Justice Krishna S. Dixit of the Karnataka high court, while granting anticipatory bail to a man accused of rape, said that it is “unbecoming of an Indian woman” to fall asleep after she is “ravished”.
He went on to question the rape survivor on why she hadn’t complained earlier, why she agreed to go to her office at 11 pm and why she didn’t object to having drinks with the man who raped her.
Justice Dixit’s comments, made while the trial in the case is not yet over, are symptomatic of a larger problem that our society is still grappling with. When it comes to rape, we’re always asking the wrong questions, and to the wrong person.
As a society, we continue to view women through the virgin-whore dichotomy. A ‘good woman’ is one who is chaste, represses her sexuality and spends her life in servitude. A woman who exercises her sexual freedom and choice is a ‘bad woman’. Our endorsement of this dichotomy in the way we perceive women has also led to the creation of an image of the ideal victim in our collective conscience – the ravished woman who, as soon as her chastity is forcibly taken, rushes to the nearest (mostly male) authority to pour out her grievances.
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If she doesn’t, if she is too overcome by tiredness and exhaustion after enduring something as traumatic as rape and falls asleep, well, then it probably wasn’t rape. If a woman agrees to consume drinks with her perpetrator, she is asking for it. If she stays silent and doesn’t report it immediately, she is complicit.
Sohaila Abdulali, in her book What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, has written, “We still persist in thinking that some women can’t be raped. Especially ‘bad’ women. If bad women are raped, it doesn’t fit our victim narrative, and so we’d rather ignore it. Or call it sex.”
The way we treat rape survivors also has to do with the way we imagine who gets raped and by whom. When women are raped, we ask them what they could have done to warrant such an action. What were they wearing? Why were they out so late? Were they drinking? We think the solution to rape is to lock up women, to teach girls to occupy as little space as possible, to not exercise their sexual freedom.
We fail to understand that rape happens, not because women exercise their choice to live, but because rapists choose to rape. Why this happens, no one asks. All we have is a broken record telling us that boys will be boys. Or worse, that some women deserve it. That there are some rapes where the victim has no right to demand justice.
Rape is a heinous crime, yes, but one that is committed by individuals who are as human as you or me. Like our image of the ideal victim, we also have an image of the ideal perpetrator – a depraved human, nay, a monster, hiding behind the bushes, dragging away an innocent woman or man to rape and murder them brutally. And yes, perpetrators like these do exist, but we are so caught up in our binaries of good and evil (both of which are quite subjective), that it is impossible for us to recognise that a rapist can be just another person you work with, are related to, are in a relationship with, or even married to.
This is why, when a woman comes forward to speak up against rape committed by a man who she was expecting would marry her, it is that much more confounding for people like Justice Dixit. This is when they start to ask the wrong questions.
But here is a fact: according to the 2018 National Crime Records Bureau report, 94% of rape cases that took place in 2018 were committed by someone known to the victim. When we take away a rapist’s humanity from them, we also deny ourselves the ability to hold them accountable for their actions, to question what really motivates this violent and cruel side of their humanity, and also ours. By imagining rapists as monstrous beings, we evade answering these uncomfortable questions that could ultimately help us address the very root of rape culture.
For all our public outrage and candlelight marches that pour out when a woman is killed by her rapist, we repeatedly fail to treat rape survivors with even a modicum of the respect and dignity they deserve. We mourn only when a rape victim is dead, because perhaps a dead woman is the easiest to provide justice to.
Our response to the crisis of rape cannot simply be limited to extremes – we either rally to ‘hang the rapist’, or refuse to believe women when they do speak up. Despite the growing public conversation surrounding rape culture, we’re still far from arriving at a solution unless we start asking the right questions.
Sanjukta Bose is currently pursuing a Masters degree in English, and, yet, is terrible at writing bios.
Featured image credit: PTI