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When Courts Slut-Shame: Bail in Civic Chandran Case Sends Dangerous Signals

What even constitutes a provocative attire? Has #MeToo taught us nothing about 'woke' men?

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Women
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What constitutes a provocative attire?

Of course, this question has nothing to do with cis men, but everything to do with everyone who identifies as a woman – as if their lives depend on it. Because apparently, perpetrators of sexual violence can now pull out random photos of them from social media, submit as 'evidence' in the court – if the honourable court finds it is “provocative,” they could get a bail.

The Kozhikode sessions court, on 12 August, granted bail to writer and activist Civic Chandran, who was accused of sexually harassing a young Dalit writer. The bail order became national news, and dominated social media discussions as sessions judge S Krishnakumar observed that a case of sexual harassment complaint under Section 354 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) will not prima facie stand as the woman was wearing a “sexually provocative dress."

In another order, the court held that because the accused is a reformer who is engaged in social activities against the caste system, “it is highly unbelievable that he will touch the body of the victim fully knowing that she is a member of Scheduled Caste." Yes, you read that sentence again.
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'What Were You Wearing...'

Back to our question – what constitutes provocative clothing?

The art installation initiative at the University of Arkansas – 'What were you wearing' – where students of sexual violence put up displays of what they were wearing when they were sexually assaulted, may have some answers.

The intent of the installation was to show people clothes they wore are not responsible for the atrocity that was inflicted upon them, but it was on their perpetrators.
What even constitutes a provocative attire? Has #MeToo taught us nothing about 'woke' men?

Similarly, the #INeverAskForIt campaign by Blank Noise. From as early as 2004, the organisation has been collecting “countless number of garments, ranging from burqas to school uniforms to T-shirts to saris, evidencing that sexual violence could be experienced by anyone, regardless of their wardrobe choices and that sexual harassment is never the fault of the survivor.”

The defence lawyer in the Civic Chandran case states that they submitted eight photographs before the court, out of which two were group photos taken on the day of the alleged incident. The rest were photographs downloaded randomly from her Facebook profile. The defence goes on to state that these photographs of petitioner were submitted to prove that she is “bold and daring."

But will the court clarify whether it seconds the claim that being a "bold and daring" woman meant the 20-year-old woman was "asking" to be sexually assaulted? Is this statement befitting of the judiciary, or an eve-teaser on the road?

But then again it does not come as a surprise to Kerala as it is now familiar with the regressive nature of its judiciary thanks to the Bishop Franco Mulakkal case, and the cases where other powerful men like actors Dileep and Vijay Babu have been accused of rape.

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Can an Activist Not Be Harasser?

In the second case against Chandran, a woman alleged that the activist sexually harassed her in 2020 at a poetry camp at Kozhikode’s Nandi beach.

In the Sections pertaining to the provisions under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the Kozhikode Sessions Judge S Krishnakumar observed, "It is highly unbelievable that the touching or hugging as alleged by the victim that the accused had a knowledge (sic) about her case, the accused is a reformist and is engaged in social activities against the caste system. He is writing and fighting for a casteless society. In such a circumstance, it is highly unbelievable that he will touch the body of the victim fully knowing that she is a member of scheduled caste.”

Reading this line, repeatedly, takes me back to the #MeToo movement. There are examples aplenty of 'woke' men from liberal spaces – from comedians who made career out of feminist content, to liberal journalists, actors and producers, and even activists.

It is as clear as daylight from the large number of men who were called out during the #MeToo movement that men use wokeness and liberalism as an ornament to win accolades in professional spaces. It may not necessarily translate into their personal principles – and it does not make them any less of a harasser.

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This presumptuous observation also goes on to show the weakness in the evidentiary procedure. The court has to give more weightage to evidential procedures than generic assumptions that the accused was 'not aware' of the caste of the complainant, just because he is an advocate of a casteless community.

It has been written and repeated, time and again, that such callous and irresponsible statements from the judiciary adds to the danger of women – especially women from intersectional spaces, forcing them to shying away from registering complaints against their harassers in fear of being slut-shamed.
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The Way Forward?

Orders like these are hardly a news in India. Justice Pushpa Ganediwala who faced backlash over her judgment in February 2021, which ruled that there has to be 'skin-to-skin contact with sexual intent' in order for the act to be considered as an offence of sexual assault under the POCSO Act and that 'holding hands of a minor girl and opening of zip of his pants' does not fall under the definition of 'sexual assault' under the Act.

Ganediwala gave in her resignation a day before her tenure as additional judge was to end as she was neither given extension nor elevation by the Supreme Court collegium.

In Civic Chandran’s case, it is definitely up on the High Court of Kerala to take an administrative action to penalise the judicial officer who made such an egregious decision in the form of a removal or at least a suspension.

Even if that is done, it is a one-off makeshift solution but to bring about actual, sustainable change in this seemingly archaic outlook, it is imperative that programmes should be introduced to sensitise the judiciary in the matters of gender and caste.

(Meenakshi Sajeev is a writer, published poet, and corporate communications consultant. She has worked with the UN Environment and is currently with IBM. The author is based out of Bengaluru. You can find her on Instagram @menakshee.)

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