Sunday, 5 July 2015

Honor and Dignity: The Problem With India’s Rape Dialogue

The Indian Supreme Court recently overturned the Madras High Court’s decision to allow a rapist to reach an out-of-court settlement with his victim. While the decision is a no-brainer, the words that the judges used to justify their decision are, at best, strange. Here are extracts from the text of the judgement (emphasis mine):
These are offences which suffocate the breath of life and sully the reputation. And reputation, needless to emphasise, is the richest jewel one can conceive of in life. No one would allow it to be extinguished. When a human frame is defiled, the “purest treasure”, is lost. Dignity of a woman is a part of her non-perishable and immortal self and no one should ever think of painting it in clay. There cannot be a compromise or settlement as it would be against her honour which matters the most. It is sacrosanct
To be fair, the judge is clearly well-intentioned and the judgement is correct in its statement that rapes don’t fall under crimes that can be negotiated between the parties involved. However, the wording I have highlighted is worrying because of the aspect of rape that it focuses on: honor and dignity. This problem isn’t new or exclusive to the judgement; Indian dialogue on rape has extensively lamented how rape robs its victims of their “honor and dignity”. Take for instance, this excerpt from Narendra Modi’s speech in the Lok Sabha this June:
Stop analysing the psychology behind rape. The dignity of our mothers and our sisters must be protected. Does it suit us to make comments on such incidents, can we not be quiet? We are playing with the dignity of women.
Various other politicians and activists speak about how rape “destroys” the dignity of its victims; this usually happens in the aftermath of prominent cases, like in 2012. 

This is not a good way to discuss rape. The very meanings of dignity and honor have to do with the respectability of an individual in society. Peppering narratives of rape with these words makes it harder for victims to deal with the trauma and heal.

Generic Times of India rape illustration.
If I were suddenly forced to wear Crocs one day, I would feel brutalized. I would feel lost. I would not feel like stepping out of my room. I would feel uneasy around footwear in general. I would feel like this is the end of it all. As if this wasn’t bad enough already, imagine if anti-Crocs activists started telling me that it was a pity that my dignity and honor have been robbed from me—that my identity as an individual has been permanently tainted by this ugly footwear. 

This is precisely the problem with making reputation and self-respect a part of coverage of rape—no matter how positively intended. They take an incident that is already traumatic to its victims, and adds to their trauma by implying that they are no longer whole, and that it will never fully be possible for them to come back from this completely.

I’m not saying that Crocs are equivalent to rape.
But if I was given a choice between them,
I would not make my choice instantly.
In researching this, I came across a Huffington Post article about the Supreme Court’s judgement which echoed my concern, but it failed to address the exact problem with having these concepts in dialogue on rape: it is distracting—and dangerous. Intertwining these concepts with rape is moot when physical and mental trauma (both immediate and consequent) are the biggest symptoms of rape, not counting the effect it has on the victim’s social circle. Neither of these has anything to with the victim’s respectability.

These words have the power of making masses at large, in addition to victims, believe that there is some sacrosanct candlelight that rape permanently blows out. That in turn, does make rape something that robs victims of respect in society. It is a self-fulfilling narrative that only makes things worse for victims.

Dialogue on rape needs to shift from its sacramental tinge and discuss the crime frankly. It is a traumatizing crime, and as such, it cannot afford to bear old-fashioned and dangerous ideas that damage prospects for recovery. We need sober discussion on recovery, as we do with any other trauma, and this will end with victims having an easier path to recovery. More importantly, it will lead to support from the victim’s community, not abandonment.


  1. A much needed, not enough talked about, perspective.

  2. A very well written article Aroon.
    Contrary to Mr.Modi's opinion, I feel that psychological analysis of any kind of crime cannot be considered un-important. The way in which rapes are perceived by the people in our country actually does matter a lot and it needs to change.

  3. It is so sad that even today people adjudge rape victims as 'impure'.
    It is not the rape victim who has lost dignity or 'purity', but the rapist. I wonder what makes it so tough to get this simple, straightforward idea across to our society.
    Keep up the good work Mr.Aroon !