Plausible Crime Stories: The Legal History of Sexual Offences in Mandate Palestine

By Pande, Ishita | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Plausible Crime Stories: The Legal History of Sexual Offences in Mandate Palestine


Pande, Ishita, Law & Society Review


Plausible Crime Stories: The Legal History of Sexual Offences in Mandate Palestine. By Orna Alyagon Darr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019

This thought-provoking account of sexual assault cases in Mandate Palestine begins with a case heard in 1944 in Haifa District involving a woman assaulted by a stranger at night as she slept on the roof of her home with her infant daughter. The court disbelieved the woman's account. Why was she sleeping "alone"? Why would a stranger assault her in her sleep? Was it not more plausible that the two were already acquainted, and the alleged assault was simply a consensual act gone wrong? The opening anecdote amply clarifies the book's relevance to our times. It also sets up the notion of plausibility as an analytical tool for comprehending "law in action." What made the woman's account implausible to the colonial judge? Did the evidence conflict with the woman's testimony? Or did his incredulity have to with his view of Arab Muslim villagers, as well as his own understanding of what constituted "normal" sexual behavior?

Whereas a scrutiny of probability or "the correspondence of the evidence with empirical reality" would bring a top down approach to the study of law, and the notion of credibility would entail a focus on the competence and character of witnesses, the pursuit of plausibility (or on which story makes sense in any particular time and place context) is a lens rich in social context. "The plausible story," as Darr puts it, "is an outcome of the interplay between law and culture, and it is predicated on communal perceptions of the legal system and legal proceedings as well as on acceptable standards of normality and deviance, gender, morality, nationality, ethnicity, age, religion and other cultural institutions." (18). Plausibility, with its basis in shared societal knowledge and affect, brings to life the histories of these myriad institutions. The emphasis on plausibility moves away from the scrutiny of substantive rules, more common in the scholarship in law and the British Empire, to procedural and evidentiary norms.

In this exemplary study of law in society, Darr scrutinizes 147 cases of sexual violence, keeping an eye on proliferating statutory prohibitions, as well as the rules of evidence, to demonstrate how legal "proof" is scarcely detachable from its historical context. In the first chapter, Darr analyzes how understandings of sexual crime were transformed with the replacement of the Ottoman legal order with a hybrid system based on common law "qualified by Islamic and French elements in mandate Palestine" (19). As the rest of the book demonstrates, despite the professed neutrality and impartiality of this new system of law, the identity of both the judges and the litigants affected how crime stories were read. Whereas the protection of women and children featured prominently on the agenda of the British in a land entrusted to them by the League of Nations, in practice, the enforcement of child protection measures was tempered by a sensitivity to local differences, or rather by British understandings of this difference. Pushing beyond the shorthand of "colonial difference" widely used to describe how the seemingly universalist principles of the law as well as its uniform standards of proof come undone in colonial contexts (Partha Chatterjee 1993; Elizabeth Kolsky 2005). Darr digs deep into the 147 cases to reveal how myriad forms of difference in ethnicity, race, gender, and even age ultimately helped to determine the plausibility of charges of assault. Whereas scholars have usually focused on interracial rape to show how these narratives constituted national, ethnic and racial identity, Darr shows how the colonial grid of power was altogether visible even in cases of intraracial or intraethnic sexual violence. Not only were romantic relations between Jewish women and Arab men viewed as "implausible" and made legible as sexual crimes (as Darr shows in Chapter 7), presumptions and stereotypes about ethnic character were reflected in the disproportionate representation of Arab men in the ranks of the accused in general (as she argues in Chapter 4). …

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