The Honour Of Women In Peril


The word I needed was dishonour, I realised afterwards. He tried to dishonour me. All the phrases that came to mind at the time were too crude for a woman to use in conversation with a man. "He tried to kiss me," I told the security guard at my hotel, although kiss did not really describe what the driver had tried to do when he drove me into a dark backstreet and clambered on top of me. And even that sounded crude, as the hotel manager yelled it over and over and the rickshaw driver cowered at my feet. Tried to kiss her and my very good customer and police inspector and lengthy descriptions of what police inspectors do to hoodlums who to try to kiss women of honour.

And I did feel dishonoured, not only by what the driver had tried to do as I kicked and yelled no, but by the fact that he had felt so entitled to do it that he had driven me back to the hotel afterwards, assuming that I was not the kind of woman who would be outraged enough to report him.

"I have daughters," he begged, which enraged me even more. "How would you feel if this happened to your daughter?" — but it sounded like a meaningless question even as it fell from my lips. So far as fathers like this are concerned, such a thing would never happen to their own daughters, because their daughters would never be found gallivanting around Lahore after dark, taking rickshaws to hotels and placing their honour in peril.

That has been the response of some political and religious leaders to the gang-rape and murder of a young Indian woman who had transgressed boundaries by taking a bus after dark with a male friend.

Good daughters do not place their honour and their lives in peril through such behaviour. Away from the shelter of fathers, brothers, and husbands, they can expect to be eve-teased (as sexual harassment is so fetchingly called in the subcontintnent), groped, and if they are particularly unfortunate to be repeatedly savaged and beaten by a gang of attackers, dumped naked and bleeding by the roadside, and ignored by passers-by.

"Only 5-6 people are not the culprits. The victim is as guilty as her rapists," proclaimed spiritual guru Asaram Bapu. Andra Pradesh Congress Committee president Botsa Satyanarayana noted "Just because India got freedom at midnight, is it necessary for women to be on the streets at midnight?" A woman who placed so little value on her honour cannot expect strange men to restrain their natural appetites.

No-one queried Jill Meagher's honour after her abduction from within eyeshot of my home in Melbourne last year. "Honour" has a medieval ring in contemporary Australian society, an association with backward people and places. Instead, Meagher was deemed "foolhardy" for walking home alone after socialising late into the night at a trendy bar, for wearing high-heels, and for refusing a lift from a male colleague. Silly naïve Jill, believing that she was entitled to walk in safety through "the mean streets of Melbourne", as the media termed the neighbourhood where my daughter and I walk every day and many nights of our lives, expecting nothing worse than coarse remarks yelled from carloads of passing youths.

In Australia as in India, the vast majority of sexual violence is committed not by strangers who prey on women in public but within private space, by men known to the victim. The mindset that judges Jill Meagher to have been reckless in declining a lift home from a colleague is the same mindset that sees consorting with a male after a night at a bar as tantamount to consenting to sex. "Stranger-danger" or "date-rape" — either way, it's the woman's fault.

The public protests in the wake of the death of the woman described as "Brave Heart" has attracted worldwide media coverage, as Indians vent their anger against the toxic mix of misogyny, police corruption, and dysfunctional public infrastructure that contributed to the crime. And the streets of my neighbourhood in Melbourne saw an outpouring of mourning and reclaimation as thousands of people took to the streets in what Miranda Devine declared to be a "ludicrous" protest against sexual violence. I marched down Sydney Road that day, reflecting on lives damaged or destroyed by sexual violence and remembering two other incidents.

The day after the incident with the rickshaw driver, I received a phone call in my hotel room from one of the desk clerks. A routine enquiry about my booking, and then — "I heard what happened to you."

I'm sure everyone heard. The thought that everyone knew, that everyone had heard, made me feel trapped and vulnerable all over again.

"I feel very ashamed."

That was all. But it was enough. The actions of the man who had thought that my body could be his for the taking were not legitimate. Not in the eyes of this unknown stranger.

A few evenings before the march, I walked home along the route that Jill Meagher had taken in her final hours, down Sydney Road and into Hope Street. On the corner of Hope Street, a man was posting a notice for the forthcoming peace march. "Women since time immemorial have internalised fear of sexual predators on a dark night, because the world is not all roses and cupcakes. It's just not," Miranda Devine said of that rally.

The wind was flapping the poster in the wind, and the man struggled to hold it down with one hand while holding his sticky-tape and scissors in the other. I stopped and held it in place for him.

A moment's trust, in a strange man, after dark, in that location.

I am not naïve. I am not reckless. I am not asking for anything beyond what ought to be a
universally accepted entitlement to live in safety.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.