Trigger Warning: Rape

“When two people are living as husband and wife, however brutal the husband is, can the act of sexual intercourse between them be called rape?”, asked Chief Justice of India SA Bobde.

The fact that marital rape is not considered as a category of rape and has not yet been criminalised in the country of India speaks volumes about the situation of women as well as the justice system prevailing in the country.

India has been experiencing increased instances of sexual violence along the last few years, and individuals are getting to know about it as the number of individuals reporting cases of sexual abuse has increased by a jump of 26% in the year 2013. The awareness and sensitivity regarding the issue has increased and a lot of it is because of the Delhi gang-rape case of 2012, which also led to a major change in the Indian legal system by introducing the Vishakha guidelines.

Even before the citizens of India can fully deal with the shock of an incident of rape, another incident occurs in yet another part of the country. The more brutal it is, the more public attention it gets, as the media continues to divulge graphic details about sexual assault with a clear lack of sensitivity. So, are we hierarchising the nature and intensity of rape and in the process normalising the act of rape in itself?

Also read: Unpacking The Reasonable Woman Standard – A Case To Respect Survivor’s Experience

We witnessed how protests were arranged for innumerable number of days in 2012 and there were clarion calls for capital punishment for the convicts. But does it happen for each rape that occurs in the country?

In the recent past, especially in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape case, people’s anger has risen in proportion to the extent of brutality that was meted out to the victim. We witnessed how protests were arranged for innumerable number of days in 2012 and there were clarion calls for capital punishment for the convicts. But does it happen for each rape that occurs in the country?

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The MeToo movement, where a number of people came up with their stories of violence and incidents, was looked down upon by individuals, mostly upper-caste, upper-class cis men in positions of power and privilege, because they didn’t come with any ‘proof’ yet openly called out the accused on social media platform instead of adopting the age old ‘due process’ within the judiciary. Statistics show us how the number of accused in the context of sexual harassment cases who were actually convicted, was actually negligible. So why are the narratives of the women coming out with all their vulnerabilities, in the risk of being slut shamed, judged and even threatened not given enough importance? 

The concept of rape myths as provided by sociologists like Schwendinger and Schwendinger, shed light on this aspect of blaming the victim/survivor of sexual assault and labeling them as ‘asking for it’. Most of the individuals, including ‘progressive’ people, studying in prestigious institutions tend to accept these rape myths and become extremely doubtful regarding any such incident, if the woman appears to be sexually active and open. These perceptions deny the individual account and experiences of the survivors and aims at generalising the same and gives birth to the dichotomy of ‘the perfect rape victim’ and ‘the not so perfect rape victim’. The perfect rape victim is an individual who has been brutally tortured apart from being raped, and probably have been subjected to death due to the same as well. On the other hand, an imperfect rape victim is an adult woman, sexually active, taking charge of her own life, enjoys her drinks and stays outside till late at night.

The second case is denied public sympathy or attention according to the population as it is often assumed that they ‘must’ have asked for it. Key findings in a study based in the United Kingdom shows that most of the individuals don’t consider it to be rape until physical violence takes place in the incident. It was also inferred from the study that individuals who have had sex before or have multiple sexual partners are believed to not experience much pain when they are subjected to rape. So are we then equalising the experience of ‘consensual sex’ with ‘rape’ and just denying the extreme mental, physical and other inexplicable trauma the individual is being subjected to by just not having control over her own body?

Based on another study in India, it has been perceived easier to show sympathy for a rape victim who has been assaulted by a complete stranger, as she ‘had nothing to do’ in that case and fits the definition of the ‘archetypal antisocial crime’. But if the perpetrator has been your intimate partner or your romantic interest, it is believed that the girl surely must have ‘misled’ the man in the process and hence these accounts according to the study are mostly disregarded or denied completely. Why did the Park Street Rape Case (2012) not gain as much attention as the Delhi 2012 case did? Why are we unconscionably or consciously creating a hierarchy among different forms of rape cases based on the brutality it incorporates and normalising or accepting the ones that didn’t incur any physical violence as such? 

Also read: “It’s Complicated”: Reflections On The Changing Ideals Of Romance Post #MeToo

According to a report by Reuters, the most significant incidents of rape that took place in India and experienced a huge hue and cry are the ones that have been of extreme brutal nature. In November, 1973, Aruna Shanbaug, a 26-year-old nurse, was attacked in a Mumbai hospital by a ward attendant during her night shift. Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki, who was later convicted and jailed, had sodomised and then strangled her with a chain, in the process cutting off the oxygen supply to her brain and leaving her in a coma, claimed a news report. Dated December 5, 2019, another report read: A 23-year-old rape victim is set ablaze by a gang of men, including the alleged rapist, as she made her way to court to attend a hearing in the case, in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh, police said.” Thus, all the ‘worthy-to-be mentioned’ incidents seem to focus on the extent of the violence in these cases.

How is it that the trauma of a rape victim, who has not been beaten or strangled during her rape, but has experienced the powerlessness and helplessness during the situation in any way less?

How is it that the trauma of a rape victim, who has not been beaten or strangled during her rape, but has experienced the powerlessness and helplessness during the situation in any way less? Why and how are we hierarchising the trauma of rape victims/survivors by considering one section of them as worth mentioning and denying the existence of another section which probably includes individuals, specifically women of a greater population, who has been experiencing such incidents in each and every day of their lives but are not being able to be vocal about the same thinking that their problems are probably not big enough to take up space?

The public sympathy in rape or harassment cases is, thus, dependent vehemently on the intensity or the brutal nature of the rape incidents, at the same time neglecting the ones which didn’t incur the same.

The fact that India’s legal system doesn’t recognise marital rape as a justified form of rape and hence doesn’t punish the perpetrators regarding the same shows how structurally the country is normalising the concept of intimate partner violence and incidents of rape if it is not ‘brutal’ enough.

Thus Indian rape laws protect a section of the population falling under the “perfect rape victim category” but disregards the lived realities of the individuals falling under the “imperfect rape victim category”. The punishments decided by the Indian law is different on the basis of the intensity of the rape. As Carol Smart rightly said, “the whole rape trial is a process of disqualification of women and celebration of phallocentricism.” Isn’t the law responsible for creating self doubt among thousands of rape survivors who often end up questioning themselves because the law tells them to do so? Thousands of girls continue to shut themselves down because they don’t have access to positive structural reforms and aid or the society or law by their side, so they wait… wait until they become ‘the perfect victim’ from the lens of the society.. which is the ‘dead victim’.

So, does a rape victim only deserves the public attention and empathy once she/he is dead? Should we wait to just die so that the society recognises and acknowledges our experiences of abuse?

Featured image credit: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India

About the author(s)

Brishti Sen Banerjee is a PhD Research Scholar in Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. She has experience in formulating research tools, conducting on ground research work and in advocacy. She is a passionate lover of junk food and loves the mountains.

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  1. Oh god, this was so hard to read but equally necessary. You are right, they have built a hierarchy of good victims and bad. It serves the myth that rapists are “strangers” and “monsters” and not living in our own homes, offices, schools, streets, hospitals, buses, trains etc.

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