With the justified uproar about the injustice in Ruchika’s case, ‘Outraging the modesty of a woman’ is a phrase that has dominated the media in the past few weeks. This term is taken from section 354 of the Indian penal code which says “Whosoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description of term which may extend to two years or with fine, or with both.”

“outraging modesty?” Are there clear norms for what defines a woman’s modesty which are applicable across the board and are valid for all times? This law was framed 150 years ago. Society and women’s role in it have changed so much since that we may need to rethink what might be considered ‘modest’ behavior.

I remember an incident from childhood. I must have been about 10 and my friend who lived in the same street a few houses away was two years older than me. Those were the days when you had to go and collect your daily milk supply from the milk kiosks in every locality and so we used to go together around 6 a.m. The roads used to be quite deserted at that time but we never felt any fear. The compound of RKM main school extended to the first 50 meters of the road and on the other side it was the side compound wall of a huge bungalow. The houses of our street began after that. One morning as we turned into our street a guy walked up to us and squeezed my friend’s breasts and before we recovered from the shock, he had run away. From the next day it was her brother who went to get milk. And she started wearing a half saree. Clearly her parents decided that it was their fault in allowing her to go uncovered and this probably gave that lecherous lout the ‘right’ to molest her. I wrote about the half-saree and its role in our lives here.

But that was 1968. Societal attitudes were different. Such incidents were not to be made public and people preferred to hush them up and find more escapist methods to keep their girls safer from roving eyes and probing hands.
Today people are a lot more open about raising their voices in protest against such crimes against women as there is more awareness of the legal rights and more willingness to invoke them. So it was disgusting when on a TV discussion panel K.P.S.Gill said that section 354 is being misused by women. He said that what constitutes the definition of the law has to be seen in the context of the changes in society and viewed so he was not guilty of any misconduct. I cannot believe that a guy would pinch a colleague's rear and then have the impunity to justify it after having been pronounced guilty by the highest court of the land. Let us for a moment forget 'modesty' of women, is there a thing called 'shame' for this man?

It is true that it is tough to unequivocally define what constitutes the limits of modesty.
Some of the dictionary definitions of modesty are:
Having or proceeding from a disinclination to call attention to oneself; retiring or diffident.
Observing conventional proprieties in speech, behavior, or dress.
Free from showiness or ostentation; unpretentious.

So does this mean that a woman is immodest if she is not inhibited or if she dresses to attract attention? Ok even if it is so and she decides not to be ‘modest’ in the conventional sense, does it give any man the right to misbehave with her? Just because a woman dresses in a manner that flatters her figure, it doesn’t automatically constitute an invitation to touch her or feel her up, or does it? and who decides?

But sadly, this seems to be the popular opinion reinforced through popular cinema and fiction. It is a standard scene in many Tamil films even today where a rich, spoilt, girl in skimpy modern clothing is ragged and molested and made to conform to our cultural standards by becoming ‘modest’.
Here is an example of one such song:

The dance movements obviate the necessity of any translation of the lyrics but some lines definitely deserve a (rough) translation as they explain the societal attitude that accepts such behavior from a so-called ‘hero’.:
Pombalaiku venum acham madam nAnam
Illay enru ponale vambizhukka thonam
(A woman needs to have fear, innocence and shyness. Else people would be tempted to rag (her))
Oru ponnana kattupadanum Buddhi Sonnakka matupadanum
Apdi illena kashtapadanum Ille pinnale nashtapadanum
A woman should be bound by limits and be leveled by advice
Otherwise (she would have to) suffer or face loss)

Disgusting though the scene is, this is a standard scene from 80 percent of the films even today. Unfortunately these cannot be dismissed as ‘just filmy’ because successful films of these big heroes have enormous impact on the behavior and attitudes of young people especially among the less enlightened sections. Even college students consider such behavior ‘cool’. A woman’s ‘modesty’ is defined by her dress, mannerisms and speech. Very much the same as the dictionary definition:Observing conventional proprieties in speech, behavior, or dress.
It is this kind of indoctrination which makes people condone such behavior by men and assigns the blame to the girl when she is subjected to such harassment. It is always the girls fault even when she is the victim for having ‘provoked’ that kind of behavior.

Even if the definition of the phrase ‘outraging a woman’s modesty’ is subject to interpretation, it should not be too difficult for a ‘learned’ judge to see it according to the facts of the case rather than relying upon standard or hackneyed definition of the word 'modesty'. There is no denying that there may be some difficult cases. In big cities and liberal circles, not all touch is considered bad and in official and personal dealings hand shakes and friendly hugs are not uncommon. So it becomes a little tough for a woman to explain why a certain kind of touch outrages her while it is perfectly acceptable vis a vis another man. In such cases it is always her word against anybody else’s and should rightly be so. Modesty is such a personal thing that only she can say if she feels violated by a certain kind of behavior. And the issue is not even so much about 'modesty' as about anyone else having a 'right' to her body. Not even her close family have a right to it. This law is in serious need of change and rephrasing to include all kinds of acts which a woman feels creepy about or finds objectionable. What about those innuendos and double entendre statements?
Pending that reform, it should be entirely a woman's prerogative to define what she finds as a violation of her modesty. As long as the onus is on the woman to prove that she did not welcome such attention, it would be tough to deter out-of-control men from indulging in such bad behavior. In a just society, restraining such behavior should be by making the culprit fear the laws of the land and not by further curbing the rights of the victims. Is that such a complicated idea to consider?
21 Responses
  1. Anonymous Says:

    Irrespective of how 'modern' the office situation, there should be no need to pinch a woman's bottom and terming it friendly. Surely you can shake hands or say something nice to show camaraderie. KPS Gill is one of those cheap uncles who try to touch you to show they care about you. And he should be treated like that.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Just read the first few line...I will be back to read this post peacefully. Just had to comment to say that I find the term 'outraging a woman's modesty' degrading. A woman's modesty can't be outraged by criminal assaults... the term seems to be a translation of 'izzat lootna', which is equally wrong...

  3. Art Says:

    Totally agree with you... But who is gonna tell the world :(

  4. Richa Says:

    Growing up in India as a woman, facing the assaults, molestation everyday on the road, I always blamed myself for everything. Consequently I always had my head down while walking on the road, a constant frown on my face in most social settings and I always picked up the dresses that made me look worst so that I don't draw attention to myself. Now looking back to those years, I realize what a bull-shit I was fed and I believed. My only fault in all those scenarios, all those cases: Being a woman in India.

    That's the problem with all these cases that do become public. The worst part of it: we still have the same mentality: if something bad happens to a woman, it's her fault, she must have provoked "the man" in some manner or the other. Because, you see, men, by nature, are supposed to molest women. It's their birth right. If woman provide slightest provocation and at times, none at all, the fact that she is a woman, is the reason enough for getting molested. Who can blame "The Man"? They have all the right to do whatever they want. They can't be civilized or controlled. They are entitled to any pleasure they seek, even if women have to suffer. that's why women are born, aren't they? To serve man.

    I am so glad I am out of that place and am never going back! EVER! Being abroad gives me a right to my own body. It's no longer a public property, the way men in India think.

  5. apu Says:

    Great post, Usha-ji. The term 'outraging modesty' is a relic of Victorian era legislation, I presume. And as far as Tamizh movies are concerned - grrrrr - what you've pointed out is true - such scenes are standard; as a rule, I avoid Vijay movies because they seem to have the most of these!

  6. Anonymous Says:

    "As long as the onus is on the woman to prove that she did not welcome such attention, it would be tough to deter out-of-control men from indulging in such bad behavior. In a just society, restraining such behavior should be by making the culprit fear the laws of the land and not by further curbing the rights of the victims. Is that such a complicated idea to consider?"

    Loved the post - agree completely. We should do a tag where each of us lists ten songs from Indian movies which are derogatory to women... there are so many of these songs! And now we have serials to reinforce the same ideas.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I noticed the men harassing Khushbu are wearing western clothes.

    And I wonder how someone like Kamal Hasan who has a daughter working in the movies and who wears western clothes agrees to work for such movies.

  8. maami Says:

    I'm modest (;) ) but I am outraged at such neandrathel attitute that still persists in our land.

  9. Praveen Says:

    you too Kamal?!

  10. Usha Says:

    Shilpa: there are men out there who can use every opportunity for a good touch to convert it into a bad touch.

    IHM: Yes the term itself makes no sense. Perhaps we could cut some slack as the law wasa framed in 1850 but it is badly in need of a change in terminology and scope.

    Art:We will. Keep doing it until we are heard.

    Richa:I know what you are talking about Like my grandmom used to say 'whether the cloth falls on the thorn or the thorn pulls the cloth, the damage is finally only to the cloth' Meaning it is the woman who should be careful because she will suffer the consequences.

    Apu: Thanks.
    And it gets me all worked up when I hear the statement : 'after all a woman" ( a pomblai, as they say)

    IHM:I am all for a tag like that.
    This is a film from the early eighties when he still did not have kids. I dont think he has done similar stuff in his recent movies.At least I hope so.

    Maami:I wonder what our men would think of Bharathi's pudumai penn: Nimirndha nannadai nerkonda parvai.
    immodest - a?

    Praveen: ellam ore kuttaiyil oorina mattais only. I can recollect another male chauvinistic song played by him:
    Kamban emandan... which has the lines:
    Athiram enbadhu pengalukellam adukalai varaidane
    Oru Adhikka nayagan sAdhikka vandAl
    adangudal muraidane....
    (Lyrics: Vaali!!)

  11. Dreamer Says:

    Popped in here from Blogadda. First of all congrats for the Tangy Tuesday pick.

    I totally agree with everything you've said. That term is so outdated, it needs to be removed ASAP. Have you noticed that in most movies where the heroine is shown as being modern, as soon as she falls in love with the MCP hero she switches to "modest" covered form head to toe outfits?

    I agree with you and IHM, a tag like that could really do some good.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Congratulations on the Blogadda Tangy Tuesday pick...

    Now about the post...I totally agree with you...Recently, a Chinese girl was molested by 4 Indians while dancing in a bikini at a New Year's party at Sentosa Siloso Beach, Singapore (link: Most people I've spoken to (including women) think she deserved it because she was wearing a bikini (there are rumours that she's a transvestite)...Hello, the party was on a beach - were people expected to wear burqas? The sad part is that nobody came to her rescue...I couldn't believe my ears when I heard some of my friends support the men's actions...As I see it, even if she had been nude, the men didn't have the right to touch her...When and how will our thinking change? Clearly, education is not doing it...

  13. diya Says:

    Not complicated at all Usha, but we live in patriarchal societies which rarely ponder the woman's point of view. The 'modesty' bit is archaic as is most of our law, but what is truely regressive is the way laws are interpreted. How else would you explain the judgement of the supreme court which says that kicking of a woman and giving her used clothes to wear does not constitute cruelty? This judgement was given a few months ago not a century back! Women are supposed to be subordinate in a patriarchal setting, and subordinates have to 'suffer' without complaints!

  14. Mama - Mia Says:

    i really dont know when will we understand it cannot be victim's fault!

    like someone said, even if a woman is naked that doesnt not give men the right to touch her against her wishes! period!

    why should this be so difficult to understand?! :(

  15. sra Says:

    What else can one expect a guilty man to say? A pinch on the rear is a pinch on the rear - handshakes and hugs between the sexes are different - a look, a grope, makes the difference.

    Sadly, there are women who parrot these ideas - that rape is the woman's fault for dressing boldly (this from someone who doesn't dress conservatively even at work) and that rape is a measure of a woman's desirability ("Who'd want to rape her anyway!")

    Then I'm glad you made the point about trying to cow women by quoting that song - there is this movie in many languages where the middle-class 'heroine' sells off her husband the 'hero' for a crore to a rich woman who fancies him. Of course, she is condemned for that, as well as for her nouveau riche attitude and enjoying everything that the money brings her - but no one blames the rich woman for being tempted or making the offer because she is loving, conservative and traditional - wearing big bindis and saris in spite of being an heiress. That movie really gets my goat.

  16. vikraman Says:

    Even i felt the same whenever i watch our movies. Also, these movies convey a subtle message that a woman cannot protect herself and it requires a man (hero) to jump in and save her modesty from the villains.

    But i feel we need to do something about restoring the dignity of a woman in the society. Tell me what you think of this

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Richa makes a good point. For some strange reason, people often have a tendency to blame themselves when they are abused in some way. This seems to be true of any abuse, not just sexual harassment. It is as if we expect abusive people to be reasonable.

  18. BlogAdda Says:

    Hi Usha,

    Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that your wonderful post has been selected by BlogAdda as one of the top posts for this week's 'Tangy Tuesday Picks'. Do mail me at harishkrishnan at blogadda dot com for more details

  19. Couldn't agree with you more. Came over to you blog after Indian Homemaker left a link to your post here

    And I am glad that I found the post. Good one. Keep going and things will change and remember, there is no such things as small change

  20. Congratulations :) This post in one of the winners of 'Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards - 2011' (TRBA 2011). We would like to create an ebook with all the winning entries in 47 categories on Feminism and Gender Issues in India (and one category on Animals Rights). Please do let us know if you are fine with your winning post/s being included in this ebook. ( Please click here to let us know).

  21. Rovina Says:

    'Outraging the modesty of a woman truly' cannot be related to physical advances alone many men outrage the modesty by their comments about ladies. recently in a staff meeting in a school the Principal cast all sorts of accusations on the lady staffers...about their age, health, appearance etc. all the ladies were upset with his comments. This is also outraging the modesty of women. He singled out some and spoke in general for all others. What do you have to say for this...