On New Year’s Eve, grim reports from Bangalore, India, delivered a dark introduction to 2017. Mass molestations took place across a celebrating crowd of over 10,000 people as police struggled to maintain control.
Outrage swept the country, as some men used #NotAllMen to make a flawed argument on gender conflict: it wasn’t the fault of all men, so stop talking about it.
In response, Feminism In India asked women to “reclaim the narrative,” and share their own stories of sexual assault, using #YesAllWomen instead. Their voices spread across the world.
Some spoke of graphic incidents that passed unnoticed in public places, without pause, and without protest.
Others shared powerful stories of unwarranted physical attacks on intimate body parts.
I was 7 years old, we lived on rent. The house owner in his 60s would join me when I was playing and used to caress my crotch. #YesAllWomen— Manpreet (@Manpreeeeeet) January 4, 2017
The hashtag shed light on the extent of the problem. Different women of every age have been affected all over India. The mass molestation in Bangalore was an awful insight, but was far from an isolated incident.
There is one thing each personal account has in common: a complete lack of justice.
I was 2. Then 5. Then 8. Then 11. Then 12. Then 13. Then 15. #YesAllWomen— Karishma (@The_Karishma) January 2, 2017
In India, four out of five women have been sexually assaulted in a public place. 30% of Indian women will tell somebody if they’ve been sexually assaulted. Yet only 1% will report it to the police. Why do women believe their cases won’t be taken seriously?
Praveen Sood, the Bangalore police commissioner, claimed that evidence from 70 CCTV cameras suggests mass molestation did not happen. Despite a public appeal for witnesses, no complaints were registered. Initial reports stated that six people had been arrested for the attacks. However, Sood said that they were detained in connection with a separate incident. No evidence, no complaints, no arrests.
This is despite first-hand evidence and photographs published by The Bangalore Mirror, and multiple media interviews, including a personal account given to the BBC by a woman who called herself Pooja to protect her identity.
“They don't know what effect it has on a girl's life,” said Pooja, one of many groped countless times that evening. “It has an everlasting impact.”
There is a reason nobody is reporting the crimes, despite the evidence. All of their lives, they’re taught not to.
Consider the words of G Parmeshwara, the Karnataka state home minister. After the mass molestations, he claimed that women susceptible to western influences were somehow to blame. “(The women) tried to copy the westerners, not only in their mindset but even in their dressing,” he said by way of response. “Some girls are harassed, these kinds of things do happen.”
If women are taught to blame themselves, then the battle is over before it’s even begun.
It’s difficult to comprehend how somebody in a position of power can blame the size of someone’s skirt for sexual assault. Because that’s exactly what happened in Bangalore: serial sexual assault. Yes, sadly, “these kind of things do happen.” But to be complacent is to be complicit. The root cause is essentially this: powerful people ignoring the very real fact that men can abuse women and get away with it.
There were so few complaints because there are too many barriers to conviction. There were simply too many men, too many incidents, and startlingly little belief in tangible consequences. “Who would I file a complaint against? I don't know a face or name,” Pooja continued. “There was not a single face you could make out or who was doing it.”
In 2012, a 23-year-old medical student called Jyoti was gang raped and murdered in Delhi. Since then, legislation has been brought about to force through change; as of the start of this year, the Indian government has made it mandatory for all new mobile phones to be fitted with an in-built panic button. Phone manufacturers have two months to comply with the new rules, and, from next year, this will include a GPS function, too.
But whilst law can sometimes strike like a bullet, culture can move slower than a tank.
The conversation started by #YesAllWomen may not be about bringing the guilty men to justice. But it’s about reclaiming space and power for the victims who all too often have felt their voices weakened by louder forces. It’s about tackling the real problems, instead of blaming victims contending with what they cannot control. It’s about education. Gender violence must be fought against in mainstream culture as well as in the courts. With a war fought on both fronts, justice has a real chance.