The conversation India refuses to have

Accused of a crime that carries the death penalty, the woman will not reveal her truth. She is too ashamed to say that her husband, an upstanding, respected lawyer, used to rape her.

Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors is a fictional show. But its central theme is all too real for hundreds of thousands of women, opening up a conversation on marital rape that India refuses to have.

For all its flaws — too many digressions, an ending that’s too neat — I watched all eight episodes of the show that debuted on HotStar with interest. By week two, 9.9 million people had watched it.

It takes courage to push a conversation that evokes almost zero public sympathy in an audience that is inclined to believe that consent has no place on the marital bed. A proudly liberal male lawyer once said: “You cannot have the law in the bedroom.”

But the law is already in the bedroom. Much of domestic violence takes place behind closed doors. In seven states, more than a quarter of married women have experienced it, according to the National Family Health Survey 2019-20. If there’s no data for marital rape, it is because India, like 36 other countries, does not consider it a crime.

We have a pretty good idea of how bad it is. In 2013, a United Nations survey found that a quarter of 10,000 men in six Asia Pacific countries, including India, said they had raped a female partner. Also, in 2013, Ashish Gupta of Rice Institute, a non-profit, found that the number of women who experienced sexual violence by husbands was 40 times that of women who experienced it from non-intimate perpetrators.

Yet, our lawmakers insist that marriage is a “sacrament” and the concept of marital rape goes against our culture.

If culture is a reason to not legislate against marital rape, then here is popular culture presenting a point of view without ambiguity, treating abuse as something that is complex, layered and committed by the “best” of us.

“Times are changing,” Apurva Asrani, the show’s writer whose past work has included the stereotype-smashing Aligarh, told me. “This show is positioned for an audience that doesn’t talk about these issues.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that women are not the property of men (the Joseph Shine judgment on adultery). As far back as early 2013, the Justice JS Verma Commission had recommended the criminalisation of marital rape. For women like the protagonist in the show, Anu Chandra, rape by a husband represents not just the breaking of trust but a denial of her identity, autonomy and right to say no.

In the past few years, India has broken traditional silences on sexual abuse, on consent, and on the rights of sexual minorities. It’s time to break another traditional silence.

A popular show might have just begun that conversation.

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