The archaic, patriarchal mores at the heart of suggestions that women can marry their rapists as 'compromise'

These attitudes have the support of not only society and families, but also the courts themselves.

Gita Aravamudan March 07, 2021 12:29:09 IST
The archaic, patriarchal mores at the heart of suggestions that women can marry their rapists as 'compromise'

Trigger warning: Sexual violence.

If you believe the popularly floated myth, then in Indian culture, women are never raped. They are placed on pedestals and worshipped.

Since words like ‘rape’ and ‘stalking’ are harsh and reflect badly on this image of unsullied purity, we have archaic legal vocabulary which supports the myth by properly defanging definitions for everything to do with sexual offences. A woman is ‘molested’ or ‘seduced’ rather than raped. Her ‘modesty is outraged’.  She is ‘eve teased’ not stalked.  And if she is killed or attacked with acid for refusing the advances of her stalker, the incident is dubbed as an unfortunate outcome of a “one-sided” love affair. The attitude towards sexual offences in our country is myopic indeed.

Women are supposed to have no agency over their own bodies or their sexuality. So we have “love jihad” laws in the offing, however ridiculous those two words may sound in conjunction. And we silently applaud “honour killing”. We tell ourselves all this is only to protect the women in our lives from hurting themselves. It is to prevent them from following their wanton sexual urges which may lead them down torture-filled paths.

These attitudes have the support of not only society and parents, but also the courts themselves. So, why should we be so shocked when no less a person than His Lordship the CJI himself chastises an alleged rapist and tells him he should have thought about the consequences for his government job before “seducing and raping” a Class Nine schoolgirl?

According to reports, the Honorable CJI asked the rapist if he was willing to marry the girl he was accused of raping. If he did, he was told, he would be able to avoid arrest and could keep his job.

As Vrinda Grover observes: “Once again the culture of compromise for the crime of rape was offered as a mode of settlement, this time suggested by His Lordship the CJI himself.”

There are several problematic issues in this case, all connected to our archaic attitude. While the alleged rape is said to have occurred in 2014-15, the girl’s parents did not initially go to the police because the accused’s mother had said she would get the two married when the girl became an adult.

It was only when he married another woman that the girl’s family decided to seek legal recourse. Why had they agreed to the preposterous proposal of marriage as a compromise solution? Is it because only marriage with her rapist can remove a woman’s “taint”?

Rape was once a staple of both heroes and villains in Indian cinema of a certain vintage. It was all fine as long as the women married their rapists, or choose the other “honourable” end of dying by suicide. ‘Consent’ wasa nonexistent concept, and if a hero stalked a woman and subjected her to sexual harassment, it was all in a day’s fun.

But that is reel life. It is not just disconcerting, but frightening when a respected figure like the Honorable CJI blurs the line between seduction and rape and offers marriage as a compromise solution. Suppose the gender of the survivor was changed, what “compromise” solution would a court offer?

This past week, in another case where a woman accused her live-in partner of rape, after he promised to marry her but later backed out, the Honorable CJI was quoted as saying, “If a couple is living together as man and wife, the husband may be a brutal man, but can you call the act of sexual intercourse between a lawfully wedded man and wife as rape?” This, when we have been discussing the need to have a law which addresses marital rape for years now.

The National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) ‘Crime in India’ 2019 report indicated that crimes against women witnessed a steep rise across the country. Over 4 lakh cases of crimes against women were registered during 2019, showing an increase of 7.3 percent over 2018.  As per the data, 88 rapes take place every day, which means every 16 minutes somewhere in the country a woman is raped.

Also according to the NCRB data in 2018, every fourth rape survivor across the country was a minor. Eleven percent of the survivors were Dalits. In almost 94 percent of the cases, the offenders were known to the victims.  They could be family members or friends or live-in partners or people in power.

In the late 1980s, an American tourist was raped at the Kovalam beach in Trivandrum. Following an uproar, the then Chief Minister EK Nayanar held a press conference where he trivialised the whole incident by citing rape statistics in the US, where he said, it was as frequent/common “as drinking tea”.

In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a social worker from a lower caste in a Rajasthan village was gang-raped by higher caste men when she reported their illegal attempt to marry off a nine-month-old baby from their family. Activists from across the country pledged their support and her case gave us the Vishaka guidelines on dealing with sexual harassment in the work place.

But Bhanwari Devi herself, shockingly, still hasn’t received justice. The five men accused of raping her were only arrested one year after the crime.  And in 1995, they were acquitted of the charge of rape on ridiculous grounds — such as how men of a higher caste would not rap a low caste woman because she was “impure”, or that a man would not commit rape in the presence of a family member (an uncle-nephew pair among the accused). There was a backlash to the judgement and the case went back to court.  But in the 28 years since, nothing has moved.

And we still continue to believe in a "fairy tale ending" which says a rape survivor’s “happy ever after” can be ensured only if she marries her rapist.

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