Why ‘Modesty’ Is A Terrible Measure For Laws Against Molestation

The ubiquity of sexual abuse in the modern society is well felt. There have been several reports coming out over the past few months in reference to sexual abuse in colleges, in workplaces and so on. However, this is not a new phenomenon – sexual abuse did not start yesterday. Rather, it has become intermingled with the structure of society for a long time.

The causes and reasons might be debated over for decades to come. However, my main point of contention is the idea of modesty itself, which the Indian Penal Code ascribes to several molestation laws.

According to Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), “Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

According to Section 354 of the IPC, “Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with impris­onment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

However, the idea of modesty is not defined by the Indian penal code at all, which brings up the issue of who gets to decide what is ‘modest’ and how does consent figure into it. Section 354 noticeably puts the onus on the assaulter, which must not be the case. The ideals of modesty simply should not be dictated by the people who seek to outrage it.

In fact, taking a feminist stance, one might question whether ‘modesty’ should figure more prominently in this discussion or is the fundamental idea of ‘consent’  far more important. This led to me actually going through a tour of what modesty means.

Wikipedia defines modesty as, “Modesty, coming from the Latin root modestus which means “keeping within measure”, and demureness is a mode of dress and deportment which intends to avoid encouraging of sexual attraction in others.”

In Indian society, the idea of modesty has a shifting form. The fashion of the time dictates the idea of what is ‘modest’ for any individual.

This is an interesting quagmire. For example, under the eyes of society, any instance of nudity can point towards sexuality and thus be branded as outraging modesty.

Who gets to decide what provokes the modesty of a woman? Should it not be the woman herself? Instead, it seems like the limits upon modesty are decided and shaped by patriarchal ideals.

These questions are important because, in certain spaces, certain groups of women may be seen as ‘non-victims’, as people who cannot be ‘molested’, for whatever reasons. For instance, a leader of the ABVP said in 2016 that girls from Jadavpur University cannot be molested as they have no shame. In this context, political ideology shapes their ideas of ‘modesty’ and puts students at the risk of sexual violence.

I might, for example, send naked pictures over Tinder expressively for the purpose of having a sexual encounter. However, in the social context, one might argue that I have already shed all vestiges of my ‘modesty’ by doing so and hence can no longer be molested which is simply not true. My body and my consent should be able to decide whether someone is being abusive, not an abstract idea of ‘modesty’.

In an amorous setting, I often indulge in kissing men and women, both with consent. Similarly, in some settings, given my knowledge of a person, I do not indulge in the same. Different people have different sexual boundaries.

Coming back to the question of who shapes this idea of ‘modesty’, one may point towards religion, politics, society – powerful beings when compared to the idea of a single person. Also, since it is immensely impractical for a person to move around with documents stating their idea of modesty towards each person they encounter, the idea of consent becomes more central yet.

We need to take into notice the structures that surround our laws and understand that such laws, at the end of the day, are tone deaf. This relativity in terms of outrage must be taken into account whence we start understanding and questioning sexual violence and its survivors.

There can be many instances of sexual violence, some not as obvious as the others. What needs to be taken into account is that sexual violence always ignores boundaries defined by the survivor. It shows little or no respect for the selfhood of the person beyond their bodies. An unsolicited dick picture may look harmless to some but without consent, it is sexual violence. It is precarious and scary, and we need to become better.

 

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