Earlier this month, Stella James, a 22-year-old lawyer, went public about an alleged assault on her by a retired judge in the capital in December – a time when New Delhi was grappling with widespread protests in the wake of a fatal gang rape.
In a post for the Journal of Indian Law and Society, a student-run blog hosted by the Kolkata-based National University of Juridical Sciences, Ms. James alleged that a “highly reputed, recently retired” Supreme Court judge had assaulted her while she was interning in his office late last year. The judge hasn’t been identified publicly.
The young lawyer’s account, which caught national attention, prompted the Supreme Court to begin an inquiry into her claims. The allegation of assault against a judge also spurred a debate about sexism in the top brass of India’s judiciary and how it poses an obstacle to justice.
In her first interview after a probe was ordered, Ms. James, who now works for a South Africa-based legal nonprofit out of Bangalore, spoke to The Wall Street Journal about why she decided against filing a formal complaint, what finally made her go public, and about changing attitudes toward victims of sex crimes in India.
…Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesA protest at India Gate in New Delhi, Dec. 27, 2012………..
The Wall Street Journal: Why didn’t you file a formal complaint in December when you say the assault took place?
Stella James: It took me time to come to terms with the fact that I had been assaulted. When I finally did, all that I wanted to do was to erase the memory from my conscious. This was a man I had admired, I looked up to him.
Indeed, I pondered over the idea of legal recourse, but feared it would do more harm than good. First, my case would’ve dragged on for years. Second, defense lawyers would make me relive every violating moment in court – something I wanted to bury at the time. Third, in cases of assaults, where there is no physical evidence, it’s one word against the other, really. There’s no reason why a law graduate would’ve won over a judge with a spotless record. Even now, for instance, when I appear before the panel, I feel I’m being looked at with suspicious eyes. I have to constantly justify that I’m not lying, I’m not making up this story. I feel humiliated.
It’s ironic I – being a lawyer – say this, but I don’t think Indian law, or our legal system for that matter, is equipped enough to sensitively deal with crimes against women.
WSJ: Did you seek help from your family?
Ms. James: I told them only in May – five months later. They, too, weren’t keen on a formal complaint.
When I told my grandmother I was assaulted, she couldn’t understand why I was making a big deal out of it. In fact, she didn’t even think it was wrong. ‘We have all been harassed at some point or the other,’ she would say. My mother, meanwhile, said what had happened was indeed wrong, but that I had to accept it and move on. ‘You don’t have any other option,’ she would say.
- A screenshot of Ms. James’s blog post.
WSJ: So what prompted you to write the blog?
Ms. James: In courts, women lawyers openly discuss the harassment they face. But that talk never makes it to the bench. I felt somebody had to make the first move. My intention was not to point fingers, to launch an inquiry, or to create a media storm. All that I wanted to do was shine light on the day-to-day harassment in India’s courts.
I also felt writing about it would perhaps give me closure.
WSJ: Did you expect it to go viral?
Ms. James: Not at all. I had never imagined it would catch national attention; I’m happy it did. My objective was to spark a broader debate about attitudes toward women in the judiciary, which I feel, the blog did to quite an extent.
WSJ: Do you think national soul-searching in the wake of the December rape inspired you to go public?
Ms. James: Maybe. What has happened over the last few months has been revolutionary. Now, more and more people are questioning why they should put up with harassment – on the streets, in their homes, and at their workplaces. ‘Why should we bear with this? We haven’t done anything wrong,’ they say.
Because society is beginning to debate violence against women, rape survivors and victims of assaults are beginning to view themselves differently. Earlier, for example, there was guilt and shame attached to being raped and assaulted. The words themselves were a taboo. Women would fear they would be ostracized if they spoke out. What has changed now – after months and months of debate over sex crimes – is that women don’t pity themselves anymore. They feel there is a small group, a small segment of society that will stand by them. Of course, that number is still very small, but for those who have been at the receiving end, it means a great deal.
Click here to read related news story about changing attitudes in India.