What Ankita* was asked may seem shocking. But it is common for sexual violence survivors to be subjected to this line of questioning in Indian courts.

What were you wearing What a woman molested in Bluru was asked in courtImage for representation
news Gender Sunday, February 25, 2018 - 18:19

Ankita* remembers joking about being asked what she was wearing the day she was allegedly molested by a man near Airlines Hotel in Bengaluru in 2014. She was waiting at the court for her cross-examination when she and her friend joked about this.

But as soon as her cross-examination began, Ankita was shocked because that was the first question she was asked.

Sowmya Rajaram for Bangalore Mirror spoke to Ankita, who recounted the humiliating questions she was asked in court.

The incident

Ankita was walking past Airlines Hotel around 8.20 pm when a person sitting on a parked bike allegedly molested her.

The angry 32-year-old placed a foot in front of the tyre of the bike and raised an alarm. She also managed to get his bike keys and memorise the registration number. However, since the bike was in ignition, the perpetrator managed to escape.

It had just started raining when the incident happened.

The trial

From what Ankita recounted, it appears that such a line of questioning is quite common with women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault. Even the constable who was with her seemed to know this – he asked her to pin up her top a little higher. Ankita says that while this was unfortunate, he must be looking out for her knowing what happens in court.

When Ankita was asked what she was wearing when she was molested, she was taken aback. She looked from the defence lawyer to the Public Prosecutor representing her to the judge. No one seemed to object to the line of questioning. So, Ankita answered the question saying she was wearing jeans, t-shirt and sweater.

Then she was even asked the colour of her sweater, to which she replied, “Red.”

But her attire wasn’t the only thing Ankita was asked about.

She was asked about the weather too. And when she said it was raining, she was asked, “Were you drenched?”

The defence counsel then went on to ask about other details like the number of people on the road, whether it was a one-way or two-way road, what direction the accused reached out to grope her and so on.

“The line of questioning was clearly leading towards victim blaming. You think things are changing, you think it’s 2018 and women don’t have to take this shit anymore, but it still happens so casually – in court, in front of a judge,” Ankita told BM.

She also spoke about the prevalence of victim shaming – and not just in courts – which makes women survivors dread taking legal action.

“Every time there is a call from the police station, every time I have to be involved in any way, every time I read an article about it, at every single step I feel like giving up,” she says.

Ankita says that the process of bringing a perpetrator to justice is quite painful and exhausting, and sometimes you may just want to move forward with your life rather than having to recount the same thing over and over again.

A common line of questioning

Though shocking, survivors of sexual violence commonly face such questions in Indian courts.

Sudha Ramalingam, a senior lawyer, says that this is a common line of questioning that defence lawyers take.

“These crimes are of an intimate nature, so it is not uncommon for them to ask for specifics. It is also an intimidation tactic, meant to make women uncomfortable. They would also want to find contributory negligence on the victim’s part,” she says.

Contributory negligence is a common law doctrine which seeks to prove the victim was injured in part due to their own negligence, hence removing responsibility from the perpetrator.

Vidya Reddy of Tulir, a Chennai-based NGO working to prevent child sexual abuse, had pointed out to TNM that this is a line of questioning lawyers also take with survivors of child sexual abuse and their mothers. However, she and Sudha both placed the onus on judges to intervene if the questions were intrusive and insensitive.

“We have an adversarial system of justice in India and it is the job of a defence lawyer to behave the way they do. I think it is wrong to fault a defence lawyer for being nasty. I would entirely fault the judge if she/he allows the nastiness to continue,” Vidya had said.

But this does not always happen. In fact, a 14-year study by NGO Sakshi from 1996 analysing judges’ attitudes towards women survivors of violence found a majority of them to have “primitive notions” of who is a “good woman”.

90% of judges said they would not choose legal redressal if a female relative was a victim of violence. 74% said that a woman’s first priority should be the preservation of the family even if she faces marital violence. 64% believed that woman also share blame for violence and 68% said that provocative dressing invites sexual assault.

Even child sexual abuse survivors are asked questions which aim to place the blame of the abuse squarely on them or intimidate their mothers.

One woman, Anjana*, who TNM spoke to in 2017, was told by the defence lawyer in court that her daughter, who was seven when she was sexually assaulted at her school, was sexually active. Anjana felt very traumatised and agonised by the statement, which was the lawyer’s aim, she believes.

And the misogyny in the Bengaluru court judgment in the Pascal Mazurier case is another example. The French diplomat was accused by his wife Suja Jones of sexually abusing their daughter in 2012. There were references to Suja’s lifestyle, the clothes she wore, her having male friends and so on. When she was cross-examined in court, it was also implied that she was an immoral woman for having sent explicit photos of her to Pascal and a ‘bad mother’ for have a Caesarean childbirth over a natural one.

*Names changed

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