Karuna Nundy’s Fight to Criminalize Marital Rape in India

Itn 2017, Karuna Nundy wrote an open letter to Indian women, laying out the protections in the country’s constitution if they are raped, assaulted, seeking an abortion, or demanding fair treatment from an employer. “I write to you today so you will know your power,” she wrote. “The State must enforce your basic rights, but you are in charge of your flourishing. Promise me you’ll back yourself when nobody else will.”

“I was thinking about my niece, my friend, my cousin, my client,” recalls the 45-year-old lawyer at the Supreme Court of India, sitting on her leafy green balcony in South Delhi in March. “What I wanted to say to them is that they deserve to be who they are, without having to fit into a box.”

The message seemed to have been received by her readers. One month later, the letter had been published. Vogue India, a 26-year-old woman in Delhi found Nundy’s number online and called her. Nundy was informed by the woman that she’d been raped every night since her arranged marriage of two years ago. “In India, people don’t see it as rape if you’re married,” she tells TIME over the phone five years on, requesting anonymity to speak freely about her experiences. Facing immense pressure from her family to make things work, she felt she had two options: “Either to just end my life, or to revolt, something I’d never done before.”

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The woman didn’t want to report her husband to the police or go to the courts, but she wanted to get out. Nundy was willing to assist the woman. Nundy signed an affidavit at the local police station stating that the woman left her home on her own and didn’t want her family to contact her in the event they tried to reach the police for help. She accompanied Nundy to the airport, ensuring that she boarded a flight to her destination. “I couldn’t believe Karuna Nundy listened to my story and helped me,” the woman says. “I felt like a bird finally freed from her cage.”

For Nundy, the experience made one thing clear: “The institution of marriage should not include the license to rape.”

The law doesn’t agree right now. Marital rape isn’t a crime in India, one of three dozen countries—including Bangladesh, Iran, Nigeria, and Libya—where it’s still legal for a man to have nonconsensual sex with his wife. This is in spite of a 2018 government survey that revealed that 86% had suffered sexual assault by either their husbands or former spouses. The current laws criminalize any form of sexual assault and domestic violence but prevent the crime from being called “rape” if it’s between a husband and wife—thereby reducing both severity and sentencing.

“To me, it’s one of the problems in the law that goes to the heart of the worst patriarchy,” Nundy said in court in January. “If you’re legally not allowed to sexually assault, slap, molest, or kill your wife in the bedroom, why are you allowed to rape her?”

Nundy’s work on these issues accelerated after the Nirbhaya case, the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on a public bus in Delhi that drew international headlines in 2012. She calls 2012 an “inflection point,” the first time that people of all ages, genders, and sexualities came out on the streets against sexual violence and violence against women. “My city was the center of this national—and, to some extent, global—protest,” she says, describing how that period transformed her. It felt as if “this is not just a woman’s problem or a girl’s problem. This is everybody’s problem.”

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Nundy has been a leader in gender justice, freedom of speech and equality. Nundy contributed to anti-rape legislation reform and fought cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. Now she’s leading the fight to criminalize marital rape—a fight that began years ago. A non-profit called the RIT Foundation filed the first petition in Delhi High Court to make this happen in 2015. More petitions followed in 2017, including one by the All India Democratic Women’s Association, which Nundy is representing in court, along with three individuals, including a survivor of marital rape. This issue was heard only in January. Most cases in India remain unheard for many years.

It is expected that the judges in coming months will render their verdicts on the closing of the legal loophole regarding rape in marriage. “That’s the thing about law reform in India,” Nundy says. “It takes a lot of persistence.”

Nundy was born inIn Delhi, the capital city of India. She says she was raised in an “unboxed way,” with an ambitious mother who wanted her to study at the best university, but had no set expectations about her vocation. “There was just this attitude that I needed to train myself in the best possible way and then contribute to society,” she recalls.

Nundy, then 15, was stalked in school by a fellow classmate and threatened with rape. The mother of Nundy reported the incident to her head teacher. They dismissed their concern. Nundy was struck by this moment. “Generations of women are raised by parents to believe they can do anything and then come face-to-face with sexual violence,” she says. “Things haven’t changed enough.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, Nundy spent a short period as a television reporter before applying to film school, influenced by her love of the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. “The fact that I could be the director of my own story for a minute or two seemed interesting enough,” she recalls, laughing.

She eventually found her calling at law school at Cambridge University and later completed a master’s in law at Columbia University in New York. There she discovered critical race and gender theory and clerked for the District Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, one of the few women to preside over the U.N.’s tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Inspired by McDonald’s success as a Black commercial and human-rights lawyer, Nundy set out to chart her own path. As a U.N. global advocacy officer she assisted in peace negotiations in Mali, Rwanda and Burkina Faso. She felt that it was time for her to go home to devote her life to public service. “I wanted to contribute to international human rights and constitutional law from India, where the impact could be more direct,” she says.

It also meant Nundy (26 at the time) would move back in with her family, six years after she had lived abroad. Ever the lawyer, she drew up an agreement that listed what was negotiable, like washing the dishes, as well as what wasn’t: her independence. (“If we didn’t agree, I’d live nearby.”) Over the years, her mother was diagnosed with a rare disease called cardiac amyloidosis. Being home allowed Nundy to spend time with her mother and to take life at her own pace—journaling and going for long walks. “My mother loved the skies, and I think it puts me in touch with who I am,” she says, looking up as she walks around her terrace during our interview.

Nundy, along with her four-member team, works on 30-40 civil, commercial and human rights cases in India. She also serves as a panelist for media freedom and speech at Columbia University, the International Bar Association and alongside Amal Clooney and David Neuberger. “She is a legal powerhouse,” says Dario Milo, a South African media-law -specialist and fellow expert at Columbia University. “Her impressive track record in high-profile and impactful litigation in India speaks for itself.”

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Still, the Indian judiciary remains a man’s world. In 1950, only eleven of the 256 Supreme Court judges were women. It is also rare to find female attorneys in courts. Nundy deals with this by overpreparing—with a more robust legal strategy, by studying the argument style of her (predominantly male) counterparts, and by filing long, detailed briefs—just so there’s no doubt she’s “better than the next guy.” Ultimately, her job is to be persuasive. “I’m always toeing this line of not being seen as too aggressive, and smiling at that key moment,” she says.

Nundy’s public profile, bolstered by an active social media presence, has made her a target of online trolling at a time when India’s online spaces are especially rife with the harassment of women. In March 2021, the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free” after independent journalists, activists, and lawyers, especially women, faced increasing threats.

Nundy learned to not think twice about blocking her trolling. “Free speech doesn’t mean you have a right to my attention,” she says. Nundy remains guarded about her private life to protect her family, but also for self-preservation: “Women in the public arena are continually asked about our personal lives, and it dilutes the focus on our work and ideas.”

Case of marital-rape will be heard at a time when the Indian state and courts are increasingly deciding what women can and can’t do. In December, the government raised the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years, which some feminist activists argued could backfire—for instance, tightening the grip of parents on young women’s personal lives. Protests erupted after a Karnataka court upheld an order by the government banning Muslim girls wearing head scarves in schools. Since 2020, the enrollment of Muslim girls has dropped further. This was even before the outbreak. “Forcing a woman to take off a hijab is as patriarchal as making her wear one,” Nundy says. “We can’t afford to shut the door to girls in school.”

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Although consent and rape are clearly defined in current law, there is an exception to rape occurring within a marriage, which has been the subject of increased campaigns over the past few years. In 2012 after the Nirbhaya Case, the government appointed committee recommended a number of reforms to the law to pursue rape. The government refused to address marital rape then, saying that there wasn’t a “societal consensus” on the issue.

The exception for marital rape in India’s law exists because of the Indian Penal Code, first enacted by British colonials in 1860. Matthew Hale (1671-1676), was the Chief Justice of England. He originally believed that consenting to marriage implied consent for sex and could not be reversed. This was long overruled by the U.K., British colonies, and India has had fierce discussions about it.

Pew research shows that almost 9 out 10 Indians agree with the belief that a woman must follow her husband. In January, Nundy’s efforts were virulently opposed by a small group of Indian men who launched a “marriage strike” on Twitter. A men’s-rights group called the Save Indian Family Foundation encouraged men to boycott marriage altogether, saying that marital–rape laws could be misused and lead to false convictions.

According to the Indian government, this is what they believe. Spokespeople did not respond to TIME’s request for comment, but when similar pleas were filed in 2017, the government argued against making marital rape a crime because it could “destabilize the institution of marriage” and “become an easy tool for harassing husbands.” The courts accepted this argument. The judicial bench challenged the government’s view and asked if there were any parallels between cases of rape in a marital relationship and those that occur with non-married couples.

The World Health Organization estimates that one third of global women are victims of violence by their partners. Even in countries that have criminalized marital rape, the reporting rate and conviction rate are still low. But for Chitra Awasthi, founder of the RIT Foundation—which first petitioned the courts to criminalize marital rape in 2015—the goal of the petitions is not just to change the law. It’s also to raise awareness. “There are many girls and women who didn’t even know that marital rape was a form of abuse. They thought it was their fate,” she says. “Even now, over and above any legal relief, it’s important to make both men and women aware of the fact that there has to be consent in having sex with your partner.”

Nundy is optimistic that the law will still have the ability to alter society’s accepted norms. “The more [marital rape] is prosecuted, the more it will be deterred,” she says. She argued in court that the devaluation of consent by women has both positive and negative consequences. “You’re taking away a woman’s right to say a joyful yes,” she said at the hearings.

For all the injustices she has fought in court, Nundy recognizes she’s just at the midway point in her career—and in her life. “I’m in flux and still growing,” she says. “But for the first time, I’m also thinking about what I want to leave behind.” And rather than being driven by anger about these injustices, her primary motivation will always be love. “After the patriarchy beats you out of shape and cuts you down to size, love can make you whole again.”

By reporting Eloise Barry/London

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