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Attention, Indian women rising: Self defence can land you in jail

Two men drove up in a government jeep and began to harass a group of young women standing outside a fast-food restaurant. The crowd looked silently on as one of the women, Amrita Mohan, got into an altercation with the men. They drove away and came back with reinforcements, ready to avenge the insult.

Amrita now turned to the still passive audience and asked, “None of you spoke a word when all this was happening. This guy is now standing right here. Do any of you have anything to do or say?”

They did not. One of the men moved in to assault her father… We all know how this dreary tale ends, right?

Amrita has been slapped with a case. Image courtesy YouTube

Amrita has been slapped with a case. Image courtesy YouTube

Not quite. Amrita changed the narrative by refusing to become another unhappy statistic. The Kalaripayattu champion and karate black belt beat the crap out of the man who dared to push her father. Emboldened by her courage, the once silent crowd joined in, and for once, the woman prevailed. Amrita became an overnight heroine in Kerala, an emblem of feminine courage, hope, and pride.

"[W]hen this man was hurling abuses at me, I had just returned from One Billion Rising. I was there, as a representative of women. If I did not respond here, if I did not respond in this situation, there would be no meaning in saying that I am proud to be a girl," she said in a television interview.

Happy ending to a feel-good story, right?

Not quite. Amrita and four others including her father have been charged by the Kerala police on the direction of a judicial magistrate with obstructing the duty of government employees and brutally assaulting them. It is a non-bailable offence and carries up to seven years in jail.

In the wake of the Delhi gang rape, there was a whole lot of talk about teaching women to protect themselves. Gun ownership among women in Delhi had long been rising. Newspapers now carried stories about young college students stocking up on pepper spray and signing up for self defence classes, like Sunanda Jalote, who told Reuters, "Women have to learn to defend themselves… We don't want to have to wear a burkha in order to go out and feel safe."

But as Amrita's case illustrates, in India, defending yourself may not be safe either. Deploy that gun on your would-be attackers and you may well find yourself facing charges of attempted murder. Pepper spraying predators may be deemed as causing greivous bodily harm. And that karate chop which breaks a harraser's nose may earn you a whole new world of legal jeopardy -- as Amrita has now learned.

So here's what we're telling Indian women. Be afraid. Hide in your homes or in offices, stay off the streets and away from any public place where you might catch the wrong person's eye. Remember, everyone else is afraid, as well. They will not come to your rescue, however great their numbers.

Amrita is in trouble today because she was not raised to be fearful:

I think, the biggest restriction is the family. Most parents (at least among my friends) advise their daughters not to respond if anything happens. They tell their daughters not to make an issue. It’s not that, my parents tell me  to “create” issues.  But they tell me, if there does arise a situation, “Face it and come back”. They know that, if they sent me out, I will surely come back... All parents should develop that trust.

So we should. But will we be able to trust the police or the courts to do right by our fearless daughters? Forget one billion. Our judicial system can barely tolerate one woman rising.

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