Marrying the Rapist

Deepali Gaur Singh

Women who are raped in India face societal pressure to marry their violators; proposals of marriage are seen by some as atonement for the crime, even when they are offered just before a guilty verdict.

The eighties was the time when Bollywood—the now popular, urban colloquial usage for the Mumbai-based Hindi (language) film industry in India—films followed a rather simple, time-tested formula when it came to romantic films. Boy picks one lucky girl and pursues her; girl hates boy and resists; boy persists (since he believes "no" actually means "yes"); a push here and a shove there and hate turns to love only for them to live happily ever after. But this is not the eighties and while many mainstream films have departed from this "formula" very little seems to have changed in mainstream life for women who have had to contend with unwarranted and very often violent attention from their obsessed suitors. And what has only added to the distress of these women is the societal pressure of having to wash off the scars of a rape by conceding to a marriage with the tormentor.

The practise continues in pockets of the country irrespective of the geography, ethnicity, caste, creed or religion. There have been incidents where a woman raped by her father-in-law (and yes there has been more than one such case) were subjected to a community panchayat—a rural, 5-13 member committee authorised to deal with issues of the village, including adjudication of local disputes—which terminated her marriage as the rape had changed the dynamics of the marital relationship to that of a mother and son. She was directed to, henceforth, live as the spouse of her father-in-law. In the more publicised case of Imrana in Uttar Pradesh (north India), the victim in question, with support from diverse sections including her husband, defied the council's ruling; many others have not been so lucky.

The eastern states of West Bengal and Orissa also recently witnessed marriages of rape victims to their violators propagated and sanctioned by the communities out of fear of ostracism as very often the women also bear the brunt of the blame for the crime. Women in South Asia have always had to carry the additional social burden of an act that already violates them physically and mentally, for the rest of their lives; hence marriage to the violator is seen as the only way out for the victim as she is no longer kosher for any other man. The possibility of further brutality in a marriage laid on the foundations of a violent act is not even within the realms of a discussion here.

Folklore is rife with women committing mass suicides during medieval times instead of being violated by marauding armies; stories of how a women's dignity is over and above even her life which have only served in exacerbating the social attitudes towards the crime. Even films have tended to depict cases of suicide following a rape, an act that grows out of the oft repeated sermon that once a woman's "honour" is lost, her life too is worthless.

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Unfortunately, sections of the judiciary have actually fostered the practise of the accused offering marriage to the victim, looking at it as atonement for the crime. If the rapist wants to marry the woman raped by him, then it is felt that even an FIR (First Information Report) or complaint should not be registered with the police. By assenting to matrimony the accused is seen as redeeming himself by doing the "good" and "right"' thing. And more importantly, with the woman's "social rehabilitation" achieved, even the rapist is to be forgiven. Consequently, many accused have actually used this as a way out to either escape punishment completely or get away with a softer sentence. Not surprisingly, the marriage proposals tend to pop-up just as the near sure verdict of guilt is to be pronounced (and not earlier).

While many sections of society—lawyers, social activists, the media—have been quite critical of this practise, it continues due to the internalisation of the trauma (which is deeply entrenched in the stigma attached), making any form of intervention a slow, arduous process. With astonishing statistics of a rape every 30 minutes (PDF) in the country, this is indeed a disturbing trend. Fortunately, quite recently the Supreme Court (SC) of India took up the task of ruling that if a person commits rape, neither a proposal of marriage nor any other settlement between the rapist and victim can condone him of the crime. Recalling an infamous case, the SC rapped the sessions court in Delhi for even entertaining the rapist's proposal of marriage to the victim by asking the latter to come to court to give her decision. That the victim asked for nothing short of death for her tormentor was not just a brave decision in a context where social pressures on victims are tremendous, but also reassuring for those questioning the prudence of the quantum of punishment being influenced by a marriage proposal from the very man responsible for her ordeal in the first place.

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