A woman’s word


The Supreme Court observed if an Indian woman or girl alleges sexual assault, courts need not look for corroborating evidence if her version of events “inspires confidence”. While this sounds suspiciously like a patriarchal invocation of “ek Hindustani ladki ki izzat”, it is merely an articulation of what has been in practice from the ’80s onwards, after women’s groups agitated against the horror of custodial rape, for instance. The sole testimony of the prosecutrix has been accepted as sufficient for conviction in most cases of sexual violence, and rightly so, in a system so cruelly stacked against women.

Perhaps the court was trying to point to the fact that many Indian women have more social pressure at stake when reporting sexual crimes, and often risk great public shaming to seek justice. Sexual assault takes place in closed, secret spaces and witness corroboration is practically difficult. What is more, with the peculiar social burden of sexual crime and the tardiness of legal processes, it is possible for medical and forensic proof of crime to be much diluted or unavailable. There is certainly a sense that it costs Indian women more to level accusations of sexual violence, given how they direct hostile attention back to their own person. As an attempt to switch the legal default in their favour, the court’s approach carries consistency. It has indeed shifted the discourse from low attacks on a woman’s personal life or “character” or a wrangle over tangible physical injury, which resulted in our appalling conviction rates.

But on the other hand, it is unfortunate that the Supreme Court falls back on an all too familiar vocabulary of victimhood, shame and chastity to discuss sexual violence. Instead of reinforcing closed and trapping cultural beliefs — “for an unmarried girl, it will be difficult to find a suitable groom. It would indeed be difficult for her to survive in Indian society.” It would surely be more productive to tilt the field and talk of women as rights-bearing individuals, not hapless vessels for male aggression.



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