The lie of ‘lying’ women, and why there is a long way to go – The Economic Times

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SynopsisWhile celebrating this verdict, one must be mindful that this was an acquittal in the case of criminal defamation where a victim of sexual harassment had to mount a defence that she was telling the truth to avoid punishment.

The verdict in the ‘Mobashar Jawed Akbar Vs Priya Ramani’ case acquitting Ramani has been widely lauded. This case was filed in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and about 20 women had spoken out naming Akbar in a range of sexual harassment charges that have been documented extensively. In this case, Ramani was accused by Akbar of criminal defamation under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which if she had been found guilty of, carried a punishment of up to two years’ imprisonment, or fine, or both.

The charge of criminal defamation has been widely recognised to be a feature of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). According to a July 2020 International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) report, ‘SLAPPs in the Global South’, ‘SLAPP’ describes the use of lawsuits, usually by a party with superior resources, leveraging the risks and costs of litigation to discourage criticism or opposition, often targeting activists, journalists and community members, including as retaliation against sexual misconduct allegations.

The case centred around the combined reading of Ramani’s October 2017 article in Vogue, ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World’, that does not name anyone, with a later tweet that identified Akbar as the person referred to in opening of the essay. Akbar alleged that this article was defamatory, and Ramani’s defence was that this article was published for public good regarding a true incident, and that her identification of Akbar was restricted to a particular portion of the article, with the remainder of the essay referring to the generic behaviour of male bosses named in the #MeToo movement.

Finding the article defamatory, the judge rejected Ramani’s defence by stating that the article itself ‘finds no mention regarding the clarification and marking distinction that particular portion of the article pertains to the complainant and other portion pertains to other male bosses in general’. This is curious, since the article in question interlaces a personal narrative with the larger political reality of the #MeToo movement that women around the world had been participating in.

Feminist scholarship has long recognised the role of women’s personal narratives in theorising social reality as a critical method to ‘make visible formerly invisible subjects’. Scholars have also positioned such autobiographical writing as situated at the intersection of human agency and social structure.

The incongruity of subjecting such a personal narrative to the clinical standards of criminal jurisprudence without the contextual reading of the essay seems to have escaped the court’s wisdom. This reveals the stark need for courts to be informed of feminist scholarship and its relevance to legal jurisprudence in the interpretation and application of law.

Yet, this is a critical judgment owing to its correct approach to understanding gendered violence. In many ways, it is a vindication of the #MeToo movement. In its recognition of the structural and systematic nature of sexual abuse and sexual harassment against women — as well as the acknowledgement of trauma and shame victims undergo due to societal stigma that operates to silence victims — this judgment displays an understanding of deeply prevalent gendered imbalance of power in society.

Through his comments acknowledging that ‘publicly’ well-reputed men can be cruel and abusive in private behind closed doors, and that an abuser is ‘just like any other person… [with] family and friends’, the judge dismantles the long-persisting patriarchal myths about the nature of sexual violence, and its perpetrators, often constructed as ‘dangerous outsiders’, rather than from those ‘well-regarded’ in society. Through this line of reasoning, the judge found that the case for criminal defamation is not made and acquitted Ramani.

But in holding that a man’s right to reputation cannot be protected at the expense of a woman’s right to life and dignity under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, affirming her right to put her grievances forward on ‘any platform of her choice’, irrespective of the passage of time, judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey has produced a feminist judgment that chips away at the edifice of the androcentric criminal justice system.

This case embodied at its core a fundamental, patriarchal anxiety that pervades ‘phallocentric’ criminal jurisprudence involving sexual violence against women and how it hedges against the figure of the ‘lying woman’. Owing to the nature of sexual violence and difficulties in proving such cases, the central preoccupation of criminal law is often posited as that of the man who claims a ‘stellar’ reputation, unjustly besmirched by the ‘false, derogatory and malicious’ woman.

Drawing on her ethnographic work, in her 2013 book, Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India, sociologist and legal scholar Pratiksha Baxi examines the history of medico-legal jurisprudence and notes the ‘medicalisation of falsity’ in cases of sexual violence. This presupposes that women routinely lie about sexual violence and, thereby, ‘medico-legal evidence becomes a primary mode through which the defence cross-examines victims, reinforcing the idea that women in India often bring “false charges” of rape’.

So, while celebrating this verdict, one must be mindful that this was an acquittal in the case of criminal defamation where a victim of sexual harassment had to mount a defence that she was telling the truth to avoid punishment. There is a long way to go. And this verdict was a necessary step in that direction.

The writer is research fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi

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