Sexual assault, along with the behaviors that lead to such crimes, can mortify both victims and perpetrators. The boundaries of what is right and wrong may seem vague to those who do not understand the full truth.
The legal thriller Take It Back examines the case of a disabled teen who claims four Muslim classmates sexually assaulted her. Zara, a legal rape counselor, aids the victim and narrates much of the tale. Jaded and weary with her life and career, she suggests that “Smart people are never happy. Their expectations are too high.” As such, she yearns to appreciate life as it hits and never stop trying for more: “I want to accept that the journey is all there is. That when you get there, there’s no there there and so you keep going, keep trying, keep looking for ways to fill the hole but it will never be filled because we are just human and life has a hole….”
From the start, Zara notices changes in her young client’s story and urges the truth: “Those who tell the truth don’t need to rely on memory.” Yet Zara makes multiple mistakes along the way, and readers join Zara in veering from sympathy to annoyance and back again.
Of course, all involved are tempted to withhold details that shade perceptions of others, and such decisions reaffirm the horror and shame associated with nonconsensual sex or coercion in general. Set in London, the book also examines reversal of double jeopardy law in England and Wales, the legal principle that prevents people from being tried for the same crime twice, especially painful for sexual assault cases. Second trials for the same crime have been allowed since 2005 if new evidence emerges, reports BBC News.
The over-riding conflict in this book is not the crime itself but the mix of social pressures that collide as some cultures accept some forms of coercion. The World Health Organization identifies cultural and social norms that support violence that can be found around the world, including developed nations:
- Devaluing female children
- Physical punishment of children
- Genital mutation
- Child marriage and forced marriage
- Lack of power and loss of rights for women in marriage
- Pressures to marry and bear children
- Restricted freedoms for women
- Discouraging divorce
- Dowry requirements in marriage
- Rejection of others based on race, gender, economic status or ethnicity
- Discouraging reporting of rape and other sexual violence
- Denial of youth bullying and violence.
Kia Abdullah crafts her book so that every detail matters, constantly influencing how investigators and jury members perceive motivation and character. Take It Back details how painful it is to investigate sexual assault and the challenges in enforcing the rule of law, and readers can only hope the courts ease punishment for mitigating factors such cooperation with investigators, remorse and lessons learned as revealed in an exchange by two of the defendants who are most ashamed of their behavior and involvement. "What are you worried about," one asked. "That we'll be found guilty?" The other responds, "I'm scared that we'll have to live with this regardless of the verdict."
Cultural and social norms simultaneously influence levels of violent behavior, and so the WHO briefing “Changing cultural and social norms that support violence” suggests: “Interventions that attempt to alter cultural and social norms to prevent violence are among the most widespread and prominent. Rarely, however, are they thoroughly evaluated, making it currently difficult to assess their effectiveness.” The briefing on concludes: “While it is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of laws and policies in changing social attitudes, legislation that is enforced can send clear messages to society that violent behaviour is not acceptable.”
Victims should know that any lie, no matter how small, reduces their credibility. As Zara shockingly points out to one character toward the end: “I wish you knew how hard it is to come forward, how horrifying it is when [rape victims are] not believed, how ‘innocent until proven guilty’ means you’re a liar by default.”
Despite the tangle of lies, Zara is intent on enforcing the law, and sometimes that requires admitting our many assumptions are wrong.