What does it take for a rape survivor to be believed in India?
A rape accused in Karnataka has been set free after the Karnataka High Court decided that a rape survivor’s allegations are ‘difficult to believe’ after she failed to appear like a ‘victim.’ In the year 2020, after India has seen two ‘Me Too’ movements, a judge told a rape survivor that she had not given any explanation to the court why she was in office at 11 pm. A rape accused is out on bail after a court said that it was “unbecoming” of the complainant, a woman who alleges that she was raped by a 27-year-old man on the pretext of marriage, to fall asleep after she had been sexually assaulted.
“...the explanation offered by the complainant that after the perpetration of the act she was tired and fell asleep, is unbecoming of an Indian woman; that is not the way our women react when they are ravished,” Justice Krishna S Dixit of the Karnataka High Court said in a judgement dated June 22.
The judge, who was hearing the bail application of the accused, also went on to point out that the complainant had “consumed drinks and came and sat in the car,” instead of “alerting police or the public about the conduct of the petitioner.” The judge also said that the complainant had not explained why she went to her office at 11 pm and why she did not “objected to consuming drinks with the petitioner and allowing him to stay with her till morning.”
The judge decided to give the accused bail since it was “difficult to believe” that the woman was subjected to rape on the false promise of marriage since a letter that was allegedly written by her stated that she is willing to withdraw the case if a compromise is brought about.
“Nothing is stated by the complainant as to why she did not approach the Court at the earliest point of time when the petitioner was allegedly forcing her for sexual favours,” the judge commented.
The judgement is problematic not only because it pushes the onus of the sexual crime onto the woman, it also propagates the notion that only an ‘ideal’ rape survivor deserves justice.
“That is not the way our women react when they are ravished,” is a statement rising out of archaic stereotypes so ingrained in society that any deviation from the idea of a ‘cultured Indian woman’ would mean that the woman is at fault for not falling in line with these expectations.
Women who firmly and confidently state facts and the charges in court have “an ulterior motive,” more than one court has mused. Rape survivors are supposed to be weak and helpless, they must appear head bowed, a perfect ‘abla naari,’ failing which a “doubt” emerges — was it really rape? Maybe she misunderstood? Maybe somewhere deep down, she asked for it?
Time and again women who speak out against men have been accused of trying to end reputations and even ‘malign governments’. If they are fortunate enough to get an FIR filed in a police station, they face ruthless trials when the cases reach court.
A September 2017 study called ‘Towards Victim Friendly Responses and Procedures for Prosecuting Rape’ had analysed pre-trial and trial stages of rape prosecutions in Delhi from January 2014 to March 2015. The study noted that during trials, rape survivors face a barrage of questions, often inclined to make women responsible for the crimes committed against them.
“Did you try to raise an alarm,” “did you scream during the rape?” “did you scratch the accused with your nails?” “did tears fall from your eyes at the time of rape?” “why did you not raise an alarm, were you bound/gagged?” “Till what time in the night did you stay with the accused?” — were some of the questions that rape survivors have been asked in court.
In 2013, 40-year-old Suzette Jordan stood before the media and told her story, that she was the survivor in what had been labelled the ‘Park Street Rape Case’. She had been raped in a locked car in 2012 after she was returning home from a nightclub. Suzette had narrated in an interview with The Indian Express how she was asked insensitive questions by the police — ‘how can you get raped in a car?’ ‘what positions were you raped in’ and a policeman even commenting on her tattoo. Later, even the West Bengal government, led by Mamata Banerjee accused her of fabricating the story to malign the government and was called a ‘prostitute.’
During the hearing of the 2017 Pascal Mazurier rape case in Bengaluru, where a former French diplomat was accused of raping his own daughter, the mother was put on trial. Her habits were scrutinized, her duties ‘as a mother’ was criticised and the fact that she had ‘male friends’ was an argument used to discredit her.
Case after case, women have been forced to behave in a particular manner to keep up the appearance of a “victim”.
A rape survivor is not “ideal” if she agrees to drink alcohol, if she stays out late or if she does not feel ‘helpless’ about her current predicament. The Karnataka High Court judgement propagates the idea that a rape survivor has to behave in a certain way before and after the crime is committed — she must be traumatised.
The judgement is one of the very many examples of why women refrain from reporting sexual crimes. Where do they go to get justice, now that even the judiciary places the blame squarely on her? Will women report cases at all?
Which is why it is important to stop questioning women for absurd reasons like these. The most common question asked to sexual harassment and sexual assault survivors is, ‘why did she not report the crime then and there?’ And then when she does, she is criticised for ‘falling asleep,’ or behaving ‘normally’ around her perpetrator. What happens when even the judiciary falls for such stereotypes? Has India learnt nothing from the ‘Me Too’ movements the country has seen? The answers seem bleak.
Views expressed are author's own.