Three days ago, a BJP MLA held a press conference and released a video that showed the minor survivor of the Hyderabad gangrape along with four others in a car; the survivor is seen kissing the boy sitting next to her, and the video is shot by the person sitting in the front passenger seat. According to the MLA Raghunandan Rao, he made the video public to prove that one of the accused in the gangrape case is the son of an AIMIM MLA. In the press meet, Rao not only showed the video on his phone to journalists, but also held up two photos with close-up screen grabs from the said video, which showed the survivor and a boy kissing, and claimed that the boy was one of her assaulters, and that he was an AIMIM MLA's son.
While it's important for an opposition party to push for justice in a case where the accused are related to powerful people and the police are not seen acting against them, the MLA releasing the video in fact harms the survivor in the case. In this case, the survivor is a minor, and the video released by him has led to a barrage of victim blaming and slut shaming against the girl, who is already traumatised by the assault.
According to section 23(2) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act as well as section 228(a) of the Indian Penal Code, the identity of a victim/survivor should not be revealed to the media. According to section 74 of the Juvenile Justice Act, the identity of a Child in Conflict with the Law should also not be disclosed to the public or media. As per the police, the MLA’s son who the survivor is seen kissing in the video released by the MLA is not one of the accused in the assault case — he reportedly got down from the car and left, before the survivor was shifted to another car by the accused and assaulted there. The police may be under pressure to cover up, and whether or not the BJP MLA believes the police's version, the act of releasing such a video is reckless as it harms the survivor and her case in court.
The MLA's response to criticism from the media for releasing the video seemed to be along the lines of, ‘I know better.' Raghunandan Rao justified his actions and said that since he is a lawyer, he knows what details to reveal without compromising on the identifiers of the minors involved – a point he reiterated several times. He also told NDTV in an interview that he was wary of the police being under the AIMIM’s influence, so he thought it better to release the video to the media for justice. But could he not have ensured accountability from the police simply by verbally telling the media that there is a video showing the survivor and the AIMIM MLA’s son in a car, implicating the latter?
The harm caused by the video to the survivor was apparent in real-time. In a livestream of Rao’s press conference, for example, one commenter wrote that it was 'wholeheartedly consensual' and another implied that it was all 'drama'. On Twitter, one user accused the girl of playing the 'victim card', and in a later tweet, while emphasising consent, said that it is 'foolish' for her to be kissing among “bulls in heat” — referring to the other boys in the car. Another person on Twitter insinuated that the youngsters were intoxicated and the girl realised what happened in the morning after the effect of the 'drug' wore down. The claims of intoxication have to do with the teenagers being in Amnesia and Insomnia earlier, which is a pub at Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad.
That the survivor had gone to a pub and was seemingly consensually kissing someone before the assault is being used against her in a trial by social media — and this trial has been triggered by the video released by the MLA. If his concern was solely to bring a person connected to a powerful person to book, the act of releasing the video showed he had little concern for justice for the survivor or her well being.
An individual’s sexual history, clothes, or level of intoxication do not justify sexual abuse. However, on most occasions, society chooses to disbelieve victims and survivors who don't fit into a very narrow mould: meek, submissive, modest girls and women who do not challenge patriarchy, who “fight” to prevent sexual assault, often unto death. This teenager, of course, does not fit into this fixation with the unrealistic ‘ideal victim’. She went out, was at a pub, had been kissing a guy, and got into a car with people she did not know. In many ways, she was living her life as many teenagers do.
There are people who would invariably ask a number of whys – Why was she out? Why did she get into the car? Why did she kiss the guy? – all to imply that in some way, she asked for it; that what happened to her was justified. And these questions and assumptions can be increasingly damaging to a survivor, as well as her case.
There is some merit to having conversations around more women accessing spaces and leisure in public compared to the past, changing norms of interactions between genders, conversations around consent, and the friction these are causing with normative patriarchal ideas around what has been considered acceptable. For instance, that some of the most well-meaning and teachable men may assume that a woman sharing a space with them, and interacting with them are encouragements to make a move on the women, could have to do with the lack of gender and sexuality sensitivity and education that should be imparted. There is space to have a larger discussion about gender, sexuality, and consent with boys and men, and not just with women about how they can constantly look out for their safety.
In this case, the argument that the four minors and one 18-year-old possibly felt emboldened to sexually assault a girl because she had been kissing a guy in front of them is not an indication of the girl’s character. Rather, it is yet another reminder for us to introspect about what ideas we are teaching to boys. Why is a girl consensually kissing a boy – regardless of the nature of her relationship – an invitation for other young men to inflict sexual violence on her? Similarly, by acknowledging that with the advent of social media and dating apps, it is easier than ever for teenagers and young adults to socialise and date, we have an opportunity to have conversations about personal safety, and healthy and safe sexual behaviour and relationships. However, when we use incidents like this one to yet again blame a girl or woman for having a sexual history, having a boyfriend, having a casual sexual encounter, accessing a public space and assuming she will be safe, we do a disservice to real, imperfect sexual violence survivors. We lose yet another chance to confront the issues that are key to addressing sexual and gender-based violence.
Views expressed are the author's own.