Despite stalking being normalised for ages, incidents like Kundu’s and Aditi Nagpaul’s show that women won’t take harassment lying down any more.
When 29-year-old Varnika Kundu named and shamed Vikas Barala for stalking, chasing, and trying to break into her car as she drove to her home, she raised her voice for a generation of girls who refuse to take harassment lying low. Close on the heels of the Chandigarh incident, a Mumbai-based fashion designer, Aditi Nagpaul, too complained of being followed home by Nitin Sharma, an IT professional, who was then arrested by the police.
While incidents of stalking seem to now be coming to light, any woman who has grown up in the city will tell you that they’re more commonplace than one would think. Right from being ogled at on railway stations, to being followed home from college or work, stalking is a part and parcel of most women’s lives. However, times are changing and most women have realised that the shame is not theirs, asserts author Anuja Chauhan.
“I think my daughters are much more intolerant of such things than we were. When we were growing up, it was so indoctrinated in our heads and internalised that it’s a woman’s fault if something goes wrong. It’s good to see girls like these now, and it’s very clear that the blame has been shifted to such a great extent,” she smiles.
Actress Sophie Choudry, who was born and brought up in London, believes that she was privileged to grow up safer. “This is something you hear in India very often. I think culturally women abroad and especilly in Europe have a lot more freedom and equality. However, having said that, we’ve laughed about the culture of walking past a bunch of builders who catcall to them and it happens abroad as well. But you never really face threatening situations as such, and that, I think, is the difference,” Sophie muses.
But the idea that such incidents can now fly under the radar, simply because it’s not grievous or heinous as assault is a thing of past, believes theatre personality Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal. “I don’t think Varnika’s story will be forgotten quickly,” she says. “The girl and her father have the patience and courage to fight this. I don’t think this story can be taken lightly, and it shouldn’t be. As far as politicians questioning women on why they’re out late at night, they will say that because they’re padhe likhe anpadh (educated illiterates). Why don’t they stop the boys from going out instead?”
Sophie adds, “I think Indian men have a huge ego, and that’s just something that comes with the territory. It’s difficult for them to hear ‘no’. I’ve experienced that a lot in my personal life, that if I’ve said no to someone, they think I’m just joking and if they keep pursuing, I will succumb. I’m grateful that films like Pink are being made, and people are starting to get the message that no really does mean no.”
But can Bollywood be let off the hook for its normalisation of ‘harmless’ stalking as playful behaviour? No, says Anuja. “Bollywood is very guilty of feeding this behaviour to us. Haseena rooth jaati hai toh aur bhi haseen ho jaati hai is something we’ve been hearing ever since there was Bollywood,” she rolls her eyes. “That’s still very much the case, and the onus has to be on the people who write these lyrics, produce these songs and those who think their movie will be a hit if they put in some Fevicol Se kind of songs.”
Mahabanoo firmly adds, “I do enjoy item numbers in movies — they’re lively and fun. But when you show 40 men surrounding one woman and trying to grab her, it gives out the wrong message. They should probably add a disclaimer to these scenes too, which says that this kind of behaviour will put them on the wrong side of the law.”
Sophie, however, thinks that Bollywood sometimes becomes a soft target. “And I’m not saying this because I come from the world of entertainment,” she smiles. “Anytime anything goes wrong in society, everyone points fingers at Bollywood. Is it because women are wearing sexy clothes, or songs are encouraging women to be harassed? I hate to think that’s the kind of society we are. At the end of the day, movies represent life, so we need to take into account that what’s happening in society and the world is being reflected on films and perhaps vice versa. If change needs to come, it has to be at the grassroots level. It must come from education and women in families making their sons, husbands and brothers understand that women have rights too,” she firmly concludes.
Twitter hits back
Meanwhile, Ramveer Bhatti, BJP’s Harayana deputy president angered women across the country, when he blamed Varnika for the incident because she was out ‘so late in the night’. He questioned, “Why did she step out at midnight?”
Incensed, the women took to social media to tweet pictures of them out late at night, with the hashtag #AintNoCinderella to show that they didn’t have to be back home at the stroke of the midnight hour.
“Dear regressive India, I will do as I please, night or day. Don’t ever think you have the right to stop me #AintNoCinderella,” wrote Pooja, a Twitter user, publishing a picture along with it. “Oops 1.45am and I am out on Delhi Roads, In a short Dress stop me if you can !!! #AintNoCinderella” (sic) tweeted another user. It’s safe to say that none of the ladies seem to be willing to take this lying low.