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Opinion

Culture pop

October 29, 2017

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Dirty pictures

This week, something happened across the border that left me sick to the stomach. Something deep inside me that once resembled hopefulness – that optimistic but wobbly belief in the default goodness of human beings – died a whimpering death.

Let’s cast an eye on that unfortunate scene in India. The time was about 2pm in the afternoon. As several bystanders watched and filmed with their mobile phones, a woman was raped on a busy public street in broad daylight in the city of Visakhapatnam in     Andhra Pradesh by an inebriated 23-year-old man.

The New York Post headline summarises it more brutally: “Drunk rapes woman, crowd whips out cellphones to film     it”. A video of the crime, shot by an auto-rickshaw driver, shows many people walking by casually. The driver didn’t help the woman either. But he did take the video he made to the police and it will crucially provide evidence to prosecute the accused man.

According to sub-inspector Suresh, the victim of the assault had left her house a few days earlier after a family dispute. “Apparently, she was very weak as she had not eaten for several hours and was sleeping on the footpath under the shadow of a tree, when Siva (the accused), in an inebriated condition assaulted her sexually,” he told the Hindustan Times. The video taken by the rickshaw driver shows several people walking by as the rape occurred. Some stopped to take pictures or videos but not one person thought it fit to intervene or to call 112, which is India’s universal emergency number. “It clearly shows how people have become insensitive to attacks on women,” sub-inspector Suresh said.

Jingoistic types who think I am going to play the India card can stop reading right now. I am not going to project violence against women as a uniquely ‘Indian’ problem though statistics for the country are alarmingly high. In 2015 alone at least 34,651 cases of rape were reported across India. But my focus here is mainly on how urban public spaces globally are claimed and ‘owned’ by men and how female use of that space and their movement within it is replete with dangers.

According to No Country for Women (NCFW), a gender education initiative in India, men retain the authority to occupy and manage public spaces – and I would say that even though they are referring to India this holds true across South Asia. Hence “the role of a woman in a public space becomes that of a trespasser”. A woman in a public space “is expected to have a purpose that is not only clear to her, but also to the ones watching her. Her presence in public spaces is expected to be only in transit from one shelter to another shelter”.

When the woman in Visakhapatnam fell asleep under a tree, she unwittingly violated this unwritten but long-established rule. She had left the relative safety of her home and yet was not going anywhere. Her purposeless state was perceived not just as a form of trespass but as an opportunity for men to assault her, frame her, film her and make dirty pictures of her. A woman cannot ‘own’ a public space; if she is not scurrying through (from refuge to refuge), she becomes accessible. And by nature of that, her presence is confusing and her assault becomes a casual spectacle. And because we live in the modern age, the event must be captured in a cellphone and shared with an online community. After all, many have died in pursuit of the ultimate selfie.

Additionally, people don’t like getting involved. There are practical reasons for this. Philip Sunil Urech, co-founder of CrowdGuard, a NGO that encourages responsible civic intervention, told the BBC that people do not step in because they fear intimidation from the police or legal hassles. Some places in the world do enforce a legal “duty to rescue”. Ten American states have such laws and in Germany four people are currently being prosecuted for unterlassene Hilfeleistung (the failure to provide assistance).

But is this really a feasible option in countries like Pakistan and India where it has proven relatively easier to instigate lynch mobs? Even in India’s landmark Jyoti Singh case, where a young girl was gang raped on a bus, no one stopped to help her and her companion for 25 minutes after the incident occurred. Could a random act of kindness from a stranger have enabled her to live? Could that stranger have been you?

Blatant disregard for women in urban spaces is neither an isolated occurrence nor is it restricted to South Asia. In ethos, if not in degree, something very similar happened half way across the globe in Pennsylvania, US. A surveillance video came to light of a Pittsburgh woman being knocked out cold by a man on a busy sidewalk. She falls to the ground unconscious and is beaten and robbed by male bystanders – who proceed to take pictures as mementos, including selfies as she lies there. If the woman in India fell asleep, the woman in Pittsburgh fell unconscious. Both tarried too long in a public space that wasn’t theirs, and paid the price.

It’s a hallmark of modern life that cellphones have become our windows to the world. We now see and live life through our screens and fancy ourselves as citizen journalists even though the term itself has become archaic. This allows for convenient distancing from the actual act that is unfolding before you. It’s like that drone pilot sitting in an air-conditioned artificial cockpit at the US Air Force base in Nevada creating bug splats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Screens save us from looking life in the eye. Even concerts are filtered by the lens of an android or iPhone, which has prompted music acts like Alicia Keyes to ban mobile phones at performances.

Earlier this year, the Saatchi Gallery in London focused on a selfie exhibition whereby the roots of modern vanity were traced to the self-portraits of artists like Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. But it would be safe to say that while their self-expressions were indeed inspirational and yet limited to an art-public, today’s selfies are everywhere and all-consuming.

In 2014, Google estimated that over 93 million selfies are taken every day on android devices. Recently, Kim Kardashian, who has made a livelihood off her mobile photos and even published a collection of her selfies, dismissed the photo trend as a “few years ago”. However, in her book Je Selfie Donc Je Suis (I Selfie Therefore I Am), French psychoanalyst Elsa Godart estimates that young adults will take a staggering 25,700 selfies in their lifetime.

One can only pray that not all of these will be at the cost of human lives and at the risk of losing all sense of our own humanity.

The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon

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