On September 4, Samyukhta Hegde, a 22-year-old actress from the city of Bengaluru in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, went to a public park to work out with her friends. When Hegde took off her hoodie to exercise in a sports bra, Kavitha Reddy, a local politician present at the park, took offense and began harassing Hegde and her friends.
In a viral Instagram Live video posted by Hegde, a crowd led by Reddy, a Congress party leader, is seen abusing and attacking the actress and her friends in the local Kannada language.
In the video, Hegde explains that the crowd ganged up on her, and accused her of “stripping”, using “drugs” and “going against the Indian culture” for working out in a sports bra. In another video, Reddy can be seen attempting to physically attack Hegde’s friend for standing her ground.
“Public acts of intimidation and threats justified in the name of culture can signal permission to [propagate] rape culture and violence against women,” Jasmeen Patheja, the founder of Blank Noise, a movement fighting victim blaming and sexual violence, told VICE News.
Reddy, who initially denied harassing Hegde, issued an apology after the social media outrage over her behaviour.
"I have always opposed moral policing, but I realise that my actions were construed as such. As a responsible citizen and progressive woman, I sincerely apologize to Samyuktha Hegde and her friends," Reddy tweeted.
Hegde is the latest victim of aggressive moral policing in India.
In February 2020, a 24-year-old girl in the southern Indian state of Kerala was harassed by locals and the police for going to the beach with men.
In June 2020, Indian model Alanna Panday opened up in an Instagram post about being regularly slut-shamed for posting pictures in swimwear. Panday shared a screenshot of a comment made by a woman that the model “deserved to be gang raped” for posting a bikini picture.
A similar incident last year sparked massive outrage. A woman in the north Indian city of Gurgaon slut-shamed a group of six girls for wearing short dresses in a shopping mall, saying that they “deserved to be raped.” The woman was so offended by the length of the girls’ dresses that she asked men standing nearby to “rape women like them.”
“It comes from basing identity on politics, and the [fading away] of liberal values like freedom, respect and dignity,” Vibhuti Patel, a gender activist and former professor of Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, told VICE News.
The general belief of those who moral police is that the acts they consider indecent “go against the Indian culture.” However, India played a significant role in the history of sex by producing the Kamasutra, the first literature written more than 2,000 years ago that saw sex as science. Ancient Indian temples like Khajurao, Virupaksha and Ajanta caves also feature erotic engravings and statues.
Links between partying, drugs and immoral behaviour are also commonly imposed by some mainstream media channels. TV news channels in the country have targeted actress Rhea Chakraborty’s alleged drug use to suggest that she may have abetted actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide on 14 June, 2020. Images of Chakraborty in swimsuits and skimpy clothes are regularly used by some news channels to judge her character.
Gender rights activists have argued that the lack of sex education in India plays a role in defining what is decent and indecent.
“I remember an incident at a reputable college in Mumbai, where a girl raised her hand to answer a teacher’s question, and her midriff was exposed,” Patel said, recounting how the teacher had reacted aggressively, and threatened to prevent the student from answering her exams. Patel points out the urgent importance of gender sensitisation and sex education at an early stage of adolescent development.
“The ideas of autonomy, consent, freedom and respect for an individual should be drilled from a young age through situational analogies, role playing and role reversal,” Patel said. She gives an example of how an NGO called Akshara taught children in the slums in the western Indian city of Mumbai about the evils of objectification by acting out role reversals, where a man was made to feel targeted by a group of women.
“We have to recognise and affirm our plurality as a country; that we might not echo the same morality yet have every right to coexist with respect and dignity towards each other,” said Patheja.
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