“The modesty of a woman is her most precious jewel.” These were the lines from a Bombay High Court judgement as it ruled that throwing a chit at a married woman for professing love amounts to outraging her modesty, in relation to a case filed by a woman against her male neighbour. The court determined that repeated professing of love by a man towards a woman who is not interested would constitute an offence under Section 504 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes “outraging the modesty of a woman” punishable.
While the court slapped a INR 90,000 fine on the accused, it also admitted there is no one way to describe or define harassment and there is no “straitjacket formula to ascertain” it as it exists in a spectrum. While the acceptance and recognition of the fact that harassment cannot be “bracketed” is a big relief, the words of the judgement and the very idea behind it highlights the patriarchal system and a saviour complex that exists within the administrative and judicial systems just as it exists in the society.
The Bombay High Court’s statement is also a patronising one at that, which also goes on to legitimise victim-blaming. Laying extra stress on “women’s modesty” puts the onus on the woman and the society to “protect it” and thus, by extension, the women. This paves way for further oppression and gives the oppression a legitimate reason. Surveillance and curbing of woman’s rights then begin to be defended as actions taken to “protect her modesty”.
Furthermore, it is an extremely regressive idea that attaches a woman’s identity, the respect and behaviour she receives, to her being “pure and chaste”. The very concept of modesty is an attempt by patriarchy to limit women’s independence and try to fit them into certain society-approved boxes and labels. Society, through the argument of “modesty” limits the progress of women in a world that is already dominated by cis-het men.
Not just that, the argument of “modesty” also positions women in a secondary and more passive role when it comes to sexual desire and sexual relationships. Their sexual desires are nullified, and it is presumed that it doesn’t exist at all, because how else does she prove her chastity? Sexual desire then only exists in the realm of the man who will do as he pleases, and the woman had no says and it is wrongly assumed that “to her, things will only be done”. In a country that is already so hushed while addressing even the existence of women’s sexuality, such an argument of modesty closes even more doors.
The case that the court was hearing was that of a 45 -year-old survivor who had accused her male neighbour. The survivor had said that the accused, who owned a grocery shop in their neighbourhood, had approached her and tried to hand over a chit. When she refused to accept it, he threw it on her uttering “I love you”. The next day, he made obscene gestures and warned her not to disclose the contents of the note to anyone. She also alleged that the accused had flirted with her on several occasions.
Another point that needs to be highlighted here is that such a case commenting on “women’s modesty”, also puts the onus on the woman to “not invite” unwanted behaviour. What was she wearing? Was she dressed modestly? Of course, it was to happen if that is what she was wearing! These are the statements that one hears as a result. The patriarchal society leaves no stone unturned to doubly oppressed those that are marginalised and put the burden on them for what follows.
Khap Panchayats operate on victim blaming and the warped understanding of ‘family honour’ as that determined by a woman’s modesty or the lack of. Survivors of sexual violence and sexual assault are made to marry their abusers. Victim blaming comes as an easy way out for cis-het men who dominate the societal hierarchy, as it absolves them of any blame and helps shift the burden of guilt onto the woman. It also allows them to avoid reflecting on their own actions and address the very root of the problem that exists within.
However, this is not the first time a Bombay High Court judgement has sparked controversy and been labelled as problematic. Earlier this year, the court had ruled that unless there is skin-to-skin contact with sexual intent, the act would not qualify as sexual assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. Both this judgement and the current one leaves open several problematic loopholes that can be easily toyed with, by the perpetrators.
The poorly put and problematically portrayed idea of “modesty” therefore does not serve any real purpose when it comes to ensuring that a woman’s boundaries are not violated or ensuring any kind of protection from sexual harassment. While the court’s judgement is a welcome step forward, there still seems to be a long way to go to understanding, identifying, and acknowledging harassment for what it is.
Featured image source: LiveLaw