Written by Urmila.

I live in this country alternating between hope and fear.

Hope that nothing terrible will happen and fear that maybe, one day, I will be the unlucky one. Face blurred, splashed across newspaper headlines. My life mired in a never-ending legal struggle to make sure my assailant is behind bars.

That incident on the night of December 16th, 2012 in South Delhi somehow changed us all, indelibly. India went from a nation of forgotten incidents of sexual violence to a nation that was ashamed of its men. Worse, we became a nation that was scared of its men. As I lived and worked in Delhi in 2013, less than 6 months after the brutal gang-rape, I remember pasting a rapist sneer on every male face that I saw – walking on the streets, standing in the metro, waiting at the bus stop…”

I remembered the conversations I had had with friends and family about experiencing and preparing for sexual harassment and sexual assault in India. The sense of ‘normalcy’ attached to these incidents, and the varied reactions associated with them were tied in with a shared silence. This silence was due to various reasons – shame, guilt, embarrassment, fear, despair, anger, apathy and a sense of indifference that things will not change.

The basic premise of the website project I founded, How Revealing  is that we cannot solve India’s ‘rape problem’ without addressing the psycho-social and emotional components of sexual assault. These components are largely ignored by the law and without the stories of people who have gone through experiences, we cannot begin to solve the problem. We also cannot solve the problem if we do not involve men. The website, thus, actively seeks stories from people who may not have directly experienced sexual assault but may have seen it happening around them or to someone close.  The LGBTQ communities are affected by sexual violence in ways we are not fully aware of yet, given the culture of silence surrounding the communities, and so we actively seek stories from people of different gender identities and sexual orientations.

As a lawyer, who researches issues of rule of law and criminal justice reform, the drawbacks and counter-intuitive mechanisms of the law and the justice system are all too real. Survivors stay away from courts and do not report incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault for fear of becoming entangled in our languorous justice system and due to the risk of being belittled and harassed, their complaints disbelieved and laughed off. In Bengaluru in south India, there were reports of mass molestations on New Year’s eve 2017 and the incidents sparked widespread outrage, not least due to the brazen comments of the Home Minister of Karnataka. In an interview, the Minister seems to suggest that the ‘Western mindset and clothing’ of youngsters gives rise to sexual assault. He said, while speaking of youngsters gathering together on New Year’s Eve,

“ …Youngsters are almost like Westerners. They try to copy the Western (ers) not only in their mindset but even the dressing so…you know, some disturbance, some girls are harassed…you know, these kind of things do happen …”

The Minister’s comments are reminiscent of the comments made from various quarters post the Dec,2012 gangrape in Delhi. A legislator in the state of Rajasthan infamously asked for a ban on skirts  in school uniforms as they were the reason girls got molested. In 2015, three years after the gang-rape, a media outlet gathered together all the terrible things politicians are still saying about women and it is apparent that slaying the monster of patriarchal mindsets will continue to be a long and fraught struggle.

The constant victim-blaming and shaming that has become part of the narrative takes the fight back and impedes access to justice for survivors. After the Bengaluru molestation cases on New Year’s eve, it was reported that no complaints were filed, leading the police to file suo moto FIR’s in the matter. On Jan 1st, another incident of molestation in Kamanahalli, Bangalore was reported and the survivor refused to show up three times for the identification parade of the molesters but was finally persuaded by the police to do so.

The anger and despair I felt every time a politician blamed a person’s clothing or behaviour is one of the main driving forces for the idea behind How Revealing. On How Revealing, people can add information regarding what the survivor was wearing and where and what time the incident took place. The stories will speak for themselves and they already are – from the 70 or so stories we have received, it is very clear that one’s clothing has no role to play in whether one gets sexually assaulted. More than 50% of the stories are of child sexual abuse and around 40% of the stories have been about people who were abused by someone known to them.

In less than 2 months since its launch on Jan 13, 2017, the project has been covered by prominent media outlets and the website has close to 70,000 page views. The stories are a harrowing read, disturbing and revealing in its complexities and commonalities. In time and with enough stories, How Revealing will serve as a repository of experiences, which are stratified, analyzed for patterns that will provide valuable information that can impact policy in the areas of survivor support, police reforms and justice mechanisms. By providing a platform for people to speak out and break the silence, we hope that these stories can change the narrative surrounding sexual violence in India, help people know they are not alone and that we can together reduce the stigma.

Urmila is a lawyer and the founder of How Revealing!, a website project that enables people to share experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment in India and tweets from @HowRevealing. Her piece was submitted to IAPS Dialogue on the basis of anonymity of the author. Image Credit: provided by the author.

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