How do you ask for details of a crime from someone who can’t share them? In Mumbai in 2013, this was the dilemma Mehtab Zia Sheikh faced when she was called to help decipher the testimony of a rape victim who was deaf, mute, and illiterate. The woman did not know Indian Sign Language.
Sheikh has three decades of experience working with and teaching the speech-impaired. She was called in after the rapist was caught and booked, but testimony was unable to be recorded due to the victim’s inability to communicate.
“She only knew how to write her name,” the speech teacher said. “I was instructed to ask her everything, from what she was wearing, what happened, everything in detail. It took me half an hour to just identify the date.” Still, Sheikh persisted and worked continually with the victim.
Sign language depends – and is thus sensitive in terms of meaning – on orientation of the palm, facial expression, and longevity of hand movement. For example, “her sign for a man was totally different from sign language,” Mehtab said, which made her own assurance of accuracy critical. Some of the woman’s signs were longer or differently accentuated than what Sheikh was used to.
“Then I had to ask her about the clothes,” Sheikh said. “I had to take strips of colors with me… When I asked her about the attack, she did this sign.” Mehtab then proceeded to place a hand over her mouth, the sign that the woman showed her. The woman then grabbed her own wrist, and pounded one hand onto an open palm, which signaled that the man had hit her.
“When she would tell us all this, one knew it came from the heart, and she wants justice,” Sheikh remembered.
It took Mehtab two days to record the basic testimony. Over the span of the next three years, she would accompany the victim to court and interpret her story – but even that became a complicated process, Scroll reports.
“I used to believe that whatever she’s telling me I should replicate it word to word, and tell those in the court. If I ever get anything wrong, I feared if my misinterpretation would harm her testimony,” Sheikh recalled. “Sometimes she would forget one small detail and then I had to start from scratch. I would be pained that to know just one detail I had to remind her of the entire attack, and then get her to the point.”
There was also time when language – spoken or signed – wasn’t necessary. When the accused entered the courtroom to face the survivor, she began crying immediately.
“It was my first case of this kind,” said Mathura Patil, the investigating officer who oversaw the case after it was transferred to the Crimes Against Women’s unit. “Without expert help, we would not have understood the survivor.”
The following includes accounts of the attack. “According to the prosecution, the woman was near the accused’s shop when he forcibly took her inside and raped her. He took advantage of her helplessness, the judge noted, while refusing to grant him bail in 2015. Since then, he has remained behind bars, and the trial has been ongoing.”
The survivor told Sheikh that she hoped the accused would be punished, because it would prevent him from harming others. “Though he might have assumed she would never be able to narrate what had happened to her, she would not be silenced.” Sheikh is glad she could help tell that story.
“I am proud that God has made me capable of doing this work,” she said.
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