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Marital Rape: End the Denial

Sayoni Aiyar

Updated: September 1, 2017, 3:57 PM IST
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Marital Rape: End the Denial
Image for representation.
Is it marital rape when a husband is in the mood for sex and the wife says, ‘Not tonight, darling’ but they still end up having sex? Is it marital rape when it’s consensual but rough? I’d say such questions deliberately trivialise the issue.

Marital rape exists. It exists despite having no legal definition in India. It exists despite the fervent denials of the government, of a large number of citizens, both men and women, often well-educated, and just as often well-meaning. It exists in marriages built by social contract, love, financial deals and religious faith.

Think of the wife whose husband comes home drunk, beats her and forces himself on her. Think of the wife whose husband uses sex as punishment or to establish himself as her master. Day after day, night after night, and with complete social sanction.

That is marital rape. Yes, it is difficult to prove. Yes, circumstances will differ from couple to couple. Yes, many women will put up with massive trauma to avoid the social stigma of a failed marriage and worse, being the one who denounces her husband publicly. But if criminalising marital law is the only way to save even a handful of women from this marital hell, then it’s worth it.

A debate on marital rape on CNN-News18 recently had three women panellists all insist Indian society is not ready for the fallout of criminalising marital rape. They made excellent points that the majority of Indian women are not financially independent and have weak social support systems outside their marriages.

They said putting abusive husbands in jail would just be swapping one kind of trauma for another. They pointed to the kind of social backlash that would greet a woman who would be shattering the very definition of the Indian wife - the Sati Savitri - for whom marriage and husband are paramount.

Now, these arguments are very like the arguments made by those who defended the practice of Triple Talaq. And while the Supreme Court has banned Triple Talaq, the jury is still out on how life has changed for the women it most affects.

Granted, we need immense social and systemic change - and we shouldn’t need issues such as Triple Talaq or marital rape to spur us into instituting progressive, solid state support for women. But Muslim women in India have a choice now. The law has empowered them with a recourse, if they need one and want one, against the heinous practice of Triple Talaq. Don’t India’s battered wives deserve a similar choice?

The choice that is the only one offered to a marital rape victim is the choice to walk out. The most frequent question raised by those in denial over marital rape is, if the woman is unhappy, why is she still in the marriage? She should leave her abusive husband. Divorce and live happily ever after.

The unvoiced subtext to this argument is, if you can’t afford to leave, stay and suffer in silence. Put up and shut up. Second, this logic once again puts the onus on the victim. If a wife is staying in a marriage despite being raped by her husband, it is her fault. She is somehow complicit in her own degradation. Asking ‘Why isn’t she leaving?’ shifts the burden of blame from the rapist to the victim.

The most valid concern - and the biggest hurdle to criminalising marital rape - is that any such a law can be misused, much like the anti-dowry law. Innocent husbands can be framed, jailed at worst and marked for life at best. With the difficulties of proving marital rape - and given the complicated nature of every single marriage - a wife’s motives are often as suspect as a husband’s actions.

This is the real challenge for our courts and lawmakers - to build a system that can identify real victims, regardless of their gender, and frame a law that is sensitive to real victims, regardless of their gender.

Yes, there are fifty shades of marriage. But when it comes to rape, we can only afford to be black and white.
First Published: September 1, 2017, 3:57 PM IST