CANBERRA - The volatile mix of gender-identity politics and sexual violence has rocked the Western world since Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. It could spread to Japan in due course. India provides a salutary example of the dangers of the woke slogan, “We believe her,” and the backlash it spawned.
The worst Group of 20 country for women, India has a grave problem of sexual violence against women, girls and boys. In December 2012, it was rocked by the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi. Responding to the revulsion that swept the land, the government created special courts to fast-track sexual assault cases, toughened punishment for sex crimes and lifted due process safeguards for alleged offenders.
The last is open to wide abuse. Laws that promote gender equality are contradicted by others that infantilize women in sexual relationships as passive victims without agency. Official statistics show that in 26 percent of the 38,947 rape cases in 2016, rape was alleged because of false promise of marriage. The women had consensual sex in the belief that marriage would follow.
The intellectually lazy phrase “toxic masculinity” contributes to the generalized demonization of all men. In “Free Women, Free Men” (2018), Camille Paglia attacks feminist theory’s failure “to acknowledge the enormous care that most men have provided to women and children.”
In revenge feminism, men have responsibilities while women have rights. It is OK to probe a man’s background to establish a pattern of predatory behavior. But a similar check of an accuser’s history is “slut-shaming.” Where a couple spend a night together, if both are sober, he bears sole responsibility for clearly ensuring she has consented. Otherwise, years later, she might complain he failed to pick up non-verbal cues that meant “no,” her confidentiality will be maintained, his identity will be public, and he will be vilified. He alone has full responsibility if: He is sober and she is drunk, both are drunk, he is drunk and she is sober.
In mirror-image misogyny, if she is drunk, she’s at fault; if he’s drunk, it’s excusable because boys will be boys. Both versions are wrong.
#MeToo puts women beyond and above the law, privileging social media over institutional routes like police and courts to ensure accountability and justice. If the accused men seek legal redress through defamation suits, it’s described as backlash. Clearly, men whose reputations, careers, families and lives have been destroyed should suck it up, even if the allegations are false.
Today the stigma attached to a rapist is deeper than to a victim but rarely distinguishes allegation from conviction. Basic natural justice demands that the accused should have the same right to anonymity as the complainant, as in Ireland. The rapist’s identity should be revealed only after conviction. If the complaint is proven to be false, only her identify should be revealed and she should be subject to a penalty that matches what would have been meted out to the accused if found guilty.
Why should India’s Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi have his name forever asterisked in history books, while his accuser hides behind anonymity? His case came on the heels of the failed effort to derail the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court despite not a scintilla of evidence to back up the charges of a sexual assault dating back several decades, many holes and inconsistencies in the accuser’s testimony, and outright contradictions of some claims by the few independent witnesses who were contacted.
The imbalances in stigma, one-sided shield of anonymity and leniency toward false complaints is an incentive to extortion. The public charge and legal process become severe punishment before any trial is begun and concluded. Some Indian courts have come down harshly in cases where rape and sexual assault laws, with a presumption of male guilt, have been weaponized for blackmail/extortion. On May 10, a court in Rohtak, Haryana, ordered the police to file a case against a woman who was a serial extortionist, demanding money under the threat of filing rape cases.
Other courts, many involving women judges, have concluded that the law is often abused to pursue a vendetta when a relationship ruptures without a “happily ever after” fairy tale ending. Also, India remains a deeply patriarchal society in which women can be coerced by male family members to launch false claims of attempted rape as a means of settling scores or property disputes.
The case of actor Karan Oberoi is a good example of the systemic pathology. A former lover complained of rape and extortion. He was arrested before any investigation and named, she was not. On June 17, she was arrested and charged with filing a false complaint and orchestrating an attack on herself on May 25 to keep him in custody. He said she had obsessed about and stalked him, and electronic evidence would back his version. On June 7, a female justice of the Bombay High Court queried why the police waited a month before seizing the complainant’s phone to evaluate her communications with Oberoi. He was refused bail during that period.
Oberoi’s actress friend Pooja Bedi began a #MenToo movement to demand gender-neutral laws and investigative procedures, just like Australian social commentator Bettina Arndt has written a book with the same title. On May 14, protestors in Delhi demanded equal treatment for men and women in sexual assault cases, for example by ensuring anonymity of all parties until a case is concluded. Another protest on May 20 demanded justice for victims of false accusations of rape.
During the Kavanaugh hearings, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s little-girl voice and persona of confused innocence was interpreted differently. To empathetic supporters, it was compelling evidence of deep trauma. To skeptics, it was synthetic drama from an accomplished professional psychologist skillfully manipulating the U.S. Senate and national TV audience. Absent follow-up rigorous checks by the FBI for corroboration or refutation, the bitter partisan divide will remain.
Some feminist theorists are now finding themselves targets of physical assaults and social media mob bullying for trying to protect hard-won women’s rights to gender-specific safe spaces against transgender activism. Online comments betray unmistakable schadenfreude that rules and tactics deployed against males have been turned on revenge feminists.
The lesson is to privilege fact-finding and evidence over gender, put faith in a due process-centered rule of law over mob rule, reaffirm presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and promote even-handed equality through gender-neutral (and race-, religion-, and caste-neutral) laws and procedures.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.