In 2014, the Delhi Commission of Women put out a report stating that 53.2% of rape cases filed between April 2013-July 2014 were false. This statistic was cited gleefully by men’s rights activists and the like to decry that women speaking out about rape or sexual violence were, in all probability, lying or taking revenge on men. This sentiment is not new – women have constantly been disbelieved when speaking out about gender-based violence. One must only look at the recent Chinmayanand case as an example – where a college student accusing a powerful politician and godman of rape was put behind bars for defamation.
Upon further investigation of the statistic put out by the Delhi Commission of Women, it was found that all of the cases that were dismissed as “false”, were cases that simply never made it to trial, without analysing the reasons why. The statistic is more a reflection of the failure of the legal system to deliver justice to women rather than a question of the woman’s honesty. Additionally, many cases wherein women do admit to having falsely accused someone are a result of imbalanced power dynamics at play. One must remember that there are several tactics of intimidation and threat that the accused can employ in order to escape the consequence for their actions. In the past, women have been compelled to arrive at a “compromise” or even withdraw their case, lest them or their loved ones should be hurt. They have been bribed, or some have found the procedure to be too expensive for them to continue with the obligations of the case through until the end. Often, the time-consuming and tedious nature of the process is enough to dissuade them from continuing the case. In much more severe and haunting examples, the case has also been withdrawn because the woman has been forced into marriage with the aggressor.
However, the sentiment that most women are lying about rape cases persists, and is one of the key reasons that rape and other forms of gender-based violence is so alarmingly under-reported in our country.
women have constantly been disbelieved when speaking out about gender-based violence.
Most often, women have nothing to gain from false accusations but strong disapproval from society. In fact, estimates suggest that the number of unreported instances of harassment far outweigh those of false accusations. An estimated 99.1% of sexual violence cases are not reported, according to government data. This is owing to the immense stigma associated with being a victim of sexual crime, the question on character and the obsession with the preservation of chastity. There is thus no reason for us to dismiss all cases as attempts of women to just extort money or get attention, for us to underestimate the magnitude and frequency of such instances just yet. Without adequate investigation, it is not possible to get an accurate estimate of how many allegations are truly false, and how many were simply not taken further, beyond the filing of the complaint.
Despite these alternative explanations of so-called “false” reports, mainstream media continues to play a significant role in shaping society’s perception of women as liars, attention-seekers, and extortionists. A study by Pandit and Gilbertson found that 7.7 per cent of articles in English newspapers suggested that the survivor was lying, which tends to confirm the predisposition society has in placing little faith in women.
So, how does the media perpetuate this spectre of ‘false cases’? This article will explore how the vocabulary used in articles and the choice of information published influence the perception of readers about gender-based violence.
1. Use of the term ‘alleged’, and writing ‘rape’ in quotes
One can find many headlines saying that a woman was “allegedly” raped, which gives them a mocking tone, as if the woman is not to be taken seriously. While the use of this word might appear to be an almost negligible issue, it takes as little as one word to draw upon the pre-existing tendency society has to view women’s claims with suspicion. The use of the term “alleged” is understandable in that it is considered necessary to avoid the legal pitfalls of depicting a case as true while it is still in trial. However, there are better ways of writing these headlines, without taking away from the credibility of the woman. Framing headlines as “Man accused of rape”, or “Survivor reported that she has been raped” are good examples of neutral headlines.
When a headline puts the word rape in quotes, for e.g., ‘Woman “raped” at family function’, it gives the impression that the word ‘rape’ was only used by the woman, and that the reality of the situation is not as grave as she describes it to be. It portrays the woman as someone who is exaggerating the details of the event unnecessarily, and takes away from the magnitude of the crime. The claims of the woman are put under unjustified scrutiny because of this kind of framing, and her traumatic experience undermined.
The headline of the article above, for instance, blatantly implies that the survivor who spoke out against the blackmail and sexual abuse racket in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, was lying. In reality, the complainant had always maintained that she had not been raped, but had been stripped naked and filmed without her consent. By twisting these words to say that ‘she had not been sexually abused’, while also putting ‘sexual abuse’ in quotes, the headline casts her testimony as falsehood. The images of the perpetrators included shows one of them in distress, further depicting them as wrongfully accused and in need of sympathy.
2. Moral policing of the survivor
It is not uncommon for a woman to be asked irrelevant details of her day when she reports a violent crime committed against her, and newspapers are guilty of inviting moral judgements of the readers by providing similar details as well. When describing an event, details are provided about the whereabouts of the woman, who she spoke to (whether she talked to strangers), what she was wearing, and what activities she was engaged in. If the article mentions, for example, the woman “bar-hopping” at a very late hour in the night, she is labelled “easy”, and this immediately calls upon the conservative thinking of many readers who will conclude that the woman was simply inviting trouble. Once again, it takes away the accountability from the aggressor and lays it with the woman, as it appears that she had created for herself a ripe opportunity for someone to assault her. It also perpetuates the harmful mentality that only “bad girls” get raped, as if all of them have done something to deserve it. When the reader is convinced that she is a “bad girl” with poor or “loose” character, s/he is less likely to believe that the woman was indeed a victim of violent assault.
3. The perpetrator as either a monster or a saint
Newspapers tend to define the aggressor either as a ruthless “monster” or as a “good” person who happened to turn violent in a brief lapse of judgement. On the one hand, characterising aggressors as a “monster” and painting a ghastly image of them takes attention away from the fact that “respectable” people are not immune to predatory tendencies, and that most violence takes place within the family, who we do not consider to be “monsters” to begin with. The idea of respectability itself is a social construct. When one is imagining a “monster”, s/he may not necessarily picture a man who is wealthy, educated, and belongs to a dominant caste. This kind of imagery reinforces existing (false) notions of class and caste hierarchy, and makes it difficult to believe the woman if the perpetrator does not fit the conventional “monster” image. Readers are more likely to consider her accusation a false one instead of investigating the case thoroughly and questioning whether the “respectable” man is truly innocent.
On the other hand, many articles inform readers about the perpetrator’s personality and his otherwise “decent” behaviour. They list his achievements (star student, excellent grades!), his bond with his family (loving son, nurturing father), and his positive personality traits. Similarly, articles quote his loved ones and document their disbelief at the given circumstance: “How can a calm person like Nidheesh do that?”. This leads readers to sympathise with the perpetrator. It persuades them to believe that the woman must be falsely accusing him, if his family and neighbours claim that he was an otherwise good-natured person. Since this type of aggressor strays from the “monster” imagery, disbelief is a natural reaction of the readers to such cases. We must learn to judge aggressors not by their “nice” demeanour, but by the crimes they commit and the trauma they bring to the women who have suffered at their hands.
Disbelief towards the woman is damaging to the cause of getting her justice. Trying to substantiate incorrect information with incomplete statistics accelerates this process of growing disbelief and refusal to accept what the woman has been through. When the media reflects the kind of mindset possessed by a more traditional, conservative society, it contributes to the never-ending cycle of victim-blaming and victim-shaming. It is no wonder that police cases do not reach the court room, that “good guys” face a disproportionately small punishment for their horrendous crimes, and that existing power dynamics continue to subjugate the voice of women.
Additionally, these factors have the effect of demonising the woman and labelling her a liar and an extortionist at a time when she is perhaps most vulnerable. Therefore, it becomes crucial to identify how we are complicit in trivialising such issues and rectify them at the earliest.
Written in consultation with Asmita Ghosh, the lead researcher of the #GBVinMedia toolkit.