Civic Chandran's 'provocative dress' bail: Can someone sensitise our judicial patriarchs?

Simultaneously, the court observed that the woman was 'provoking' assault with her clothes and that Civic Chandran was too old to harass a woman.
Civic Chandran has been accused of sexual harassment by two women.
Civic Chandran has been accused of sexual harassment by two women.

A fresh case of Schrodinger’s sexual harasser was observed by a Kerala court recently: A 74-year-old man, Civic Chandran, accused of sexually harassing two women, was given bail in one of the cases for being too old to have harassed a woman; AND because he was ‘provoked’ by the complainant’s clothing. Which one is it? Is he too old to have harassed a woman, or can his actions not be called harassment because the woman was ‘exposing’? Did it never happen, or did she simply bring it upon herself?

Civic Chandran, a Kerala-based activist, has been accused of sexual harassment by two women. In the first case, a Dalit poet alleged that on the morning of April 17 this year, Civic revealed his ‘love’ for her and kissed her on the back of her neck. In the second case, a woman alleged that on February 8, 2020, after a gathering at a beach, Civic forcefully took her to a lonely place, asked her to lie on his lap and molested her. In both cases, Kozhikode Sessions Court judge S Krishna Kumar granted bail to Civic Chandran. In the first instance, Krishna Kumar believed it ‘highly improbable’ that the survivor — 42 years old and well built — could be overpowered by the accused.

In the second case, the accused produced Facebook pictures of the survivor from the date of the alleged harassment. These were accepted as evidence, because, “The photographs produced along with the bail application by the accused would reveal that the defacto complainant herself is exposing to dresses which are having some sexual provocative tone. So section 354A (sexual harassment) will not prima facie stand against the accused,” the order by the judge Krishna Kumar said. (sic)

The victim blaming of survivors by citing the clothes they were wearing while they were harassed is such an outdated argument that even the criticism of it has been done to death. Feminist campaigns like the Blank Noise movement have shown how women and girls get sexually harassed no matter what they’re wearing. In the ‘I never ask for it’ campaign, women and girls sent in the clothes they were wearing when they were harassed — and the collection ranges from school uniforms to kurtas and leggings, dresses, saris… It’s almost as if clothes don’t determine the actions of sexual harassers.

If the clothing argument is bad enough, the judge had another interesting reason for granting bail: the children of the accused are successful young women. It seems too silly to even point out the absurdity of these arguments and ask the simple question: why does it even matter? As much as survivors are part of the society, so are harassers. Their standing in society, their family background, their level of education or their achievements — none of this matters in determining whether someone is a predator.

Nor does the age or the physical ability of a person. Civic Chandran’s contention in the first case is that the complainant is younger and better built than the accused, making it impossible for him to kiss her without consent. This harks back to the other victim blaming argument — deciding whether or not a woman has been harassed based on her reaction. How women react in such situations can vary from shock and inaction to a complete meltdown. From aggressive comebacks to nothing at all.

Consider the state of the woman coming under an unexpected attack on her body, especially from someone they know and hold in high regard. Civic Chandran is a prominent cultural figure in Kerala. The complainant who wrote about the incident on Facebook said it was a gathering of friends and acquaintances going for a drink after a poetry reading session. “I was in a horrific situation then because of humiliation and fear,” she said.

In the second case against Civic, a younger woman alleged that he forcefully took her to a lonely place, asked her to lie on his lap and molested her, while they were all returning from a camp he organised at Nandi beach on February 8, 2020. The delay in filing the case was immediately picked up by the counsel of the accused as a reason to disbelieve the woman.

In a society where complainants who come forward with sexual harassment cases are shamed — just like the complainant against Civic Chandran — it takes a lot for a person to seek legal recourse. The legal system is wired so tightly against survivors, from the time of making a complaint through all the cross-questioning at court and the time it takes to end, few want to go through the trauma for ‘justice’.

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Another argument the accused made is that Civic Chandran did not know that the survivor was Dalit, demanding therefore that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 against him be dropped. Again — which is it? Did he not harass the woman, or did he not know that the woman was from a Dalit community?

The court has taken into consideration Civic Chandran’s social work against the caste system and found it ‘unbelievable’ that he would harass a woman who belongs to the SC/ST community. Judge Krishna Kumar stated that the case is ‘an attempt to tarnish the status of the accused in the society’.

We wish the judicial patriarchs in our country had the same concern for a woman’s bodily autonomy.

With inputs from Cris.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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