Morality and Victim Blaming in South Asian Societies

By Kanchan Gautam

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Recently while browsing through a selection of movies on Netflix, I happened upon a Bollywood movie. Usually, I stay away from Bollywood cinema, as they tend to lack depth and are riddled with gender role stereotypes. However, when I saw the description for Pink, I was intrigued. It seemed to veer from the typical Bollywood story of romance and thrills.  Additionally, with 136 minutes run time, it seemed to be reasonably short for Bollywood standards, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and watch it. I have to say besides the melodramatic portrayal of a retired lawyer played by Amitabh Bachan and some unrealistic court scenes, the movie’s depiction of how assault victims are treated in South Asian culture is very accurate. We have seen this many times, not just in Asian cultures, but here in Western society as well. People tend to blame the victim for their assault rather than the perpetrator for their actions.

Pink explores the ideology that virtuous women do not get sexually assaulted. A lawyer in the movie, questions the three women’s virtue and morals because they live alone, drink alcohol, stay out late at night, interact with men in friendly manner, and have had prior romantic/sexual relationships. The lawyer indicates these are behaviors virtuous women from good families do not partake in. All the while, the men in the movie are portrayed as the victims who are being falsely accused of sexual assault because of their “goodness.” These are familiar double standards in society, especially South Asian society.  Men can partake in all the above and not be considered dishonorable. Furthermore, the movie explored the belief many people have that if you are considered a “woman of questionable morals” then it is ok for men to sexually assault you.  This is nothing new and common in western societies as well.

Just recently we have seen narratives of men assaulting or promoting sexual assault and in return society explaining this kind of behavior as normal male behavior and instead blaming the victim. We even saw the normalization of this sort of behavior during the U.S presidential election. One of the many alleged victims who had come forward with information on sexual misconduct by the now President was taunted by the media because of her profession as a porn star. Due to her profession, many interpreted her as being someone with low morals and therefore any unwanted touching or kissing to be consensual. Sadly, this archaic belief system seems to prevail all over the world and many women and men suffer the consequences instead of being treated fairly.

Boju Bajai, a Nepali podcast, did a two-part episode on sexual misconduct in public spaces in Nepal. They implored Nepali women and men to report their personal experiences on the reporting process with law enforcement. A lot of these narratives seemed to lead to the same conclusion; law enforcement in Nepal still handle these cases with the double standards I discussed earlier. Their episode also touched on the under reporting of sexual assault in Nepal because of the unwillingness by the law enforcement officials to handle these cases. One narrative that really stuck out to me was from Subin Mulmi, a lawyer at Forum for Women. He mentioned an instance where a woman was held overnight at a police station over a taxi-fare dispute. Not only was she taken into custody and held overnight, she wasn’t allowed to make a phone call to notify her family of her whereabouts either. The police officer’s reasoning behind this was that if a family allows a woman to go out until one am at night, then, they must not care about her so there was no point in calling and notifying them. This is a very harmful belief system that drinking alcohol or going out and staying out late somehow demeans a woman and her family’s honorability. Many Nepali women have heard the “you are a girl, don’t stay out too late” or “you are a girl from a good family, don’t drink alcohol” speech all too well. Maybe if we focused and redirected our energy to educate society and men on how to treat women with respect and punished sexual misconduct properly, we wouldn’t have as many sexual assault cases.

I found one moment to be profound in Pink, Amitabh Bachan’s character states that “No” transcends being just a single word and conveys so much beyond that in instances of sexual assault. When a woman or man says no, they means no irrevocably, regardless of sexual history, alcohol consumption, and line of work. Sexual assault victims should be asked one thing, their consent, not how late they stayed out,  whether they live alone, or any other characteristics because, sexual assault is caused only by one thing: the offender.


6 thoughts on “Morality and Victim Blaming in South Asian Societies

  1. Fantastic article! I want to give the movie a try too, as it sounds great. Thanks for providing the other useful links too, I’ll check them out. Sadly women victim blaming is prevalent everywhere in the world like you said, but only in countries like Nepal, the law which should be impartial also sees such cases with the same judgmental eyes as the society. Consent should be a very easy concept to understand, but it’s astonishing to see how it’s completely missed with the blame rather shifted to the assaulted women instead. Sigh!

    • Kanchan says:

      I agree Pooja, it’s too bad that law enforcement in Nepal aren’t more victim sensitive. I have wondered if maybe implementing some sort of training and education program for all police officers in sexual harassment and assault or having a specialized department to handle these sensitive cases might bring about some positive change. And more education on sexual misconduct and a better understanding of consent would also be useful in school/colleges/workplaces in Nepal. But who knows if this atmosphere of punishing and blaming women will ever change.

      • Richa says:

        It seems everyone needs training. The police here in the US aren’t the best either when it comes to sexual assault. The justice system always questioning the females, the victims, rather than the perpetrators. As long as women are not seen as equal, it will take a long time for things to change. I think I have a shift in people, especially when you talk in your families and communities. Bringing that awareness to small groups of people does seem to make a difference. Good piece Kanchan!

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