Missing elements in NYTimes marital rape report from India

Missing elements in NYTimes marital rape report from India May 14, 2014

Marriage was a hot topic this week in the Indian press following rulings by two Delhi Courts. The High Court held that apostasy was automatic grounds for granting a divorce under the country’s Muslim Marriage Act, while the Court of Additional Sessions in Delhi ruled that there was no such thing as “marital rape” under Indian civil law and the Hindu Marriage Act.

Religion — in this case the intersection of Hinduism and Islam — played a prominent role in the reporting of the first story. But it was absent from overseas reports on the second. The Hindu reported that a Muslim wife who quits her faith for another may be granted an automatic divorce from her Muslim husband.

A Division Bench of the High Court, rejecting an appeal of one Munavvar-ul-Islam against a decree of a family court in Saket, has held that dissolution of his marriage with Rishu Arora, who first converted to Islam but later reconverted to her original religion, was valid under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939.

“It is an admitted fact that the respondent (Rishu) was initially professing Hinduism and had embraced Islam prior to the marriage, and then reconverted to Hinduism. … The trial court was right in specifying that the marriage stands dissolved from the date on which the respondent apostatised from Islam,” stated the Bench, comprising Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Najmi Waziri, in its 30-page verdict delivered on Friday.

The Indian Express’s lede typifies the interpretation of the ruling.

One’s religious faith is above any law, the Delhi High Court has ruled while granting divorce to a girl who converted to Islam for marriage and then reconverted to her original religion.

The New York Times picked up the marital rape story, running a piece on page A7 of its May 13 print edition entitled: “India: Court Rules That Marital Sex, Even When Forced, Is Not Rape.”

The Times story, which was reprinted by some Indian outlets, comes down on the side of the wife, while other Indian newspapers were skeptical of the claims made in her pleading. The Times wrote:

NEW DELHI — A Delhi court has ruled that sex between a husband and wife, “even if forcible, is not rape.” The judge’s decision, which was made public Saturday, upheld section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which does not recognize “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age,” as rape.

Last October, a Delhi woman filed a complaint against a man she accused of drugging her, abducting her and taking her to Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, to register their marriage. Afterward, she told the court, he raped her.

The judge in the case wrote that there was “no clinching or convincing evidence on record to show that the accused had administered any stupefying substance.” The man accused in the case said that the couple was married in 2011 at the woman’s home in Delhi in the presence of her family, and that they had decided to register with the court only last year on the insistence of the woman. He also said, according to court documents, that the rape complaint was filed by the woman under pressure from her family members, who were not in favor of their marriage.

The Indian Express came down on the side of the husband. Adding these details:

In her statement to police, the girl had claimed that she met the youth in 2013 while working at a coaching centre. She said the youth, along with his father, had given her a drink laced with sedatives, following which she fell unconscious. Thereafter, she claimed, the accused took her to the Registrar’s Office at Ghaziabad and got the marriage documents signed by her, she claimed.

Later, she alleged that the accused raped her and left her with the threat that in case she disclosed the incident to anybody, they would not spare her. The girl also claimed that the accused committed unnatural sex with her on several occasions, following which police charged the accused under sections of poisoning, rape, abduction and unnatural sex.

However, noting that the girl’s statement was “inconsistent”, the court turned down her allegations saying “there is no clinching or convincing evidence on record to show that the accused had administered any stupefying substance to the prosecutrix before taking her to the Ghaziabad court”.

The Times story offers commentary and analysis, including a statement from a human rights lawyer who favors criminalizing marital rape. However no voices of those who oppose the practice are offered. It also makes this observation:

Last March, the Indian Parliament passed a series of amendments to enact stricter penalties for crimes against women but overlooked a longstanding demand by women’s rights activists to make marital rape a crime.

Is it fair to say parliament “overlooked” marital rape when it reformed the country’s rape laws. No. The Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha, debated marital rape and rejected criminalizing it on religious and cultural grounds. As The Wall Street Journal reported last year:

Some legal experts believe the government is reluctant to criminalize marital rape because it would require them to tweak laws based on religious practices, including the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which says a wife is duty-bound to have sex with her husband.

Denying sex, according to traditional Hindu beliefs, goes against the duties of an ideal wife. It is common for courts to grant a divorce on the grounds that a wife denies her husband sexual intercourse. “The wife is unwilling to share the bed and discharge her duties,” the Karnataka High Court said in a judgment last year, adding that this violated sections of the Hindu Marriage Act.

Let me say that I am not — of course — defending marital rape. I agree with the editorial voice of this story. It is the journalistic voice with which I take issue. Not telling the full story, omitting context, robs the reader of understanding.

IMAGE: A Hindu wedding courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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