A young woman is being constantly stalked online and fears the chime of a message on her phone or laptop; the man eventually reaches her home, and leaves bones along with a threatening note on her doorstep. Already scared out of her mind by the nasty phone and email messages, she calls the police. A lone cop shows up, speaks to her in a snarky tone, doodles on his pad instead of taking notes, addresses her as “honey” and “sweetheart” and finally says that it’s probably someone trying to get her attention and maybe she should “give him a chance”. He then makes kissy sounds and gestures and leaves. He behaves in this inappropriate manner, even when her roommate is shooting the scene on her mobile. After the #MeToo movement and more media space given to crimes against women, complaints about cyberbullying or street harassment are still not taken seriously by the cops.
This is a scene from a new American film titled Asking For It (directed by Amanda Lundquist-Becky Scott), but it could be happening anywhere in the world. Like millions of women who have been targeted by stalkers on or offline, the protagonist of this film, Jenny (Stephanie Hsu) too wonders if she did something to deserve it. Her ferocious new roommate Lisa (Irene Morales) assures her that it is not her fault and advises her to get even. Lisa tells her how her previous landlady’s murder was ignored by the cops and how a top female gamer (it is a predominantly male-dominated field), who tried to protest against the rape sequences introduced into computer games was viciously hounded by the men, till she was forced to give up her career and go into hiding.
Jenny’s two female workmates are shocked that she has not taken any precautions to prevent unauthorised access to her phone and email. Apart from anti-hacking software they have installed, one of them is paranoid enough to have surgically erased her fingerprints! It is like indirectly alleging that by being so careless, she asked for it!
Even after reading about horrific cases of violence against women, there is still this idea in the minds of people that any girl who is harassed or molested must have some something to attract male attention—unwanted though it may be.
In a 2019 short film with the same title, directed by Yusra Khan, three women who speak up against sexual assault are invariably asked what they were wearing. They are also told by authority figures to keep quiet about their experience, either because it would reflect badly on the family or institution they belong to, or impact the future of the male perpetrator.
There was an award-winning novel, Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill, which was also turned into an acclaimed play, that dealt with the aftermath of a girl’s rape, which is filmed and shared on social media, shattering her life forever, while the boys suffer no lasting consequence.
The fact is that no woman asks to be stalked, harassed or assaulted, but popular perception, no doubt fuelled by movies—particularly in India—has turned stalking into a cute courtship ritual. In thousands of movies, the heroine is followed around by the man singing romantic songs, and after some coy protests, she gives in to his advances. It gives men the mistaken impression that women just pretend to demur, when they really like the flirtatious behaviour.
When the stalking gets dangerous, it can wreck the peace of mind of the woman and her family. Because “eveteasing” is not even considered a serious crime, the man will get a couple of slaps from the cops or a night or two in jail. But he can emerge and carry out his vendetta, which so often results in stabbings and acid attacks. When Shah Rukh Khan played a psychopath in Darr, who terrorises the woman played by Juhi Chawla, he was portrayed as a lost, lonely man, and his stuttering “K…K…Kiran” was considered funny. Kabir Singh, a film about a man staking his claim on a woman and taking over her life, was seen as romantic and turned out to be a hit. The woman’s acquiescence is taken for granted, because a man’s passion is more important than her consent.
People might think, phone calls, messages and social media stalking are harmless if the guy does not actually make physical contact offline, but ask any woman who has suffered this, and it can be traumatic; even if the guy is just breathing heavily on the phone. No woman asks for that helplessness and lingering fear, the constant looking over the shoulder, the numbness when the phone rings or a message pings on the mobile. No woman likes to walk down a street and have to put up with whistles, catcalls, crude comments or groping.
In the film, Jenny is aghast when the man hacks into her work computer and posts a sleazy piece under her byline. His antics lead to the loss of her job and endless panic, till her Goth roommate uses the man’s own methods to trace where he lives and attach trackers on his car and laptop. The film keeps its tone light, so it does not go into the horrors of the legal system that would probably give the man just a slap on the wrist; in real life, there is no way of anticipating just how spiteful a man can be if he is spurned. Something as inoffensive as refusing a date could hurt a man’s ego and trigger an attack. The relative anonymity of the internet has unleashed armies of incels (involuntary celibates), who get vindictive when women they desire turn them down.
Jenny dreams of starting her own media enterprise to investigate crimes against women. Because people hear of a woman being raped or murdered, but nobody cares about what goes on before the violence escalates to that level.
It took Hindi cinema decades of romanticising stalkers, and “hasee to phasee,” or “ladki ki na mein haan chhupi hoi hai” kind of dialogue, before a film Pink (2016, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury), used the line “No means no.” That cannot be emphasised enough!
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.