INTERVIEW

Healing myself: A woman recounts her struggles after a court acquitted the man she accused of rape

US scholar Christine Marrewa Karwoski on her case against theatre personality Mahmood Farooqui and her life since he was exonerated by the Delhi High Court.

There’s been a great deal of talk about sexual violence in the media recently. Much of the time, the spotlight is shone on a particular case when it happens; sometimes, if the case goes to court, the legal proceedings are followed through to their conclusion. But what happens to survivors of sexual violence? Whether or not the law provides justice, what are the demons survivors live with, how do they put their lives back together again, how do they begin the process of healing themselves? What do they have to say when they feel justice has not been served? These are questions that are seldom asked or addressed.

In September 2017, the Delhi High Court overturned the judgment of the Trial Court, which had convicted theatre personality Mahmood Farooqui for rape and acquitted him. The complaint of rape was made by a US Fulbright scholar doing doctoral research in India. The High Court judgement stated, “It remains in doubt as to whether such an incident, as has been narrated by the prosecutrix, took place and if at all it had taken place, it was without the will/consent of the prosecutrix, and if it was without the consent of the prosecutrix, whether the appellant could discern/understand the same,” the court ruled.

The court stated, “Instances of woman behaviour are not unknown that a feeble ‘no’ may mean a ‘yes’. If the parties are strangers, the same theory may not be applied... But same would not be the situation when parties are known to each other, are persons of letters and are intellectually/academically proficient, and if, in the past, there have been physical contacts. In such cases, it would be really difficult to decipher whether little or no resistance and a feeble ‘no’, was actually a denial of consent.”

In January 2018, the Supreme Court dismissed the plea against Farooqui’s acquittal. “We will not interfere with the High Court verdict,” the bench said. “It is a well-decided judgment.”

In this interview, Urvashi Butalia speaks to the survivor in the case, Christine Marrewa Karwoski, who has chosen to make her identity public. “I do not want to feel like I am in hiding because of what someone else did to me. I am proud of what I did to regain control of my life again, no matter how difficult it was. To keep my name hidden makes me feel like I have something to be ashamed of and if I am certain of anything it is that none of the shame is mine.”

It’s been some time now since you took a decision to file a case against someone who was a friend and a sort of mentor to you. It could not have been easy to take that decision – there is so much that is involved there. Could you talk a little about what it was that led to your coming back to India, and taking a step which must have also made you so vulnerable. My reason for asking you this question is not to get a literal answer, but to try and understand, for the many women who go through the sort of experience you’ve had, what it takes in terms of courage, what the costs are, what the person has to deal with.

The decision to press charges against a person is never a onetime event. For me, it was a decision that I had to make repeatedly day after day as pressure to drop the charges surrounded me – some of it even coming from well-meaning people attempting to protect me from further pain. It was a decision that I questioned daily because I was never quite sure if I would have the strength to survive the process. Reliving your trauma time and again to strangers, a necessary requirement of partaking in the judicial system, is – in a way – beyond explanation. It is hard and it is heartbreaking. But in the way of which it breaks you apart, the act of being heard, of having a voice also made me grateful. It allowed me to have hope that I could put myself back together again. It reminded me that I am still alive and able to fight for myself. Of course, I hadn’t anticipated being socially ostracised by groups of people I had considered friends, both in India and America, that was perhaps the most difficult.

What led me to return to India to press charges against Mahmood Farooqui in the beginning was, I suppose, desperation. I was desperate to find my old self again. I had become a ghost of the person I was before my assault, atrophied in both body and mind, and no matter how much my family tried to love me into wellbeing, it wasn’t enough. I needed to tell the truth. I needed to be heard. I needed to regain a feeling of control again in my life. What had been done to me was wrong in so many ways and it had broken me. When I finally came to the realisation that I had to have an active role in my recovery, the only way I ever envisioned that, for myself, was through the courts. I couldn’t look at the faces of my nieces anymore and see how I had deteriorated in their eyes. I wasn’t the brave aunt they once knew, but a depressed child that they felt the need to comfort, and that wasn’t right. I was supposed to be the adult. I was supposed to be the one who was strong and fixed things. In my mind I had no choice but to return to India and press charges. For me it was not only the responsible thing to do, but the only thing that could possibly heal me.

What are the consequences for you, now, of having to live with the results of the judgment? Perhaps I am not phrasing this well, but you must be having to deal with so much, the sense of hurt and betrayal, not only by a man you liked and had affection for, but by a system in which you put your faith, and also a country that you chose to come to and worked in and clearly empathized with. So the betrayal is on many fronts. How do women deal with such complex emotions, how did you deal with it?

In retrospect, I was obviously naive about the potential fallout of coming forward. I really didn’t consider the power dynamics involved in my filing charges. I only saw it as something that needed to be done. Before I had filed, I had full support from many people that I considered friends in India and America who tried to help me through my trauma, but after I filed the FIR reality set in. No one wanted to be associated with a case in which I had accused such a highly regarded and professionally accomplished man/person of raping me. I understand now how many people were concerned about their own careers or their family name, but at that time, to me, it didn’t matter, I felt completely betrayed. I am still struck by the selective silences of people whom I had considered friends and years later, I am still crushed by just how much I lost in the past three years. Here were people that I had known, been friends with, and worked with for years suddenly turning away from me at a time when I needed support more then anything else. I oscillated between extreme anger and depression. At times I still do.

During that time – and at this time as well – I’ve found solace in the few people who surrounded me in their protection, love, and truthfulness. These people spoke up for me in both the courts and otherwise. They picked me up when I didn’t want to live anymore. I am fiercely protective of the women and men in India who took me in and ensured my survival. These days I continue to focus on the people who supported me. They were not the people I had planned on leaning on, but they are the gorgeous souls that I got. Today I focus on the fact that Mahmood Farooqui was indeed found guilty in the lower court and when I had testified I was found to be a sterling witness. The truth was heard and I was believed. Of course, the intellectual gymnastics it took for the High Court to find him innocent disgusts me. The idea of a “feeble no” enrages me and I am deeply concerned on how this will impact people in the future. But for now, I am focused on returning to my academic work, learning how to trust again, and on forgiveness. Most importantly I try to remember – both in my own healing and in the courts – that the battle for justice is a marathon not a sprint.

A sort of extended question coming up from the first one. What was it that decided you to take recourse to the law? I ask this because it’s a difficult system to put your faith in, especially in another country. And it can have serious and long-term consequences. Could there have been any other way of dealing with this? Once again by this I am not questioning your decision at all, but for a lot of women, the law is not an option they are willing to consider, it needs both courage and strength.

I never considered anything but the law. Of course, I didn’t realise exactly what I was getting involved in, but even today I would still make the same decision. The legal system is far from perfect and it has at this point failed me, but this, I suppose, is also part of the process. For attitudes to change, for laws to be refined, people need to keep standing up for justice. Unfortunately, that means that someone has to do the heavy lifting. For me, this brought both incredible pain as well as a return of my inner strength. I envision it something like the way we build muscle. In order to grow, first our muscles must tear from lifting the things that weigh us down. It is not something that I recommend for everyone, but for me, it healed me and allowed me to feel my own power again. At times it also came dangerously close to completely destroying me. There has never been a time when I haven’t wished that more people would have lent a helping hand. God knows, it does not take a person of “letters” to understand why many people do not want to come forward or trust the legal system to protect their rights. For many people court is not a viable option and I support them finding a way to heal themselves outside of the legal system as well. Survivors of sexual assault have already had their power taken away from them. They deserve the right to make critical choices and be supported in the ways in which they choose to heal from atrocities committed against them.

I’d like to ask you about more current developments where you sometimes find yourself a spectator in a different sort of discourse, where your violation becomes a kind of route to political point scoring, and often an occasion for attacks on women who stood by you. What do you feel about this? It’s one thing to be betrayed by an indifferent and patriarchal system, but when the discomfort stretches to people on the same side of the fence as you, it must be even more difficult.

As I come out more publicly, something I hadn’t done over the past three years, I have found it both interesting, and at times infuriating, the manner in which the news of my violation is invoked for political purposes. While I respect a person’s right to come forward and find justice in any way that they can, I do have serious concerns about crowdsourcing shame. It is not that I think that everyone must go through due process –we know how difficult and flawed that is – but I take issue with accusations made against individuals where no details are given to the accused concerning the allegations made against them. I feel that that is not only irresponsible, but ethically wrong. I realise my opinion will not be popular with a large group of women who will perhaps call me old fashioned, women who are looking for other ways to achieve the justice they deserve. However, I don’t think there is anything fashionable about ethics. This, to me, is not a passing fad. As far as the verbal attacks that have been made against the women who stood by me, as I have already said I am fiercely protective of these women. I know first-hand the love and dedication they have for their work and the people they support.

I find it both enraging and laughable when people have said to me that not everyone can afford a lawyer like I have had. This is true, except for the fact that Vrinda Grover has been working on my case pro-bono for over two years. I am frankly amazed and devastated that women who I think would be supportive of me and my experiences would shut me down and tell me to stop talking when I speak out in support of people like Kavita Krishnan. To be silenced by people who I would imagine would be sympathetic to my story is traumatising. I cannot comprehend how my story can be invoked in the third person to prove a political point while my first person narrative can be shut down by the same groups of women.

One of the things I have been wanting to ask you is this: right from the start you spoke the truth, you offered the police information, truthful information, about that day that need not have been told. In its acquittal of Mahmood Faroqui, the court rejected his defence that nothing had happened that day for various reasons. But at the same time, the court used information that they had access to because it was information you gave, information that was truthful and that was more than you needed to say, and this very information was used to make conclusions that went against you. I want to go to the deeper question of truth telling. It can’t have been easy for you to tell the police what you did, did you at any time think it may turn against you? Why were you so truthful? Is this a question that has troubled you since? I mean many women would have instinctively filtered out this kind of information, but you did not.

Yes, some of the things I said that happened that night were used against me, but I do not regret telling the truth. What I mourn for is India’s judicial system which has callously thrown women’s bodily autonomy into the fire with its acquittal of Mahmood Farooqui. Of course, I feel let down that the court used information that I had disclosed against me, to undermine my statement, disbelieve my refusal. Clearly the court lacks the ability to grapple with the truth, the whole truth about being raped by a “friend”. The message the Court has sent out not only to me, but to all women is that the lived experience of rape by a man known to them cannot fit into their imagination of rape. This is not only tragic but ironic. It is striking that the narrative often spun around rape cases is that women lie and exaggerate. It is shameful.

Yes, it was incredibly difficult to tell the police, and the Court but I knew what had happened wasn’t consensual. I knew it wasn’t my fault. I also narrated to the police and the Court that I repeatedly said no to Mahmood Farooqui’s advances, but somehow that was omitted in the High Court judgment. I had no reason to lie or omit anything, because I had never consented to any type of sexual relations with him. He, against my protestations, had crossed a boundary that I had firmly articulated. I will in no way own the violations of this man or the misogynistic judicial opinion which acquitted him.

You must have thought a great deal about choosing to go to the law, I know you have worried about how this case may negatively impact Indian women – you said that on the phone. I am wondering if you can speak about how, in light of what is happening across the world, the #metoo revelations, the Weinstein thing and so on, do you now feel about the path you took.

I go back and forth on this daily. It’s difficult to not feel like my case may have hurt other women. Had I known that such a troubling and absurd judgement (the “feeble no”) was even possible, I may have been deterred from taking the judicial route. Then again, I may not have. I don’t know. At that time, I was focused on survival. I was focused on my own healing. I wanted justice. Although the #metoo movement has helped many women begin a conversation about sexual violence and harassment, the circumstances surrounding my case were historically and emotionally different. I still want to believe in the Indian judicial system and I think it was the best route for me to take in order to regain my sense of self. At this point though all I can do is look forward and keep fighting against the High Court’s judgement, keep rallying around and listening to other survivors, and continuing to speak out so that maybe my voice will help other women raise their own.

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