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Man masturbates next to student on Delhi bus: Why does law go easy on creeps?

It is high time courts deal with those who traumatise women with their depravity.

 |  4-minute read |   13-02-2018
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On February 7, while a 23-year-old student of Delhi University took a public bus to return home, she suddenly found her seat shaking. It took her a while to make sense of the situation. In pure horror, she realised that the man standing next to her was actually masturbating with the clear intention to ensure the young student saw what he was up to.

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In July 2015, a woman realised that the driver of a TaxiForSure cab she had taken was "extremely restless, anxious, and kept mumbling something to himself". She soon found out he was "masturbating while driving".

The same month, a British travel writer, Lucy Hemmings, described the multiple incidents of public masturbation that she encountered during her travels in India. What she said in her blog, which went viral, is significant to understand the extent of the problem.

Hemmings wrote, "As much as I hate to admit it, this isn't the first time it's happened to me. In fact, chances are, if you've ever been to India, you'll have bumped into at least one traveller who has experienced this sort of behaviour, or heard of someone else who it has happened to."

It is clear that men flashing and masturbating in public is a fairly widespread phenomenon that has so far been ignored. But this silence over public masturbation must break because it exposes women to a violence whose latent brutality leaves deep scars in the minds of its victims. It is mental assault of the worst kind.

The DU student, who is reportedly the latest victim of this ghastliness, says: "I felt disgusted and traumatised." Her experience is not an exception, it is an ordeal that almost all Indian women and girls are put through in both public and private spaces.

No law for flashing or masturbating in public

The silence over the problem has ensured there is no specific law to punish those who traumatise women with their depravity. While amendments to the Indian Penal Code have ensured crimes against women such as voyeurism and stalking have specific punishments, "public masturbation" is a grey area.

Cases of public masturbation can best be filed under Section 354 of the IPC, which deals with "assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty", Section 509 which deals with "gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman", and/or Section 268, which handles cases of public nuisance.

Since there is no law to deal with the offence there is of course no data on how widespread the problem is. But social media platforms and blogs are raising the chorus around the problem. The noises should neither be missed nor ignored.

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A Supreme Court advocate was quoted by Quartz highlighting the magnitude of the problem that women in India are silently living with. The advocate said that while he gets to hear of such incidents from social media and friends all the time, he has hardly seen any such case reach the courts. The Indian law does not use the word masturbation in relation to crime against women. There is no debate around it, no awareness about where to find help and hence both stigma and suffering have continued to coexist.

Victims have chosen to withdraw into silence because stepping out of homes is a struggle in itself. Flashing, commenting, raping and passing of lewd remarks ensure they are inhibited, coerced and confined. Rape is overtly brutal and even then puts the victims under the scanner. The shock experienced by witnessing public masturbating doesn't leave visible marks and hence allows us to conveniently avert our eyes from it, behaving as if it doesn't exist or doesn't happen to many out there.

But when we see that even our public buses moving on the streets of the national capital are unsafe, we need to sit up and take note.

The attitude that public masturbation is not a "serious" crime goes on to further embolden those who indulge in it. It is our culture of wanting to bury embarrassing sexual advances under the carpet that public masturbators take advantage of.

Several countries have made the offence punishable. While in the UK one is liable to be imprisoned for 14 days for the act, in Indonesia, it can attract a sentence of 32 days. India can begin by at least talking about why it is wrong and dehumanising.

Indian public spaces belong to all its citizens, surely that includes all its women? Those harassing and attempting to violate their personhood by flashing their genitals must be made to pay.

Also read: No, eating cashews is not bad for you

Writer

Vandana Vandana @vandana5

Author is a Delhi-based journalist.

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