the immigrants. Public sexual molestation started in the West with the arrival of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
(4) Sexual harassment, assaults and rapes are severely underreported in India. In the West, there is so much respect for women’s rights that even small incidents are considered major and are reported.
Let us examine some of these beliefs.
The Facts on Street Safety and Harassment
Several organisations publish data on sexual harassment on streets and public transportation in the US and other Western countries, all of which show that sexual harassment is not any more (or any less) in India than in the West. Here is a summary from some surveys:
• Stop Street Harassment reports that 75 per cent of women in London, 89 per cent in Brazil, 86 per cent in Thailand and 79 per cent in Indian cities are subjected to harassment or violence in public. 87 per cent of American women experienced sexual harassment on streets. Over 43 per cent of them experienced groping, grabbing, touching, rubbing, brushing or following.
• According to a 2015 survey in France, 100 per cent of women faced sexual harassment in public transport, and one in five suffered verbal harassment on streets; one in 10 were kissed or caressed against their consent.
• In New York subway trains, according to a 2007 survey, 63 per cent respondents said they were sexually harassed, of whom only 4 per cent reported to the authorities.
• The Guardian has published reports on widely prevalent street harassment and sexual assaults on UK public transportation systems.
Bars and Sexual Assaults
A study involving 148 trained observers in 118 bars in Toronto reports that in the course of 1,334 observational visits over nine days, as many as 1,057 incidents of aggression were recorded, of which 258 of them were sexual assaults. Of these, about 90 incidents were outright assaults with clear intent to molest, involving forceful grabbing of women’s rears, groping of breasts, or violently grinding against the victim. What is shocking is that the bouncers at the bar intervened in only one out of these 258 cases, and bystanders would always encourage assault than stop it (not unlike the situation depicted in the 1998 Jodie Foster movie The Accused).
American Campus “Rape Culture”
The “rape culture” (a commonly used term in policy documents) at US universities was getting so out of hand that in 2014 the White House intervened by setting up a task force to investigate 139 universities, including Harvard, Cornell, Brown and Stanford.
According to some sources, 27 per cent of all students experience rape or assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation.
The case of a Vanderbilt University football team member is also well known. A 21-year-old girl was drugged by her boyfriend, carried into his room with the help of three footballer friends, who all brutally raped the victim taking turns. The boyfriend passed condoms to his friends and videotaped the graphic footage and shared with his other friends on social media. The offender was let out in just three months when most rapists usually get a five-to-15-year jail term, leading to a chorus of protests.
Crowd Surfing at Concerts
Mass molestation of women doing crowd surfing at rock concerts is another elephant in the room. It is so common that the victims aren’t even sure what to do when molested.
The following comments from men boasting of molesting crowd surfing women, from a Washington DC newspaper, are revealing:
“Always like seeing the chicks who crowd surf but then are obviously offended by the groping that occurs. The naivety alone is funny…I like when you see a concert on TV or on a DVD…and the girls crowd surf up to the front. They look like they’re having fun as they go up, then as they make their way to the front of the crowd the smiles turn to frowns. Then when the security pulls them down they just look violated and are usually covering their bodies with their arms.”
“Any girl that goes crowd surfing either wants to be groped or is too fucking stupid to realise that that’s all that’s going to happen and deserves to get groped for her stupidity.”
To make things worse, when popular music artists like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga or Kate Perry make videos showing themselves deliberately inviting mass molestation while crowd surfing at their own concerts, or when there are reports from festivals in Spain where women allow strangers to grope their breasts are published all over the media, eclipsing coverage of incidents of sexual harassment, there is further pressure on ordinary women to not complain against the mass molestation they face.
The situation at mosh pits of rock concerts is far worse. Many concerts have simply banned crowd surfing for their inability to prevent mass molestation, but some have the artists talk about it during the concert.
The Big Picture
Lest the systematic abuse of women that takes place in routine social and cultural settings in the West like bars, concerts and college campuses seem anecdotal or selective, it is useful to also examine the large criminal data records across some of these countries.
Data on crimes against women are published by government agencies—the Department of Justice and the FBI in the US, and by the National Crime Records Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs (NCRB) in India. Data on France is from the VIRAGE survey, and UK data is from the Rape Crisis Centre (England and Wales) and the Office of National Statistics.
Some organisations report estimated numbers from surveys, some report police data of recorded offences, some only convictions. Definition of rape varies—some include attempt to rape, some even include verbal threats in rape stats. Some don’t include marital rape in rape stats and some include statutory rape in sexual assaults. The age for statutory rape (consensual sex with an underage girl) is 16 or less in some countries, and 18 or less in India. For calculation of rates, India uses total female population, whereas other countries use total population and population over 12 years of age. The reporting rate data from various surveys is shown in Table 1.
As can be noted from the figures, reporting rate is extremely low (less than 10 per cent) in most countries. Assaults by strangers (mostly in public spaces) are far higher in other countries than in India, showing that for violent crime against women, Indian public spaces are safer. Forty per cent of all assaults happen in public spaces (schools, colleges, bars, rock concerts, parades, malls, public transportation and streets) in the US.
Indian “Under reporting”
Many who look at these numbers remark that Indian rates could be grossly under reported. But cases of molestation and sexual harassment are severely under reported in all countries.
In July 2014, Rukmini S of The Hindu conducted a six-month study of all rape cases underway in Delhi courts, and analysed all the 583 cases that had come up for hearing. What she found was shocking—65 per cent of all reported cases (two-thirds) were bogus cases (over 40 per cent dealt with consensual sex and elopement and another 25 per cent dealt with “breach of promise to marry”). The most common type of offence was men preying on young children in slums and not in public spaces by strangers.
This is a clear indicator of the problem being two-sided—under reporting as well as massive false reporting.
Another common belief is that most crimes in small towns and villages in India go unreported. Data from the NCRB’s “Crime in Mega Cities” invalidates this claim as well. The total population in the 53 top cities accounts for about 164 crore or 27 per cent of the total female population of the country. If the crimes in small towns and villages are not reported, then the proportion of total incidents and thus rape rate should be very high for cities. But this is not the case. Even though cities account for 27 per cent of the female population, only 17.6 per cent of the rape cases are reported from these cities. Of the total, including sexual assaults, only 25.9 per cent are reported from cities.
This agrees with the notion that there is probably more rape in villages but also confirms that there is no specific under reporting from the villages. This holds good for the total number including sexual assaults.
Western Safety May Be A Class Privilege
The most relevant factor in considering why many Indian women and men easily assume that the West is far safer for women than India might have to do with the specificity of their own class positions and privileges while visiting relatives or while living in the United States. The risk of rape and sexual assault is not equally distributed across the population. It is very revealing that in the United States, women from a category where household income is less than $50,000 are 95 per cent more likely to be victimised (rape or sexual assault rate of 9.1 per 1,000 as against 0.5 per 1,000 for households with above $50,000 income).
While this is not at all to suggest that prosperity immunises Indian women in the US from the threat of violence, one must note that as the most prosperous demographic immigrant group in the country, Indian Americans to a large extent fall into the over $50,000 and over $75,000 annual income category which experience the least amount of rape and sexual assault, and Indian visitors to the US perhaps do not frequently face the real dangers that Americans who belong to less privileged income groups do and end up concluding that India is therefore far more dangerous for women. The segregation between prosperous, well-policed suburbs and neglected urban ghettos cannot be ignored in this analysis.
It is a common error made by those who indulge in what the police call “low-risk safe behaviour” to substitute objective fact with their own subjective experience. Also, according to the data, 65-75 per cent of molesters and rapists tend to commit crimes against their own race or ethnicity, with a reduced rate for Indians.
The Pseudo-Historical Religious Sources
The key question for us to consider now is why the Indian media discourse tends to avoid addressing the global context of this problem (and solutions that might be found from studying them; after all, American efforts seem to have actually worked in substantially reducing sexual assaults by 60 per cent from the1990s), in order to adopt what we believe is often a narrow, insular, stereotypical and essentialist approach, reducing harassment of women to some sort of an Indian-cultural or Hindu-religious case. Although there are several serious commentators and activists addressing the problems that exist in India who share their work in serious public forums, what seems to dominate the media ecology is a specific set of tropes, slogans and clichés that serve to deaden serious engagement and change.
Table 2, a quick study of news reports of new assaults reported in the past few weeks, reveals some interesting patterns. (Keyword search: “sexual assault”, “molestation”, etc. period: December 1, 2016-January 11, 2017).
We find no results for reports on sexual assault cases or problems in other countries, though one might assume that New Year’s Eve incidents at bars, clubs, and other public places in other cities and countries might prove useful by way of appropriate context.
Newspapers in the US, on the other hand (See Table 3 below ), paid quite a lot of attention to their domestic cases, as well as, somewhat singularly, the Bengaluru case (India alone is often featured in world rape stories, no other country)
At the outset, it is clear that while the same issue tends to be a much addressed theme “about India” in the Western media (consider the multiple news reports on Bengaluru here, the extensive coverage given to the Nirbhaya case some years ago, the focus on sexual assault in India-focused movies made for Western audiences like Bandit Queen, and the documentaries on the topic such as the BBC’s India’s Daughter).
As far as we know, no Indian or diaspora film maker has chosen to make a documentary on the problems of violence that exist in the West, even those faced by women of Indian descent (such as the tragic peer-murder case of Canadian-Indian teenager Reena Virk). While frequently covering the achievements of NRIs and PIOs in science, education, business and public life (and often struggling to tease out “desi” angles to very American stories of success), Indian news media have not tried to accurately depict the waves of violence and misogyny that women in Western countries have faced and continue to face (nor, to be fair, their several successes in fighting these problems either).
For example, there is no substantial coverage in Indian newspapers of the pervasive culture of assault and rape on American college campuses, though Indian parents send more children to study in America than any other nation; let alone the specific places associated with high risk of harassment for women such as bars and public entertainment. America remains, simply, an idyll for aspirational Indians, and not a place which is facing serious problems of its own as far as women’s safety is concerned (It should be noted that several results did show up in Indian newspapers for a search of “sexual assault” and “America”—these were almost all stories about Donald Trump).
Our main criticism of Indian news media on this count is not necessarily one based on national pride or concerns about national image. As researchers of television’s cultivation effects have shown, exposure to a skewed media environment which shuts out whole chunks of reality (or exaggerates other aspects of reality for ratings, such as crime, or fear of minorities and immigrants), leads to grossly inaccurate impressions of what the real world is really like.
While it would require a more extensive study to understand how the Indian public seems to be thinking about issues of molestation and assault, it does seem to be the case that the Indian media environment at least has already remained highly skewed, leading to a mistaken and ultimately counterproductive emphasis on a simplistic “eternal Indian” problem narrative that precludes any real thought and action to change the ugly reality that women face every day.
There are two broad ways in which the Indian media environment is narrowing the imagination and the debate on this issue, apart from creating a hollowed out worldview by ignoring the global dimensions of the problem.
The first tendency we have noticed even after the Bengaluru incident is the unjustifiable amount of attention given in the media to “opinions” about the incident by (often inarticulate) politicians and celebrities. While no one would demean real insight or guidance, the media logic at work here seems to be rooted more in a reality-show gladiator-type voyeurism than any journalistic intent. Media seems more interested in creating a show around who said what and whether it was acceptable or not, rather than addressing real causes and solutions.
What the reality-show culture of good and bad opinion-policing has done to India is appalling; if you say “be careful” or “dress appropriately for where you are going,” to a child, you can be mauled. It is a miracle and a sign of love indeed that many parents in India still say such things in spite of what their children and more modern peers might be thinking of them. (Incidentally, an article on crowd surfing in New York Times says exactly what has become anathema in so hip and knowing Indian media discourse: it advises women to dress safe).
We should note that the deployment of preconceived character shells of “good” and “bad” authorities or opinion makers in media coverage of this issue has gone so far as to actually denigrate groups of people as “good” and “bad” on the basis of their approved identity labels even if they are doing the same thing. Social media users recently shared an example of how an Indian newspaper reported very differently on two volunteer groups doing the same work: volunteering to offer security to visitors and couples at Maharashtra’s forts. One was called simply a volunteer group and was applauded, and the other was the Durga Vahini, and was depicted rather condescendingly.
The second major feature in Indian media coverage is the rapid deployment of a narrative about “eternal India” as the cause of all evil against women that everyone should be pouring their pain and scorn upon.
In the days after the Bengaluru incident, several social media users in India began to share a seemingly poignant illustration which depicts a group of worshippers including a Brahmin priest offering aarti to a large deity of Goddess Durga in one half of the picture, while in the other half, the goddess is disrobed and scarred by a flurry of groping hands. The point of this picture, presumably, is to say that Hindus are hypocrites for worshipping goddesses and assaulting women.
Such a point was also made very professionally a few years ago by an ad agency which created an “abused goddesses” campaign featuring models costumed like Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga with black eyes, broken lips and other injuries on their bodies.
Such pictures are shared and endorsed sometimes even by well-meaning and devout Hindus who are able to see through and condemn Hinduphobia in other places. While we need not condemn their intent, we would be neither honest nor intelligent if we ducked out of asking some obvious questions here.
Why is there no equivalent imagery circulating on social media about religious double standards when it comes to other religions? After all, India is not just a Hindu country but a multi-religious one. Crimes against women, including some extremely violent and brutal ones, have been committed by men of other religions too in India. Most importantly, other religions too somewhere surely teach their devout to respect women, so why is there no statement anyone makes about hypocrisy and double standards there?
Even in the United States, where a culture of humour about religion exists, one does not see images circulating of Mother Mary being used to make points about rape and sexual assault.
These are not simply rhetorical questions, but go to the heart of precisely what is killing any possibility of real engagement, study, reflection and change in the lives of Indian women and men today. The Indian media discourse, and of course, the Western media discourse on India in the likes of the NYT and the BBC, are hammering home an imaginary account of India that, even if accepted nobly in the name of good intentions like saving India’s women, will never achieve that.
They are hammering home a fantasy timeline of their (colonial, Protestant, white) supposed progress through history and it’s only India’s sheer misfortune that despite its many intelligent people this has persisted for so long after Independence.
Just consider these examples, quoted by Communication Studies Professor Ramesh Rao in a recent Swarajya article from the comment board of a Washington Post report on the Bengaluru incident:
“India seems to have no ability to let go of the past.”
“If you want to be taken seriously as a modern country, you have to let go of this stupidity and the caste system.”
“(The only reason to report news from India would be)…to learn what is was like to live 2000 years ago.”
These seemingly unimportant casual comments are simply a mundane example of a deep malaise in contemporary thinking that even the Indian professional intellectual class for the most part is blindly complicit in. This assumption that every race or religion in the world is embarked on some linear journey in time from a barbaric past to a great future is not an universal, nor is it accurate. It is a colonial, Protestant myth, now secularised and blindly accepted everywhere. Scholars like S.N. Balagangadhara have argued this powerfully, and yet Indians, especially of the educated, English-reading, media-believing class, know little of where their beliefs recast as “facts” now have come from.
The mythology of progress, of the ascent of civilisation, of India somehow having to “let go of the past” and get “taken seriously as a modern country”—none of this will ever solve the problem of what a culture needs to do to make sure the buses, new years, mosh pits, or whatever, do not happen to any woman again.
Expanding the Conversation
Below are several suggestions to broaden our conversation, and explore solutions.
Recognise Media Codes, Frames and Blinders
Recognise that the media coverage of any issue, and one as urgent, important and compelling as women’s safety, is driven only partly by idealism and mostly by commercial and political agendas.
Reject the “Indian Essence” Narrative
Know why a certain story or way of explaining crimes against women prevails in media. For example, you see headlines talking about “India’s rape capital,” or “Indian Rape Epidemic”, or “The Indian Male Behaviour,” or “Hindu Tradition”, but no such generalisations are made for crime reporting in the West. It is an old colonial ploy; the coloniser, the superior “race”, has agency and individuality; we “others” are but products of our “culture.” It is a colonial trope.
Know the Western Reality, and Conversation About Itself and Its Problems
Contrary to popular Indian impressions and anecdotal evidence, there are several strong indicators of danger to women in countries like the US, France and UK. Bars, concerts, and poorer neighbourhoods tend to be places where the myth of Western/non-Hindu male harmlessness to women collapses.
However, there is much good that is happening in countries like the US that we should start paying attention to. For one thing, the ratio of policemen to population is higher, and civic services do function more efficiently. Phone hotlines are available. A culture of safety for women is actively pursued at all institutional levels, and there is no blind onus on a particular religious or ethnic culpability being used to silence the conversation the way it is in Indian media.
Questioning the dominant assumptions in the Indian perception of assault and molestation is important, not because the problem doesn’t exist, but precisely because it does.