Sunday, September 4, 2011
Name and shame
Does granting anonymity to rape victims also reinforce the idea that being raped is something to be ashamed of?
So after that infamous perp walk conducted in full view of international media and a night spent at Riker’s Island jail, rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been dropped by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The prosecutors on the case decided that the rape victim was not a credible witness, and that if they could not trust her story they couldn’t very well ask a jury to do so.
In the interim, as the case began to collapse, the hotel maid who was the alleged victim came forward to put her version of events in front of the world. In order to do so, Nafissatou Diallo voluntarily gave up the right to anonymity that the law grants her and allowed her name – and her face – to be splashed all over the world. But until she herself chose to reveal her identity, no media outlet was allowed to as much as name her, let alone carry her picture. Her privacy was guaranteed and protected by the law that insists on anonymity for victims of rape.
In India too, section 228-A of the Penal Code guarantees the same anonymity to victims of rape. And at one level, this guarantee makes absolute sense. Women who have been traumatised by a sexual attack should be allowed to recover in private. Revealing their identities in these circumstances only adds to their trauma. In addition, the guarantee of anonymity also ensures that more women come forward to report rapes – a crime that is under-reported to a shocking extent because of the social stigma associated with it.
So, there is a strong case to be made out for the granting of anonymity to rape victims. More so in a country like India where women who are raped are often ostracised and even told that they must have ‘asked’ for it by the way they dressed or behaved. So, granting them the right to keep their names and identities out of the public domain is the right thing to do.
And yet, at a more subliminal level, I can’t help but feel that this only reinforces the idea that women who are raped have something to be ashamed of. And that the vicious assault they suffered on their person has also tainted them in some mysterious way – and that this taint needs to be hidden away from the world.
Just consider the way in which rape is projected in popular culture, via our movies and TV shows. The phrase used most often to describe the act of rape in Hindi cinema is ‘izzat loot li’. The message that goes out is stark and simple: a woman’s ‘izzat’, her honour, is invested in her body. And you can ‘steal’ her honour if you violate her body.
So the act of rape is not something that dishonours the person who commits it; on the contrary, it besmirches the person who is the victim. Now, how does that make any sense?
And yet, every time we refrain from naming the victim of a rape by granting her anonymity we are, in a sense, both protecting her and shaming her at the same time. What we are effectively saying is: “You are not just the victim of a terrible crime; you also have something to be ashamed of.”
Why should that be so?
If we say that we are granting anonymity to protect a woman’s reputation because rape is such a heinous crime, then shouldn’t we also offer the same protection of anonymity to the alleged rapist? After all, the basic principle on which our jurisprudence is based is that everyone is considered innocent until pronounced guilty. So, if presumption of innocence is the guiding principle in these matters then why guarantee anonymity to the complainant while naming and shaming the defendant?
Whatever your opinion of Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour in that hotel room with the chambermaid – and even his lawyers concede that there was a sexual encounter, though they insist that it was consensual – there is no getting around the fact that he was treated as guilty from the word go, without even the pretence of a presumption of innocence. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg even scoffed: “If you don’t want to do the perp walk; don’t do the crime” ignoring the fact that no case had been proven against Strauss-Kahn. (Bloomberg did an about-turn weeks later, terming perp walks ‘outrageous’ – so far, so predictable.)
But while none of us will shed many tears for Strauss-Kahn, given his long history of predatory behaviour towards women, his treatment in this case should give us pause for thought. Should any man be treated as guilty until proven innocent merely because a charge of rape is bought against him? If the crime of rape is so heinous that it will permanently scar a woman who is a victim of it, then how badly would it ruin a man’s reputation if he were to be falsely charged? So if we are to grant anonymity, shouldn’t it be to both parties, until such time as a verdict is delivered?
After all, when it comes to rape, naming and shaming works both ways. Hence, just as women’s names are protected, so should the reputation of men. Or else, we might as well throw the presumption of innocence out of the window – and any pretence at fair play.