In Bangladesh, with its overtly patriarchal social norms, an offence like rape is generally branded as a stigma to the chastity and honour of a woman, more than as a crime against her bodily integrity or a violation of her rights to life and freedom.
This makes the entire ordeal of a rape victim all the more difficult, as it not only weakens her ability to seek justice, but also forces her to fear social isolation and non-acceptance.
Rape being viewed as a stigma or a disgrace to woman’s repute also works in favour of the accused, as it conveniently shifts the focus from him to the victim.
The engagement of the local community would often be limited to sympathising with the victim’s plight, from the sense that her life has been shattered by an unwanted or forceful penetration, causing her the ultimate disgrace or in case of an unmarried victim, ruining her prospect as a potential bride by the loss of her virginity.
On the one hand, this burden of shame, along with the trauma of rape, stops her from disclosing the incident of rape and the identity of the rapist.
On the other, even when the incident gets disclosed, this idea of rape bringing “death like shame” for the victim eventually brings the rape victim in a local shalish or informal arbitration other than to the formal justice system.
The local shalish, the usual reinforcing agents of patriarchy, then tries to settle her forever “tainted” and “hopeless” life by making her the bride of the man who raped her.
If nothing works, the option of committing suicide to end this unending stigma and “shame” awaits a rape victim -- an option that, in fact, many rape victims in the past have opted for as the only resort.
Conversely, the rapist with his muscle power and influential backing more often gets past the criminal justice system and sometimes is rewarded with the tag of husband to a rape victim, who “generously” married, with the option of divorcing her at any time.
Perpetuating the stigma
The branding of a rape victim with shame and stigma is sadly reinforced by the very people who could actually make a difference for a victim of rape.
Law enforcers, law-makers, and the law-keepers have consistently admitted and promoted the social branding of rape as a stigma to the character or reputation of a woman, as opposed to a serious violation of her bodily integrity or her sexual autonomy.
Acceptance of rape as disgrace to a woman’s character often leads authorities to assess the crime by keeping the victim at the centre of all suspicion and interrogation, and by placing the burden on her shoulder to prove her case beyond all reasonable doubt.
Acceptance of rape as disgrace to a woman’s character often leads authorities to assess the crime by keeping the victim at the centre of all suspicion and interrogation
The accused is mostly viewed as an “innocent” victim of a false allegation made by an unreliable woman, and as long as his innocence is not disproved by impossible standards of evidence, he will surely be given the benefit of the doubt.
As a manifestation of the ingrained patriarchy and gender norms that influence the actions and decisions of the authorities responsible for ensuring justice to a victim of sexual violence, this approach of relating rape with the character of a woman makes her an “untrustworthy” complainant, having no moral standing, and who needs to be disbelieved, unless her statements can be proved with strict evidentiary standards.
This emphasis on corroboration of a rape victim’s statements is, in fact, a legacy of the colonial times, when judges and law enforcers were specifically warned about how a rape victim should be treated with the utmost suspicion and scrutiny.
A problem passed down
Just as patriarchy is being carried over by generations, this colonial legacy of disbelieving a rape victim has continued with all its strength by our criminal justice system.
Recent studies commissioned by civil society groups also confirm this -- that not only the law enforcers, but also the judicial approach reinforces that a rape victim should be treated generally as unreliable, unless she is able to support her claim with strong evidence.
The relevance of a rape victim’s character is quite blatantly present in the existing laws, where an accused is allowed to prove to the court that which indicate that the victim is a woman of ill repute, a woman without a good character, one who does not care about the social stigma, and hence only she could bring such a false allegation.
The court still approves of medical evidence, which links the truthfulness of a rape allegation with the victim’s virginity and past sexual behaviour.
And a woman is still believed to have given consent to sex simply by not having any mark of violence on her body or even just by belonging to a lower-class.
To allow a rape victim to win over the ordeal of rape, the offence of rape really needs to be seen as a crime committed by the perpetrator, and not as a shame on the victim.
The focus needs to be shifted away from the victim from all corners, be it her family, the local community, the media, or the authorities involved.
We don’t wish to see news reports on rape with pictures of a woman being terrified and humiliated with shame, often covering her face with her hands as if it is she who is to blame. In the end, if nothing else, it is the mindset that needs to be changed.
Instead of only showing sympathy to the victim, working together to bring the perpetrator to justice is what really can help a rape victim to fight back, and survive.
Taslima Yasmin is Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka.