(This story was originally published on 12 January 2017. It is being republished from The Quint’s archives in light of Kerala HC's observation that sexual harassment offence under IPC is prima facie 'not attracted' when the woman was wearing ‘sexually provocative dresses.’)
(Trigger warning: Descriptions of sexual assault.)
Every morning, when a woman rummages through her wardrobe to take out a piece of clothing, she is faced with the sad realisation that nothing in it belongs to her at all. Hell, even her body isn’t her own.
A woman’s wardrobe has viciously been used as a weapon against her. Each time her dress is shred into a million fragments and presented as evidence, justifying all sorts of sexual, violent acts against her, thereby normalising assault.
The dress – in India and everywhere else– has been used by men and second-rate politicians as a potent tool to further a misogynist agenda. Through this photo series, I attempt to challenge the notion that clothes are in some way responsible for sexual assault towards women, when in fact it is the perverse attitude of a few men that leads to it. I asked a few women to share with me the item of clothing they were wearing when they experienced assault.
As is clear from the photographs below, ultimately it didn’t matter what they were wearing at all. The very act of being a woman made them susceptible to acts of violence.
“An old uncle asked for my help, and when no one was looking, he tried to assault me. And they blamed my skirt's hem for his transgression."
"I couldn’t understand why it happened. I was wearing a chunni, after all."
“I was 17 years old, fresh out of school and new to college. I was wearing a salwar-kameez with a chunni – my idea of 'appropriate clothing' as I tried to figure out my way in the world away from school uniforms. I had to travel to Naraina in New Delhi but the auto driver dropped me off at Dhaula Kuan and said he wouldn't go any further. There was construction going on and there were no autos on my side of the road who were willing to travel in the direction I had to go. I couldn't cross over as there were no signals and the traffic was moving too fast.
As I walked against the traffic, I realised I was being followed. By 10 men. They were making comments about how I looked and what I should be doing to them and what they wanted to do to me. Soon, a Santro began to drive next to me, blocking me off from the road so nobody could see me. It was driving against the traffic yet nobody stopped him.
They travelled with me like this for a while as I kept trying to speed up or get past them to the main road so I could be seen. It didn't work. When I was nearly in tears and convinced I was going to be raped or worse, they laughed and went away. I finally found an auto and it stopped at a petrol pump on the way to Naraina. I had to get out and wait and while I did, a line of drivers waiting next to their cars and trucks stared at me openly as if my standing there was reason enough for me to public property. While I'd normalised staring by then (“chhua toh nahin, na?”) I couldn't take it on that day. That's when I broke down crying. I couldn't understand why it happened. I was wearing a chunni, after all.”
“At 17 I was rudely awakened to the reality of being a woman in this world. Quite literally. I was startled out of my sleep when a man entered my tent at a summer camp where I was working. The camp was closed off to the public. The panic I felt made what was probably no more than 20 seconds feel like an eternity. And though it was dark, it seemed like the man was masturbating. The only thing I could think was that I was going to be raped.
As the adrenalin coursed through me, I was able to kick the man off. I felt incredibly lucky that he was not strong enough to overpower me, though he left a cut on my lip and a deep trauma. For a while after, I would sometimes start crying without knowing why. It took months before I was able to sleep at night.
The camp director – a woman – tried to convince me it hadn’t really happened. She didn’t want me to go to the police, but I did anyway. The man was never caught.
I became a journalist because I believe it is important to talk about these issues. No woman should be shamed into keeping quiet about the violence we face all over the world.”
“It was a Sunday. After the catechism was over, I was walking through the church corridors waiting for my mum to take me back home. The priest came towards me, and lifted me up lovingly. The 5-year-old me started feeling strange when the priest's fingers began touching my little body the wrong way. The only thing I understood then was that it wasn't right. He let me go immediately after seeing me uncomfortable. The frock that I wore that day didn't seem as beautiful to me thereafter."
"I was 17, out for an evening walk in a posh residential locality of South Delhi when someone tried to grab me from behind. Probably a domestic helper, he was no older than a teenager. He came running at me from behind, failed to secure a firm grip, and instead ran away. I never saw his face."
Sorry Mister, my morals aren’t housed in my clothes.
“Outside Taj Mahal – the nation's pride – they catcalled and verbally abused me, thinking it to be their right to shame me for wearing shorts.”
"I was 15 and on my way to tuition, in a t-shirt, when a random man came up and flashed his privates. I was terrified, but shoved him away with my bag and ran."
“It was a winter evening at a bustling metro station. I was 15, going back home from my coaching classes. A middle-aged man was sitting across me in the metro. As the crowd got off at the station, everyone rushed towards the exit. Outside the station, I was waiting for my father to pick me up so I could hitch a ride with him back home, and suddenly I found that the same man standing beside me. He addressed me directly and with unbridled guts, said the words “Let me f**k your p***y”. Fighting the urge to act on my mother’s advice to deliver a tight slap in case someone ever harasses me, I saw my car right then and rushed towards it.”
(Photographer: Sanjoy Deb, Post Production: Harsh Sahani)