Misogyny in narratives of rape in Indian media


A newspaper report on the recent Gurgaon rape case concludes with the correspondent informing the readers that the victim was hired to “engage with male customers”. How is this piece of information relevant to the public at large? What does it really tell us about the crime? What it does, vaguely though, is describe the victim’s job. Is that relevant to the crime? Not really.

The reporting on the rape cases of the last few weeks has once again highlighted the Indian media’s failure to take into account some critical precautions while covering cases of sexual assault against women. Most crime reporters use the police as sources of information. The police often share a comfortable rapport with journalists who periodically seek them out for news. In private conversations, they possibly divulge more information than necessary. In an interview that I conducted last year with a few senior crime reporters, one senior law correspondent of an English daily admitted, that a good journalist always has more information than a copy needs. It is up to journalists to exercise their discretion, and leave out details that won’t necessarily benefit the story, the reporter added. Sure, the police should not be sharing intimate details of victims. Nevertheless, the media is obligated while reporting cases of sexual assault, to shield the identity of rape victims.

Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 prohibits the disclosure, not only of the victim’s name, but also of facts that could lead to the identification of the victim, such as the place of residence, identifying or naming the victim’s family or friends, university, or work details.

The Press Council of India’s Norms of Journalistic Conduct (“the PCI norms”) warn journalists not to give excessive publicity to victims, witnesses, suspects, and accused. The paramount concern in addition to the protection of victims is that, in publishing intimate details of their lives, the media exposes them to unwarranted public scrutiny. This safeguard protects the accused as well. Much of that information fails to add any value, unless it serves a genuine overriding public interest. Such information often obliquely encourages questions about the victim’s character and panders to unhealthy public curiosity. In the T.I.S.S. rape case for instance, the media published details from the victim’s written statement to the police. That information did not serve any public interest.

So, how do the personal details of a victim’s marital status, like in the Gurgaon or Calcutta rape cases, add value to the story? How is it relevant to the crime? The Supreme Court in State of Karnataka v. Puttaraja, warned against the disclosure of the rape victim’s identity even in the printing or publication of judgments issued by the High Courts or the Supreme Court. The Court observed that, “social victimization or ostracism of the victim of a sexual offence for which Section 228-A has been enacted, it would be appropriate that in the judgments, be it of this Court, High Court or lower Court, the name of the victim should not be indicated.” Further, the PCI norms prohibit the visual representation or photograph of not just the victim, but also her family or relatives to avoid identification.

Beyond the question of naming victims, the recent media rape narratives also follow a familiar trajectory. The key terms, “married woman”, “unaccompanied in a pub”, and “late at night” come together to the conclusion, “raped”. What does the media narrative of married women alone in pubs at night insinuate? It suggests that the woman was reckless or foolish to be out on her own that late. There is a chauvinist undercurrent in that detail. It invites the response — what was a married woman doing in a bar alone at night? Why was she there?

It offers little insight into the reasons for the crime. Such rape coverage in the media promotes curiosity and interest in the victim’s life. It does not add to our understanding of rape or why it takes place. Instead, it feeds the propagation of the dominant misogynist view, that women of a “certain type” deserved to be raped.


This article was previously published at mylaw.net.

Women victims become culprits


“…To want to go out, step out of the frame to claim her space is inconceivable and must be checked…”

In February this year the police in Noida deliberately released the identity of a 17 year-old rape victim in clear violation of the law.

This disclosure was followed by a statement regarding the supposed ‘consent’ of the girl in the act of partaking of alcohol with the alleged rapists just before she was raped.

How does one read this? That a ‘bad’ girl, identified as interested in alcohol and partying, is tarnishing the image of ‘good’ boys, who were merely having a good time?

Rape, whether we like it or not, is a part of our daily reality-in cities, villages, at the workplace and at homeRape, whether we like it or not, is a part of our daily reality-in cities, villages, at the workplace and at home

And how come every time there is an act of sexual violence against a woman these ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ come to be part of our mindscape? Of course the morality discourse is resurrected only when the crime gets reported-otherwise no one really cares.

Otherwise rape, whether we like it or not, is a part of our daily reality-in cities, villages, at the workplace and at home. What’s so new about the Gurgaon rape of a 23 year old that we have not heard before?

There is a lot that we have heard before though: late night shifts at ‘dubious’ workplaces, such as bars and restaurants; wearing improper attire; travelling alone on lonely roads. This particular reasoning that identifies the woman as the perpetrator of a crime against herself extends beyond rape, but is limited exclusively to women.

So, Soumya Vishwanathan’s death while driving back home at 3.30am was also asking for it. Every government functionary from the politician to the police believes it is so, then it must be true.

High time women accepted that they are not victims, but the reason why rape happens.

The moment a woman steps out of the home, for whatever reasons, she is inviting the wrath of a whole social system that is trying to ‘protect’ her for themselves. She is representative of so much more than just herself.

The moment a woman steps out of the home, for whatever reasons, she is inviting the wrath of a whole social system that is trying to 'protect' her for themselvesThe moment a woman steps out of the home, for whatever reasons, she is inviting the wrath of a whole social system that is trying to ‘protect’ her for themselves

After all in India the woman is mother, daughter, sister and wife-to a man. To want to go out, step out of the frame to claim her space is inconceivable and must be checked. No wonder then that in a reading of the Lok Sabha debates on the Rape Law of 1983, sociologist Pratiksha Baxi finds that rape treats the man as subject, and the woman as object. The rape is not about her, but about the violation of a male code.

This is reflected in the discussion on the law which tries to distinguish between the chaste and unchaste woman, the married and unmarried woman, and the raped women and the ‘normal’ woman. The control over reproduction creates these categories-so, a ‘protected’ woman is the married mother.

Baxi adds that in patriarchal societies where descent defines the woman’s place––rape literally defiles the descent line. It’s a crime by men against men. Every time a woman comes to report a rape, or every time the police have to answer questions on rape, they commit a double crime on the rape survivor.

The courts do it again when they hear her testimony. The state rapes its women with their questions, interrogations and insinuations about character and conduct. But what is it about cities that attract such power struggles––for that is exactly what rape is-an act of violence to reclaim lost ‘power’.

In contemporary India, the city space has been way more welcoming of women than any other. Its anonymity adds to the freedom that numbers bring. The growing need for a workforce helped us get out, and work towards reclaiming the public.

But according to a report by the NGO Jagori, it is these very urban spaces that are now potential cover for crimes against women. So many of the places we inhabit in our daily lives are fraught with danger. Low street lighting, narrow lanes, public alcohol dens all add to our misery. It is indeed a sad commentary that many of the rapes in Delhi happen very close to where the rape victim lives, by someone she knows.

A report cites how often people one may know and trust-neighbours, relatives, friends, colleagues-may exploit our trust. Lifts in cars with acquaintances have often been cited in cases of rape.

The tinted, moving car is the perfect space for this kind of violence––the speed adds to the ‘thrill’. The fast life of the city affects both women and men-like the toll booth operator who got shot last year for asking for the toll, or the recent case of a bouncer who was beaten up outside a city hotel for having denied entry to some patrons to a night club.

Does the city breed this kind of mentality-of intolerance, impatience and violence? In a panel discussion on a news channel following the incident of violence against the toll booth operator, one of the panelists spoke of the feeling of ‘entitlement’ that the city’s youth feel they have towards the right to have a ‘good’ time.

Anyone who comes in the way of their enjoyment is taking away their right, and must be accordingly treated. Thus women who are out at night working, partying, on an emergency, whatever it might be, are ‘easy pickings’. If she resists then she is impinging upon their right.

Perhaps the saddest commentary of our times is when fathers in their anxiety and worry over the safety of their daughters ‘laud’ the efforts of the police to curb the time till which a woman can work at night-8pm in Gurgaon after the recent case.

Or when they silently agree with the vitriolic that law enforcers spew about clothing and ‘decency’. It is at these times that a woman truly comes to feel like a culprit herself.

(courtesy: ANINDITA MAJUMDAR & MailOnLine, India)