Two sisters in India who fought back against sexual harassment on a public bus have been heralded for their bravery, but attention is also focusing on their fellow passengers, the bus driver and a conductor, all of whom failed to intervene and help.
Arti and Pooja Kumar, ages 22 and 19, respectively, were traveling on a public bus in Haryana state, from their college in Rohtak to their home in Sonipat.
The women, one using her fists and one using a belt, beat three men after complaining the men had made obscene gestures and touched them inappropriately.
After a video of the incident, shot by a fellow passenger, went viral, the women won nationwide accolades for their courage in fighting back.
Three men have been arrested in the incident.
'They invited the trouble'
But amid the high praise for the two women, commentators have begun questioning why others on the bus did not come to the sisters' aid.
Ranjana Kumari, head of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, said Indian men tend to remain bystanders because they hold women responsible for what is happening to them.
“That is the psychology, that either they (the women) are wrong or they invited the trouble, or they have been wearing tight clothes, or they have presented themselves wrongly, or they are [the] reason for the trouble that they are facing… It is a very sad statement on how our society looks at women,” Kumari said.
Activists said this is the reason women often face sexual harassment in broad daylight in public places without the culprits fearing a backlash. Known as “Eve teasing,” the problem is huge.
The Kumar sisters said if other passengers had helped, they would not have needed to defend themselves.
Krishna Majumdar, secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, blames the societal attitude toward women.
“I think they are all equally complicit in this patriarchal mindset that girls are just there to enjoy… It’s all a kind of entertainment. They are either doing it themselves or they are watching somebody else doing it,” Majumdar said.
Lack confidence in police
Sociologists and women activists also suggest people hesitate to reach out and help in these situations because of a lack of confidence in the police and in law enforcement.
The two sisters told reporters that some people even cautioned them against registering a complaint with the police.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta in New Delhi said people also do not want to become involved in legal issues regarding matters they think do not concern them because they are not sure the law will “stand behind them.”
Gupta said steps should be taken to change this attitude.
“We need to put in place a law which says if anyone knows of a penal crime being committed, and does not act on it, (he) should also be liable as an accessory of the crime. That is very, very important. It is something the French have done,” Gupta said.
Others have called for a “Good Samaritan” law, which would protect anyone who comes to the aid of victims.
Sexual violence against women in India came under the international spotlight after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in 2012. Laws have since been strengthened, but activists said society’s attitude toward women needs to change radically to combat sexual harassment and violence.