The Supreme Court has unambiguously stated a tenet of justice that would not need reiterating in an equal society: a rapist cannot be let off the hook by a court if he offers to marry the woman he has assaulted. “There cannot be a compromise,” the learned judge said, “as it would be against the victim’s honour, which matters the most.” Last week, a Madras High Court judge had ordered just such a dubious mediation between a man convicted of raping a 14-year-old — without so much as asking the woman’s consent. That judgment, which pleaded that the rapist be made a “free man” so that he could set the terms of compromise with the woman, who, poor woman, was “nobody’s wife”, was shocking in its patriarchal blindness. The SC order on Wednesday is a ray of light in this darkness, though one hoped the court would make that argument in terms of the rights and autonomy of a woman, and not ideas of “honour” and “reputation”.
This is not the first time that the highest court has weighed in on the issue. In August 2013, a SC bench had laid down a similar guideline, arguing that the judiciary’s leniency in such cases would lead rapists to arm-twist their victims into “compromises”. But if one were to unpack this “marriage-as-redress-to-rape” argument, it boils down to this: that only a man can determine or give legitimacy to a woman’s sexual identity, even if he is the one to have abused her. It is in line with the belief of a raped woman being a “living corpse”, with few feasible options of an honourable existence. It underlines again how the long, hard struggle of Indian feminism — from the Mathura rape case onwards — has been to make the violation of women, their sense of injury and aggrievement less invisible to the institutions of the state. A society that believes marriage can pay off the assault on a woman’s sexual autonomy does not believe in her sexual autonomy at all.
One only needs to listen to the courageous woman of Tamil Nadu, a teenager when she was raped and now mother to a six-year-old born after the incident, to see it for the canard that it is. She is no zinda laash, but an angry woman, who has called out the Madras HC judgment for trampling on her rights. She has refused any compromise, even if it brings her relief from a hard life. With the SC drawing down a clear line, the lower courts and especially the Madras HC now ought to stop midwifing such settlements, even if they have social sanction. The only mitigation for the crime of rape is justice.