Mallika Joseph Akbar’s seven-sentence-long statement, defending her husband, MJ Akbar, against a rape allegation, houses within it, a world. It demonstrates what lawyer Karuna Nandy succinctly described as the competing demands of patriarchy on women. Patriarchy is not a simple iron fist with which the strong crush the weak, it is a mesh that traps even those it empowers, a trap which makes its victims its enablers.
Mallika’s statement came in response to journalist Pallavi Gogoi’s article in the Washington Post, in which she spoke of being raped, and physically and verbally assaulted, over several months by Akbar, who was at the time her boss at The Asian Age. At least 17 women have spoken of being sexually harassed by Akbar in the last month. After Mallika and Akbar denied Pallavi’s testimony, with the latter stating the relationship was consensual, Pallavi reiterated that “a relationship that is based on coercion, and abuse of power, is not consensual”.
Having been a victim of Akbar’s male entitlement herself, reading Mallika’s words was saddening not only because she dismissed the possibility of her powerful husband raping a colleague, but also because she argued that the allegation is unbelievable because the woman in question did not seem and look like a victim. Mallika wants to convince us that Akbar and Pallavi’s relationship was consensual, but despite that, it was only Pallavi who “caused unhappiness and discord” in their home by “flaunting” it, not her husband. Second, Mallika felt that she should inform us that Pallavi did not carry “the haunted look of victims of sexual assault” when they all dined together.
The most believable woman has always been the one who is dead for she cannot lie about her assault, noted lawyer Indira Jaising once said. The woman Mallika describes in her statement is happy one too many times, too liberated, too normal to be a victim for her. The key missing element — the “haunted look” — is a hat tip to popular culture’s obsession with a devastated woman, of Bollywood’s depiction of a raped woman as a body that has undergone something worse than death and is thus a “living corpse”.
Who is a perfect victim and how should she behave then? What does it say about our gaze and our understanding of what knowledge is, when the signs on a woman’s body are considered more important than her own testimony?
We can hardly hold Mallika accountable for this gaze when India’s highest courts have constantly “established” consent through precisely this sort of interpretation of the woman’s body, even when it went against the woman’s testimony. In her landmark 1996 paper in the Economic & Political Weekly, Veena Das chronicles how a woman’s “no” can be made into a “yes” by categorising women into “good” and “bad”. In 1979, the Supreme Court dismissed the resistance of a girl raped in custody because no marks of injury were found on her body. The court held that “it was preposterous to suggest that she was so overawed by the persons in authority and the circumstances that she could not resist.” Her hymen had shown “old ruptures”— she had a boyfriend and had been sexually active before the rape.
In another instance, where a man had inserted his penis into the vulva of a eight-year-old girl and ejaculated, but being a doctor knew how to prevent the hymen from rupturing while penetrating her, the High Court of Madhya Pradesh ruled that the lack of injury meant that the crime could not be booked as rape. A woman’s body has thus been forced to speak against her own experiences. In Das’ words, “her body and speech are put at war with each other”.
So how should a woman’s body behave when she experiences sexual assault?
It seems that there are conflicting expectations of strength when it comes to women. Women coming out with narratives of assault through the #MeToo movement have constantly been met with patronising voices chiding them for not being “strong enough”. Leading publications have given space to women arguing that they do not have #MeToo stories because they slapped the perpetrator as soon as they transgressed. “Strong women don't have #MeToo sob stories ,they have I gave him thappad (slap) back short essays”, a viral Facebook post said. “No one could have dared to do it with me”, some of the sexual harassment could have been dealt with by simply speaking up in one voice at the time it occurred, Tavleen Singh wrote in The Print. “If someone had just smacked him hard across his face instead of being in awe, maybe the monster would have deflated (sic),” wrote a male ex-collegaue of Akbar in Firstpost.
The verdict from many quarters seems to be that women should be stronger. But clearly the idea of Pallavi Gogoi dining with her abusive boss without carrying a haunted look does not fit into their idea of strength. How should a perfect victim have acted in such a situation?
An ideal victim of sexual harassment apparently needs to be the right amount of strong. She needs to be vulnerable enough to be looked at as a possible victim, she needs to experience and feel sexual assault intensely (and be sure that she is not imagining it), be extremely bothered by it, but be able to stop it with a “thappad” the moment it starts.
The ideal victim should have tried to push Tarun Tejpal as he came on to her, which the survivor did, but also not be able to walk straight after getting out of the lift. She was supposed to look visibly agitated.
In short, the ideal victim has to be strong enough to resist sexual harassment, and weak enough to be devastated by it. If she came out without visible injuries, if she did not carry a haunted look wherever she went, we will not believe her.
Marks left by violent men are more believable than the words of women.
The strong woman apparently needs to be strong only while experiencing the assault but not after. The idea of women picking themselves up and going on with their lives does not fit the masculine idea of strength. Strength needs to scream. It needs to damage and destroy. But really, what can a woman's screams destroy?
A raging woman would have been called an “insane woman,” just as the silent woman is now called a liar. A woman who put herself at immediate risk would have been deemed not smart enough, she would have been putting her emotions over reason, not being “professional enough”. There is no way to come out of this victorious. Sexual assault is not an exceptional event, it is housed within our patriarchal everyday. Not only the behaviour of men, patriarchy decides what knowledge is — who is saner, who is a great editor, whose reputation is more important, and who is more believable.
Some of us were able to scream at our harasser, some of us administered the magical one tight slap, some of us smiled awkwardly when our boss made references to our body, some of us were not able to utter a word when our friend felt us up in the dark, and some of us were raped by our boyfriends.
We were frozen, we were shocked, we were livid, we wished we were wrong, we hoped there was a mistake. Some of us, victims of sexual assault, were rooting for the men who were molesting us, even as our bodies were telling us otherwise. We, also thought — and turns out we were right — that our rapists were more believable than us.
Shireen Azam is former digital editor, Economic and Political Weekly, and a freelance writer based in Goa
Updated Date: Nov 12, 2018 14:58 PM