On Sunday 30 November, Indian model, actress, and reality TV star Gauhar Khan was presenting at the finale of Raw Star, a reality TV singing competition, when Akil Malik, a 24-year-old man in the audience, began teasing and heckling her. When she protested, Malik stood up out of his seat, approached Khan, and slapped her on the face.
Police arrested Malik immediately and booked him with assault (under Section 354 of the Indian penal code), causing hurt (Section 323), and criminal intimidation (Section 506); he is due to appear in court today, 1 December.
Shortly after the incident, Mumbai police quoted Malik justifying his outburst. He reportedly explained that "being a Muslim woman, [Gauhar Khan] should not have worn such a short dress".
Though the particular circumstances of this incident are remarkable – namely that there is a celebrity involved, and that it occurred while filming for national television – Malik's sentiment itself will ring all too familiar for any Indian woman. With multiple cameras watching, Khan fell victim to a mindset that the rest of us encounter privately in our living rooms and offices and on our daily commutes: an ugly Venn diagram overlap of moral policing and body policing and sexism, resulting in the constant lurking threat that if you do not fall into the conventions of how a woman must dress, you could – at any point – drive a man to violence.
(The aforementioned conventions, by the way, can spring from anywhere. In this case, for Malik, it was Islam. For some, it's Hinduism. For others, it is simply that amorphous, nebulous, unspecified, intangible, almost-certainly-totally-made-up bane of every Indian woman's existence, "Indian culture," or sanskaar.)
This is the same mindset that's at play when our mothers tell us, growing up, to dress conservatively because they trust us but they don't trust the world they're sending us out into. It is the same mindset that rears its ugly head when some low-level politician blames jeans and T-shirts for driving men to rape and then bans those garments for women district-wide. It is the same mindset that we ourselves eventually internalize, donning scarves and sleeves in searing summer weather just to remain "modest." In other words, to remain safe.
It goes without saying that such a culture victimizes the women it keeps under constant scrutiny and policing. Headline after headline paints India as a country that, to its girls and women, is less "home, sweet home" and more a death threat.
Moreover, it is a culture that paints Indian men as primal, dictated by a carnal pursuit of sex and violence, lacking the very basic tenets of respect and self-control that any functioning society assumes of its members. Whether it is banning college girls from entering a library because they'll distract the boys from their studies, banning bikinis to protect their wearers from getting raped, banning cellphones because they make it easy for men to lure women into traps, or banning mannequins because they "provoke" men to attack women, a cursory glance at the Google search results for "India rape prevention ban" paints a grim picture: Indian women's fundamental rights are under siege because Indian men apparently possess incorrigible libidos that can be stirred by any number of inanimate objects and random circumstances.
We all know Indian men who defy the assumption that the lot of them are all rabid sex-hungry animals who will stop at nothing – even, in too many cases, murder – to get their fix. Why, then, do our leaders continue to legislate as if they are?
Khan's attacker proved, once again, that India needs to stop responding to its women's safety crisis by wrapping its female half in thicker layers of surface-level protection while permitting its male half to lapse into violent policing of women's bodies whenever convenient. India needs to stop justifying those lapses with the increasingly destructive mandate that "boys will be boys".
A short dress is not an invitation to rape, nor to slap. No, it isn't even an invitation to stare or comment or catcall. And any man who blames a woman's clothes for his own acts of violence is admitting a resounding, astounding lack of agency and intelligence.
At the end of the day, girls will be girls. Women will be women. Heck, boys may even be boys. But men, surely you can do better.
Gauhar Khan's attacker, Akil Malik, reportedly told police that he had attended filming of Raw Star for three days and, on all three, found himself attracted to Khan because she was wearing short clothes. He slapped her in front of 2,500 audience members and 250 security personnel to make the point that, since it makes him so sexually attracted to her, Khan's clothing could "damage the brains" of her other male audience members as well.
Police reports quote Malik as explaining, "Actresses are the face of society and they should not wear skirts and short clothes as they make youngsters get attracted to them sexually. These days, boys who are minors are also committing crimes such as rape and molestation and many of them keep obscene photographs of actresses in their pockets."
The clincher: "If actresses stop wearing short clothes, crime will decrease and lead to a better society."