Bombay HC Calling Modesty a Woman’s ‘Most Precious Jewel’ Helps No One
“The modesty of a woman is her most precious jewel,” the Bombay High Court said in a judgment yesterday — highlighting the patriarchal hangover of our legal system, and in essence, our society.
The judgment was in response to a petition before the court to determine whether a man making obscene gestures at an uninterested woman, repeatedly professing his love for her, and threatening her from disclosing details of his advances to anyone else — would constitute an offence under Section 504 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes “outraging the modesty of a woman” punishable.
The court not only criticized the actions of the accused, but also recognized that harassment exists on a spectrum. The judge noted it is difficult to condense the experiences of an unfortunately vast number and range of survivors into one “formula” to assess whether they were truly harassed. India’s rape laws, too, have attempted to define this crime time and again and yet, subsequent judgments end up widening its scope given the myriad forms it manifests in.
But despite, perhaps, being well-meaning, the court’s rather patronizing statement on the modesty of women reflects the same mindset that likens a woman’s worth to her purity, chastity, and similar values that have been used to oppress womankind for generations.
“Modesty is clearly a gendered notion. The word means both self-effacing and sexually chaste, neither of which is inherently virtuous, and both of which are applied to women more than men,” Olivia Goldhill wrote in Quartz, adding that the concept of modesty is “used to keep women in their patriarchy-ordained roles — compromising their progress in the male-dominated realms of professional achievement, and locked into a passive role when it comes to sexual desire.”
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While in the present case, modesty was brought up to penalize the accused for making repeated, unwanted advances towards a woman, it is also often used as a tool to put the blame for a man’s sexual advances towards women, on women. Especially so when survivors of assault or harassment are asked what they were wearing at the time — to gauge whether, by not “dressing modestly,” the woman had “invited” untoward behavior from men.
Commenting on the “modesty culture,” author Jennifer Mathieu wrote in Time Magazine, “I met one young woman who told me she was once ordered by her father to wear her seatbelt underneath her chest — apparently he felt when it cut across her chest, it accentuated her breasts too much and could cause some men to ‘stumble’.”
In that sense, writers like Mathieu have linked the “modesty culture” to “rape culture” — since they both tend to put the onus of “not getting raped” on women.
So determining the guilt of individuals accused of sexual harassment or abuse by assessing whether their actions did indeed violate the survivors’ boundaries — physical or otherwise — might be more helpful in safeguarding the rights of women than the poorly-defined idea of modesty would.
Acknowledging that the experiences of abuse or harassment can’t be fitted into one concrete formula, certainly seems like a step in the right direction. However, the importance lent to the notion of modesty dilutes its worth to some extent. And it is, perhaps, time to evolve from it.
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