IN July I had the good fortune of watching a cinema screening of Prima Facie, Suzie Miller’s one-woman play starring Jodie Comer, in London. During the lockdown in the UK in 2020, the National Theatre first screened its plays for free on its YouTube channel, ostensibly to stay afloat financially and entertain audiences, then moved to become a paid streaming platform before launching its plays on the big screen when cinemas opened. Prima Facie was the highest grossing cinema event since the pandemic and became the second highest grossing cinema event release of all time in the UK with £4.26 million.

It was easy to see why. Comer stars in this tour de force as Tessa who rises from a poor state school to study at, and excel in, law at Cambridge and become a successful criminal lawyer defending men charged with sex crimes. When she becomes a victim of sexual assault herself, and seeks redressal, she is forced to contend with all the barriers a survivor has to face in their pursuit of justice. Such as how a victim’s time in court is spent asking that they be believed — beyond a reasonable doubt — with the legal system set up in a way to make it difficult to prove this. Comer’s performance runs the gamut of emotions and is one that will make audiences understand the limitations of the judiciary’s understanding of consent and law.

When she was defending rapists, Tessa would use tactics to denigrate victims on the stand so it’s particularly gut-wrenching to see her on the other side facing the same approach. The prosecution’s questioning of her testimony, in a bid to determine legal truth (whatever can be proved beyond doubt) versus actual truth, will leave you angry. To see Tessa navigate the many moving pieces and players involved in the legal system — and her frustration, anger, self-doubt — was very powerful.

The play demonstrates why and how the legal system is flawed for sexual assault victims. It’s also a reminder that legal systems are overwhelmingly created by men for men.

Legal systems are overwhelmingly created by men for men.

Comer’s performance stayed with me as I walked home that night alone — a short 10-minute walk — from the cinema. To put it in context, this is a walk I have done numerous times over the decades I have visited London, often alone but that night, I found myself more alert than usual. It is an awareness every woman is familiar with; a sixth sense that lives within us, that keeps us cautious, that makes us cross streets to avoid contact, to reach for your keys, to check no one is behind you. It is why women say to one another when they part: text me when you get home.

Women know what it is like to live like this.

In 1975 Susan Brownmiller wrote that a world without this fear would be like one “in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool must be held in awe, for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness borne of harmful intent…”

The vast majority of perpetrators of sexual assault will not go to prison. In the UK, a woman reports rape every eight minutes but only 35 per cent secure a conviction if the case gets to court. In the US, 975 out of 1,000 perpetrators walk free according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organisation. RAINN says two out of three assaults are not reported to the police. While sexual violence is difficult to measure, data across the world shows that the majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

A report by the Human Ri­­ghts Com­mis­s­ion of Pakistan said no less than 11 rape cases are re­­ported daily; at least 22,000 such incidents were reported to police between 2015 to 2021. The manner in which women survivors of sexual assault have been spoken about in this country in the last few years is a shameful testament to how the political and legal system fails Pakistani women.

Prima Facie partnered with the Schools Consent Project which teaches students about consent and how the law defines it. The organisation says young people need to understand consent and sexual offences so they are fully prepared for relationships. This is a noble idea which is desperately needed here, shorn of lessons in morality, because students do not receive adequate sex education, in schools or at home. Everything is clouded in shame and honour. However, rape changes people’s lives, like it did Tessa’s, and the goal should be to shift the focus from the way victims are believed to how men are prosecuted for their crimes. Rape should be prosecuted not on the basis of a woman’s behaviour, but a man’s.

The writer teaches journalism.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2022

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