In Response to Flavia Agnes and Natasha Badhwar:
In all honesty, I do not want to link to the piece in question, because from the very beginning — from the headline itself, wondrously — it is a piece that can be, and is, triggering to many people. People sharing this are free to link to the interview in question for clarity, but I request you to add trigger warnings to your shares. This response deals with, and quotes, in some detail, some of the points that were raised — and “points” is a generous use of the term — in the interview.
The context for this interview is the conviction and sentencing (for 7 years, which is the minimum sentence for the crime committed) of Mahmood Farooqui for raping an American research scholar last year. It has also been the context for three other pieces by Manisha Sethi, Mona Das and Dushyant that I want to refer to only briefly, despite the fact that a reading of the four of them together should make the links between them (connected threads of a silence-keeping, victim blaming, closed, gated community that is eager to jump to a convicted rapist’s defense) starkly visible. I chose to write on this specific interview, perhaps because of my own naivete regarding Agnes — I had sustained no major expectations from the other three. I was disappointed by their responses, of course — they’re, between them, academics, lawyers, activists, people I’ve heard at forums speaking “progressively.” But as a young feminist in this country, despite being very aware of the kind of terrible, wayward, victim-blaming responses or abject silence even five-star activists (and especially five-star activists) come up with in response to rape, I did not expect Agnes to speak, sentence after sentence, in a way that belittled, reduced, and delegitimized the experiences of people who live in rape culture and face forms of sexual assault every day.
But more than the question of Agnes — Agnes-and-Badhwar, in this case, a resounding, vicious, question and answer, leading and responding performance—it is also the question of what was said in it. This response is not an ad hominem reaction to Agnes. It’s about what was said in the interview, and what has been said about so many rape cases in the past. Barely-strung accusatory arguments have popped up again in ‘defenses’ of Farooqui this time around as well, whether in the People-Like-Us-Doing-Shocking-Things category of writing, or ones that flat out critique the judgement as too harsh, too cruel to Farooqui’s talent and work and status and power and his tiny, inconsequential act that could besmirch it all.
In question and answer after question and answer, the interview strung together almost half a dozen gaslighting, victim-blaming responses that survivors of rape know they will hear in their families, in their offices, in court rooms, in police stations, from their partners, bosses, colleagues, professors, friends, and their rapists. I do not think people should have to hear these noxious words again.
In putting this together, Amba Azaad’s continuously updated thread with reports on the Farooqui case and her responses to it have been immensely valuable, both in terms of the information at hand and in terms of the larger arguments she has raised not just in the context of this case, but in similar cases and situations.
A resource for those looking to read up on the case in particular is the J Devika and Nivedita Menon writeup on Kafila (which contains explicit details of the assault and the legal proceedings) here.
What the three other writers did, was in varying ways, to desperately expose their anxieties — Das predates one of Agnes’ arguments in almost mirror-like fashion, that of stacking crimes of sexual assault in a vertical hierarchy, that of telling every reader of her piece that sexual assault can be graded and ranked. Das makes no bones about it — “any sexual assault is a grave crime but every crime is not equally grave.” There is no attempt to consider that neither she, nor anyone else, has the right to tell a sexual assault survivor how much their trauma weighs, or how long it stays, or how deep it goes. I hope she enjoyed writing that clever little wordplay — gravity, equality, all that jazz, a little Animal Farm throwback — but the fact remains that even if the law held some “kinds” of rape more rape than other rapes, as it did before the 2013 Amendment, and even as it does now, by not recognizing marital rape, or by not making rape laws gender neutral (I’m sure several feminists disagree with me on this one, but I don’t think they understand the importance of recognizing sexual assault within queer relationships, for example), she does not get to grade trauma. Or assault. Or rape. Or the constant sinking feeling that one could be raped and would be faced with a barrage of similar accusations everywhere one went. Especially because rape is already graded — people are already told that on the basis of their caste, class, sexuality, genders, ability, race, ethnicity, and other factors, their rapes are graded, by this “gravity” or the lack thereof that Das holds so precious. Would she, by her logic, argue that marital rape was less “grave” than other rapes? Probably not, because her argument is for me, verbal gymnastics aside, that one must reach a certain level of brutalization to be “grave”. In an aside, but not really — Das has the audacity to call those not maintaining a silence of Farooqui and supporting the complainant a “lynch mob.” I don’t know if she’s heard enough about lynch mobs — they have a long and gory history, of black people being lynched in the United States, more recent examples that I’m almost certain she remembers, from Dadri — so I’m puzzled why she thinks asking for a rapist to be called a rapist is equivalent to a lynch mob. I’m not going any deeper into the detailed article, because there exists a thorough, point by point take down here, by Amba Azaad, but I’m repeating the bit about grading and gravity because it reflected in Agnes’ interview very sharply.
Some other common threads, before moving onto Agnes and Badhwar — the hand-wringing over how there exists a ‘silence’ — nope, not the usual silence we’d expect in the context of rape, that of silence where there should be condemnations of the rapist by their peers and allied institutions (hey, where’s all those statements by the other Dastango artists who worked with him, except Danish Hussain?), silence when there should be conversations around the structures of sexual assault and the rape culture-driven society, silence when there should be conversations around the silences on trans rape and carceral rape (more on that and how it’s been appropriated and twisted by multiple people) and rape in same sex relationships and rape by the Indian army and rape in occupied Kashmir and marital rape and the naming of Dalit rape survivors but never any naming of the caste of the rapist — but a silence that Dushyant in particular is worried about. This mysterious silence he’s hand-wringing and worried about is the silence around questioning the case and the legal procedures around it and on a bigger scale, in his own words: “ …we are being told that we must accept that every man who is accused of sexual violence is guilty, no questions asked. Express the slightest of doubt and you are accused of vilifying the victim and approving sexual violence. We don’t want to be accused of doing this. Hence, the silence.” This is a very serious response I’m trying to write right now and it’s a very depressing issue, but come on, I’m almost — almost — laughing. There’s a silence that tells you believe the complainant? Are you serious? Every rape case, without question, comes with murmurs. False rape percentages. Victim blaming. Shaming. Pressure. People feeling free to rip apart the lives of complainants looking for ways to discredit them. Dushyant presents himself — and “many of us [them]”
— as people bravely trying to fight this silence, trying to challenge “the narrative.” He also the the frank audacity to put MRAs who disbelieve complainants (you don’t need to go as far as MRAs. Really) on a spectrum, with the “other end” being people who unquestioningly believe complainants. And unfortunately, due to this rather militant, mean, vicious group, people have to stay “silent” and not question rape cases and the veracity of them. Hw ends with the favourite flourish of those faced by the realities of their sexism, casteism, racism, ableism, and those faced by resistant voices against these marginalizations — “ Oppression cannot be fought with a different kind of oppression.” Honestly, how many times have we heard this? The magnificent, irrefutable, clinching argument. Feminists are told their vocal opposition to sexism is just reverse sexism. Dalit bahujan adivasi assertion is labelled as reverse casteism. For this writer, and many others, believing the complainant, creating a space of support in a traumatic time, instead of sitting on the fence, is oppression. He even throws in a reassuring sentence for those of who might want to think of this piece as sexist garbage — “every woman who makes an accusation of rape may not be lying.” Thanks, dear writer.
The Manisha Sethi piece is a more legal and technical one, but one that comes off as rape apologia just the same — but two basic points. One, a factual inaccuracy, worse, a twisting of words that Mario da Penha has pointed out already. It is deeply unethical to leave out and twist the words of a complainant in order to prove your point. By leaving out something so vital, she finds support in order to build her argument that the complainant gave consent, which is a very well-known and oft-used strategy in order to cast doubt on the complainant and derail cases altogether.
Second, Sethi does not debate on the definitions of rape and the questions that the other writers have chosen to pursue with abandon, but she does something equally dangerous — she tries to turn this whole argument into one of ‘carceral feminism.’ Throughout these four pieces, it appears to be a pattern to use and extract certain concepts in order to misuse them and label support for this conviction as misguided. Carceral feminism is a vital aspect of examining feminism, its relationship to law, the prison industrial complex, militarization, the question of deterrence, etc. Sethi, right at the end of her article, brings up the concepts of carceral feminism “and its unspoken alliance with a punitive state.” The problem isn’t a critique of carceral feminism — it’s a very, valuable critique that must be deployed, in a rejection of the death penalty and horrific demands like chemical castration in India, in a rejection of the idea that increased punishment deters those who commit crime and limits crime, and in understanding the complicated relationship of social justice and the law, in how we govern and organize our societies and how we conceptualize being ‘safe’ or how we conceptualize taking the wrongs done to us — crime committed against us or those around us, or those very far from us — to a state that is in no means honourable, or in any way detached from the society it seeks to govern. Ironically, it was Flavia Agnes that I first read on how relying on the law (harsher, stricter, more and more vigilant) to find justice in our lives would not be an easy relationship, back in 2013.
I’ve read my Angela Davis. We’ve voiced our concerns about police states, about living in one, we’ve thought about what it means to ask for punishment, for convictions, we’ve worked in our heads and in our communities about the web of neoliberalism, policing, and marginalized people, and how turning to a police state does not do us the favours we’ve been told it will. We’ve wondered how that works in relationship to our own traumas. But you do not get to appropriate carceral feminism, a useful and vital critique, and pivot it off this case in order to delegitimize the demands of the complainant when she’s dealing with a powerful, influential man who raped her, when there might be an appeal, when people will constantly murmur around her, about her emails, try to recreate the case in their heads in order to fit the narratives of their choice. What would you have the complainant do, living as we do, functioning in complicated relationships to the very things we oppose, protesting against the very exploitative structures that we sometimes lean on for whatever brittle support we have access to in absence of other institutions?
Finally — to the truly fascinating piece that made me write this in the first place. I saw the piece when it was shared on a small Twitter group of women I have never met, but learn from, each time we converse or leave a stray link in the chat. I then sent it to my closest friend. I wished we didn’t have to read it in the first place — have fears and bad experiences harshly thrown back at us from the mouth of someone who was once described to me in a women’s studies as class as one of the rare people in the women’s movement who’s a lawyer. I quickly learnt, over online networks and by listening to more people, that she wasn’t some lone, bright shiny star as I’d been taught, but that there existed several women lawyers who were all around me to learn from, including the inspirational Kiruba Munusamy (who also wrote about the sexist and caste hate speech she received online recently).
The problems with the piece — and there are many — aren’t just about the issues that have been previously raised, of more fence-sitting in the name of nuance, and the egregious claim that forced oral sex (doesn’t call it rape) just isn’t as horrific as a gang rape, etc. It’s the tone of the interview, and the interviewer as well, in this case. Badhwar asks leading question after leading question — about false rape charges, about “inconsistencies” in the case that she does not care to expand upon, about “checks” for those who have been falsely accused, about “media hype”, about the same kind of how-to-speak-without-being-called-anti-feminist hand-wringing tone that the piece by Dushyant had — it just doesn’t end.
The plan behind the interview is very clear, and the entire interview is structured in a way that Agnes answers question after question, hand-wringing in turn about “human rights” not being violated at the expense of “gender justice” (what even?), murmuring about “miscarriage of justice” and “nuance.” This interview comes off as an elaborate performance, where one can almost imagine both of them nodding, faux-concerned about all the human rights that are being violated as women demand too much gender justice. The question by Badhwar about false rape cases is just precisely set out to let a thousand sexist trolls breath a happy sigh of relief as both knowledgeable interviewer and wonderful lawyer and activist focus on all the false rape cases and the possibilities of false rape cases instead of having a conversation, as it could’ve been had, about rape, the complexities of taking a case of sexual assault to court, the silence (not the draconian-feminist-enforced-kind) of the people who make up the communities, professional or personal, of the rapists. There is no such conversation. Instead, where it goes, most horrifically, is how “one an extremely brutal gang-rape and murder by strangers and the other, non-penetrative sexual abuse by a known person, which earlier would come within the scope of molestation where the maximum punishment was two years.” Why the referral to known person? Does knowing someone reduce the “gravity” of the rape? Last I checked, that wasn’t true. Is Agnes too, sticking to the preferred narrative of the rape-more-horrific, rape-more-visible, that of strange men, other men, men you do not know, as the narrative that carries more weight in her mind? Why the reference to how it would’ve come under the scope of molestation? Or under the sentencing of two years? The case is being discussed under the new law, and even if this case had happened before the amendment, I would expect Agnes to not approve of differential sentencing —automatically categorizing and treating some forms of rape as more grievous or violent than others. This appears to not be true, because they refer to “molestation” and how this would’ve fallen under molestation without attempting to criticize this kind of false dichotomy.
This isn’t even a conversation about carceral feminism. This is a conversation between Badhwar and Agnes about how “forced oral sex” and the trauma associated with it ranks less heavy, less important, less vital to the conversation around rape. They forget, or they choose to ignore, that their categorizations are not new. They invoke December 2012. They think that by telling women that their sexual assault isn’t as grievous, as heinous, as awful, when pitted against another case, they’re making a startling new accusation. They’re wrong. These are familiar words.
She makes more such statements. “At the same time, there needs to be a space where distinctions about the amount of coercion used, the extent of physical injury and the nuances of age and ability of the victim are taken into account and spoken about.” The amount of coercion used? I was not aware coercion was measured this way. I don’t think this part even needs a rebuttal — how does one measure coercion in terms like this? Is she, like Sethi did, going to muddy the waters around consent and how much consent and whether worse still, try to imagine situations where “less” coercion (what does that look like? Coercion is a powerful force that works in many, many manipulative and often insidious ways. How would you quantify it?) will garner less punishment? Some coercion only adds up to little sexual assault?
The extent of physical injury. The nuances of age? The nuances of ability? Is Agnes telling us convictions and sentencing should be handed out by examining how old or young a victim is (unless she’s speaking about child sexual abuse under POCSO, which has a different minimum sentencing; she mentions POCSO earlier, but merely mentions age here)? Agnes fails to explain any of these terms — the interview and its shoddy questions and its eagerness to move onto the next conspiratorial point fails to ask of Agnes what she means by such generalizing statements that effectively indicate that rape ought to be measured by the person and the the nature of the survivor as well? Isn’t that already continuously being put in place by the vicious discourses rape culture creates?
She even fails to make her stand on marital rape clear — for someone who has worked on it legally and in her organisation for the better part of her career, her answer remains fuzzy (again with a leading question of what the “considerations” would be if marital rape were to be recognized as rape, instead of the interviewer even pointing towards that it should be recognized as rape). She argues that the media tries to push towards showing women who are raped (she calls it “sexually violated”) in their marriages having no recourse in order to include marital rape under 376, and how this would mean including rape in its widest definition on a higher pedestal than domestic violence. This has not been the argument of the feminists who wish to include marital rape in Article 376. Nobody wants to ‘replace’ or include violence ‘under’ rape — marital rape must be recognized because precisely how violence occurs within marriages, and is recognized as a crime, rape too occurs, and must be recognized as a crime. Agnes instead argues that rape in marriage already would figure under 498A (cruelty to wives) — which she has also previously argued, saying that women could file cases of marital rape under that section instead, because “In some cases, the wife who is facing abuse may not want a divorce, she may want a roof over her head. Criminalising does not give her this relief.” I’m no law student, but 498A does not specify sexual abuse or rape — only physical or mental violence etc. — and for her in the current interview to reduce the fight for a separate marital rape law to feminists considering rape to be worse than death and functioning on a “warped logic” is a continuation of the condescending tone of the rest of the interview.
The interview, like almost every other piece on the Farooqui case, has a nice, humanizing, approachable photograph of Farooqui. In his home environment, or a close-up. We all know what kind of gory photos or sketches rape complainants get to be represented via in media outlets. The interview calls him an “accused”, apparently ignoring his conviction. The introduction says he performed “forced oral sex” — rape doesn’t seem to be a word they’re interested in using.
I wonder how all the people in these series of pieces (editors, writers, interviewers) who deny that they know the rapist, or sympathize with him, or are apologizing for his actions think about how rape complainants are figured in these series of write ups. They are sized up — and Agnes even wishes to size them up for the level of coercion they were under, their age, their ability/disability, the kind of sexual violence inflicted upon them — for potential false rape charges, for their complicity with carceral feminism, for the oppressive silence they force onto the daring progressive people who want to ask “which side are you on?”, for their desire that the crimes committed against them be considered equally, not stacked and measured for how appropriate they are for public consumption.
Before Agnes starts talking about the level of coercion argument, she says “It is a feminist principle to support and demand justice for all victims of sexual assault, irrespective of the degree of bodily violation.” Where does this principle vanish? How does this principle morph into a victim-blaming, gaslighting piece that very visibly, using the guise of “nuance”, dehumanizes not only those who have had to face sexual assault, but also those who have consistently been told their trauma is illegitimate and invalid and takes up too much space?
Finally — continuing the theme of twisting words and arguments made by feminists themselves to suit her needs in this interview, Agnes says: “I also do not believe that only when the accused is given maximum punishment is the victim able to overcome the trauma of rape. It is necessary to delink the two. In some of the violent cases we have had experience in dealing with, the police are not able to detect the rapist or there isn’t enough evidence to convict. Does this mean that these women will never overcome the trauma of rape?” The callous question is enough to tell us a great deal about what this interview was mean to be — women “overcome” trauma (whatever that means, overcoming, getting over…) or maybe they never do — that’s how rape culture functions, that’s how trauma works. Whether the law — imperfect, unfair, incomplete — works, exists, or fails, trauma does not come with a neat expiry date, and is not accorded out to people in the shape of what the law decides is appropriate. Arguments that several people have made over the years — against the police state, against the caste, class and Islamophobic biases of imprisonment, against harsher punishment, against the death penalty — are being deployed against the very people who have made these arguments in order to ask, Won’t you get over your trauma if the law fails? Won’t you get over you trauma if the law doesn’t exist? Won’t you get over your trauma if we all fail to support a gender neutral rape law? Won’t you get over your trauma if we stay silent on our friends and comrades and colleagues, because we don’t believe you? Why hold onto it? Why tell us how much your trauma weighs?