The verdict in the Tarun Tejpal case allowing him to walk free, despite an apology on paper where he admitted he had violated the woman’s consent, is astounding. Judge Kshama Joshi observed that the survivor did not exhibit the behaviour befitting a rape victim. Live Law reports the judge’s perspective, “The photos show the prosecutrix to be absolutely cheerful and with a smile on her face and not disturbed, reserved, terrified or traumatised in any manner”. While the Goa government is appealing the ruling, the judge is not in a minority when it comes to throwing out rape cases because the survivor does not live up to the stereotype of a rape victim.
Throughout history, women who exerted agency have been labelled harlots, while those who followed the rules of patriarchy were labelled virtuous. Society’s notions of a woman’s purity have inevitably been linked with the twin concepts of virginity and chastity. And the binary is very stark – women who are virgins before marriage, and chaste after, are good women and women who are not – are fallen.
In all this, rape was seen as the woman not doing enough to protect herself. Her virtue was not strong enough to shield her. Women were expected to take the honourable way out and end their lives, if such an incident took place; or if the rapist offered marriage, then that was considered a sort of redemption of the fallen woman. If a woman dared to continue with her life, putting aside the trauma of rape, then she would be judged. How dare she not die of shame? How dare she continue with life? How dare she enjoy herself?
Onus of rape prevention
In the last 100 years or so, as women moved from being property to being recognised as individuals with inalienable rights, the views on virginity and chastity have become more relaxed. But the views on rape have not really changed. The onus is still on the woman to prevent it. The way we say ‘woman raped’ indicates that in our minds, we still put the responsibility of rape on her. Almost as though she got herself raped because of something that she did.
In the book, “The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women” Jessica Valenti makes a very telling point, when she says “should we treat women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”
Men rape women. This is a fact as old as history. According to the United Nations, “A third of all women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime”. In India, there were 32,033 rapes reported in 2019, according to the NCRB - about 87 rapes a day. Or more precisely, 87 men who were charged with rape, every day. The real number is likely to be much higher. And the rapist could be anyone. He could be rich, poor, educated, illiterate, a soldier, a priest, a politician, a doctor, an editor, and even judges – but always it is a man. We don’t have a stereotype for the rapist. We don’t even acknowledge the fact that the archetype of a rapist is a man. We go out of our way to delink the two words – rapist and male.
Prototype of victim
And yet, we want a prototype of the rape victim. We expect her to be stricken with the shame of what happened to her, bringing everything in her life to a grinding halt. We need her to move from being a vivacious woman to a woman burdened by the guilt of the consequences of her actions. Judge Kshama Joshi’s observations were essentially giving voice to this social construct of how a rape survivor ought to behave. And the questions that arise when she doesn’t. How dare she not crumble with shame and wither away? How dare she have a life? How dare she not drown herself, or drop herself off the nearest mountain? How dare she laugh, find cheer in other things? How dare she not curl away and disappear for this thing she brought upon herself? How dare she exert agency and not expect a backlash? How dare she! And this explains the verdict.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker
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