Ground Reports

“I’m Your Husband, You Owe me Your Body”: Marital Rape Survivors on What Their Rapists Told Them

“Kabhi kabhi main sochti hoon…mere saath zor-zabardasti hui hai. Kisine mera rape kiya hai. Mujhe yakeen nahi hota.”

“Sometimes, I think…I was taken by force. Someone raped me. I can’t believe it.”


By Urmi Bhattacheryya, 26 Jan 2022


It has taken *Namrata a long time to get here, both physically and figuratively, to this exact spot, this infinitesimal moment in time. Physically – in a quiet one-bedroom house in Ghaziabad, at least two hours from her erstwhile home where she lived with a husband and his family. Figuratively – in a state of utter, crushing clarity, able to know and to articulate to a stranger that her husband (still, her husband) raped her. Not once, many, many times.

When Namrata says this, she sounds almost incredulous. Her voice is soft, but sure – the incredulity intersperses our conversation, in the way she quotes having asked her husband in the moments right after he would rape her, after he had pinned her half-asleep form: how can you do this? How can you do such a thing to me?

Namrata, 21 now, 19 then, who had been arranged married at her father’s behest to this man in Faridabad, was bewildered in those eight months, she says. “We lived on the first floor, my husband and I. In the early days, when I was still naïve after I had received a beating from him or he’d assaulted me the previous night, I would rush downstairs to involve his parents. Once my father-in-law told me in irritation, ‘there’s no need to keep coming downstairs to us. Just solve this upstairs, behind closed doors.”

What the Law Says – or Doesn’t

He may or may not have known this, but Namrata’s father-in-law’s stoic disregard almost uncannily mirrors the predominant and historic narrative of India’s courts and governments on marital rape. This came to the fore again in January 2022 when the Delhi High Court heard a slew of petitions pending before it for years, on one single issue: the removal of the exception to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Section 375 cogently defines and criminalises rape perpetrated against a woman – with the exception that “sexual intercourse of a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” (emphasis own). (In a 2017 judgement, the Supreme Court read down the exception ONLY to the extent of amending the age to 18, aka, criminalising a husband’s rape of his minor wife.)

A bench of justices Rajiv Shakdher and C Hari Shankar heard final arguments in PILs filed by NGOs RIT Foundation, All India Democratic Women’s Association and two individual petitioners on removing the exception. The Delhi government, when asked to present its case, countered that marital rape was treated as a “crime of cruelty” in India – aka, under existing laws such as Section 498A of the IPC or the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (which treats marital rape as a civil offence and not a criminal one).

The union govt then went on to submit a hurried affidavit in response to these petitions, stating it would have to first consult with all stakeholders (chief ministers, Bar Council, et al) before it could decide on “yes or no”, as asked by the court.

This, in addition to an affidavit it had already filed in 2017, tells the court that marital rape should not become an “easy tool for harassing the husbands.”

In the recent past, ministers galore have stood up proudly and peremptorily to denounce any trauma over the violation of consent and the bewildering loss of sense of self of a marital rape survivor, and insisted on the idea of “marriage as a sacrament”. Is it any wonder then, a 21-year-old rape survivor’s septuagenarian father-in-law mirrors this back to her?

A Constant, Continuous Taking Against Her Will

Namrata remembers the sexual assault between the months of February and November in 2019 (the period during which she lived with her husband) as a blurred kaleidoscope of angry images. It started because of money, she says. “He had told my father he’d like to build a house for the two of us and wanted my family to give it to him. But my father couldn’t afford that much. Gradually, the torment started.”

Eventually, that beating would be followed by cups of tea or shared dinners that she thinks were laced with sedatives. What makes her think that I ask. Namrata murmurs that she would wake up in the middle of the afternoon with his weight on top, and him forcing himself on her. “I wasn’t in much of a state to fight back and after he would be done, I’d ask over and over – how could you do that?”

Once, she mustered up the courage to tell her mother – “I couldn’t tell anyone else. I was so embarrassed.” She remembers her mother hurriedly looking away at the mention of ‘force’ and telling her daughter that she couldn’t intervene; “You’re married,” she had demurred.

21-year-old *Rewa was greeted with a similar degree of discomfiture and toxic acceptance of her rape. Rewa’s pain is fresh, festering to the touch (she left her husband’s home in December 2021) and she still breaks down every few sentences in indignation and rage. “We actually met when we were both in the 8th standard. He lived in the neighbourhood and had told me had a crush on me when we were young.”

Rewa’s own feelings which she describes as platonic in the beginning transitioned to romance by the time she was in college and when he proposed marriage, she said yes. “My father was a fruit-seller and he died when I was a child. I am the youngest of four sisters and a brother and I was always encouraged to make something of myself. In the beginning, it seemed like he understood that.”

Rewa says her mother disapproved stoutly because her then-fiance had been seen with miscreants in the area and drinking and smoking. “She warned me that nothing good would come of it and then threw me out of the house.” The duo married in a court and was accepted into the household of her now-husband. “I was distressed at the very outset, however, because the moment I entered, his grandmother threw a fit and left the house.

We’re from different castes – and she didn’t want me anywhere near her,” Rewa recalls bitterly. The grandmother was eventually convinced to return but it was only the beginning of Rewa’s woes.

“She would make things hard for me all the time. She’d refuse to let me touch her food or serve her meals – yet insist that I massage her calves,” the young survivor recalls of the caste discrimination she was subjected to in a home where no one volunteered a word.

Eventually, her husband, who had once seemed so supportive, turned irritable, hitting her in turns in front of the family whenever a squabble broke out. Rewa’s bewilderment at this public humiliation would continue behind closed doors when he would start to touch her as she slept.

“Even if we had just had a fight and I was saying no, he would blackmail me emotionally. ‘Aren’t I your husband, don’t I deserve this?’ he’d demand. Somehow, he always made it seem like he had had to punch me because of what I’d said or done, and that my only atonement would be to let him force himself on me.”

In the two years that Rewa stayed married to him, she claims she had four abortions because he wouldn’t use protection despite her begging him to. “He flatly refused. It took a toll on my body. My periods got late and I developed UTIs all the time. When I’d ask him to take me to a doctor, he would get scared and buy me OTC pills from a pharmacy instead.”

One day, in the midst of a pandemonium between Rewa and her husband’s grandmother, she claims he boxed her ears and demanded she calls her estranged mother and tells her she was leaving of her own volition. “I told him I would only leave once I’d told everyone else the truth. Since then, the nights got even worse.

One night, he gagged my mouth, penetrated me and came inside me. He said, ‘I will rape you as long as you are here. You will only be submissive until you’re pregnant. Until you leave or divorce me, this body is mine’.”

The casual indifference with which the bodies of the two married women I spoke to were treated, the mockery made of their consent and the presumption of their husbands’ bodily autonomy over their sexual agencies seem to run like a thread between Namrata and Rewa, who have never met and who are united in grief that can have no legal nomenclature.

How did they leave? I ask the two of them when we speak. Namrata claims she tried for months. “I found a phone number for an NGO called Shakti Shalini off a YouTube video. When I called them, they urged me to call the police. It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried before – but every time I dialled 100, a policeman would say, ‘You’ve only just got married. Don’t call us about these things, instead work on your marriage’.

One day, after he locked me inside the room, I finally called the cops again, this time urging them to come to the house. When they did and they looked at us, laughed and said, ‘You look fine. Why are you wasting our time?’ When I told them about the multiple rapes, they said, ‘he is your husband.’”

To me, she says, “Just because he was my husband, how can he do such a thing to me? He was a monster when he raped me. When I thought about this, I realised that I had been raped multiple times.”

Echoes Rewa, “My body has rights. How can he not understand this? How could the Constitution not protect me?” She cries as she recalls calling Shakti Shalini herself and being urged to leave and then take refuge in their shelter home for women. Much of her palpable grief is filtered through rage. “I feel angry that he will never be punished. His relatives don’t know, his family doesn’t know. My last abortion was only a month ago.

This works out very well for him. He will get a divorce from me, remarry and should his next wife say no, continue to rape her too without consequences. But what of me? Nobody will ever know he did something wrong!”

Namrata’s words too are rife with quiet disillusionment: she makes no bones about the fact that she knows he is a criminal. “When he first started raping me, I was never confused about the fact that this was wrong. What I didn’t know was, that there was no law. He doesn’t look at himself that way – that he has raped someone. Woh sochta hai, maine jo kiya apne haq se kiya (he thinks, whatever I did I did because I was entitled to it)…because that’s how the courts, society make him feel.

I hate that he is roaming free – that someday he might think he could do the same thing to another woman without consequences because I couldn’t bring any consequences upon him either.”

“He Would Make me a Cup of Tea Afterwards”

Dolly Singh, coordinator and counsellor at Shakti Shalini, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation that aims to eradicate gender-based violence through grassroots measures such as campaigns and immediate refuge through shelter homes, weighs in on the grief of carrying this burden – of never seeing society legitimise your rape. “When a survivor goes into legal counselling and realises there is no law to harness, they go quiet in shock.

Once they’re willing, we ensure that the crime at least makes it into FIRs. Even if there is no Section that deals with it, we insist that the survivor mention the rape when filing a case for domestic violence under Section 498A, Section 304B or PWDVA 2005 so that it is in writing. We can only get people to take marital rape seriously when we talk about it enough.”

One of the biggest challenges, she contends, is getting a survivor of marital rape to even open up about that aspect of violence when she seeks help. “The story is hidden somewhere deep beneath her accounts of beatings and torment. Once you’re past the stigma and shame, they’ll tell you they were also raped. That’s because their families always told them that whatever happened to them was supposed to happen between a husband and wife.”

That leads to survivors of marital rape occasionally being unable to distinguish between their own rape and the one perpetrated by strangers – the one they read, hear about, that sounds all too familiar and is given legal credence. “In their minds, marital rape has been filtered into a different category,” says Singh.

It isn’t just marital partners, in fact, that have trouble reporting their rape, she asserts; that difficulty is faced also by women who report relationship or non-marital, partner rape, even though the latter is included under relevant sections of law related to sexual violence.

“Usually, the cops laugh them out of police stations. They are told things like, ‘itni jaldi kya thi? Shaadi tak intezaar kar leti (what was the rush? You could have waited till you were married)’. They are blamed for having lived with the person, for not knowing better. It is very, very hard to get an FIR filed in the first instance.”

*Vouchsafes Panchal, a 37-year-old woman who lives in Kolkata and today, runs a gamut of sexual abuse awareness campaigns across the city and pan-India. “My abusive relationship lasted for two and a half years when I was between the ages of 14 and 16 and a half. He was much, much older – 27. At the time, there was no POCSO.” (The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, which protects minors from adult offenders, came into effect in 2012.)

Panchali recalls graphic, visceral things about him, like how much bigger he was in size to her (“he would grab my neck and hold me against an almirah”) and how large his hands were (“he used to clench my hair when he sexually assaulted me. I am still uncomfortable about people holding my hair or touching me, in general”).

Panchali recalls long-lasting instances of sexual abuse when her adult abuser would demand dates and how, if she showed up late, he would slap her a few times and then force himself on her. “He’d always make me a cup of tea afterwards, as if that was how the cycle should end.” She recalls how she would blame herself – and eventually self-harm – because after a while, “I would just stop struggling.”

Her rapist would also, she claims, use memories of her sexual abuse as an 8-year-old child as sway over her, asking her if she’d “liked it” and whether they could “reenact moments”. “What I rue is that despite all my privilege, I didn’t feel like I had the power to lodge a complaint or believe that he’d be punished. I knew that once a case was filed, it would not be fast-tracked. I was also very sketchy on the idea of ‘court-admissible evidence’ at the time, I was only 16.

I was told by a legal professional, ‘You have to let him rape you on camera. Otherwise, how will you prove it in a court of law’?”

As we speak about avenues for legal recourse today, Panchali reiterates what Dolly Singh in another city, on another case has told me: “The word ‘assault’ is taboo in relationships. Usne mujhe maara, peeta – but not rape. Men needed to be educated on consent because no matter how woke some of them may be, many believe, ‘she’s my girlfriend, of course, she wants to have sex’.”

Like Namrata and Rewa before her, Panchali too ruminates on carrying the burden of a rape she could never report – and its psychological aftermath, more than 20 years later. “I would be an angrier person today if I couldn’t share this experience right now, but that’s not the case. I know where he lives that he is married and that he will never get punished for this. But I hope he dies a slow, painful death.”

Her words remind me of something Rewa said when we spoke a fortnight after her fourth abortion when she’d begun a new life at Shakti Shalini, overcome by a sense of injustice-ridden loss. “He’d convince me each time he’d rape me that he loved me. It took me a while to recognise this wasn’t love. A couple of nights ago, I saw him in a dream – he was pleading with me and saying he would die without me. You should die, then, I told him.”

*Names of survivors changed.

 

Urmi Bhattacheryya is an independent journalist. She is the author of the book, After I Was Raped, published by Pan Macmillan. Urmi tweets @UBhattacheryya