Reclaiming her name
Tehelka Magazine Cover – Issue dated 25 February 2013
This week, a courageous lady, hitherto known to us as the ‘Park Street victim’, revealed her name. Suzette Jordan. We saw pictures of her in the media. Not the blurry, silhouetted profile shots that had characterised all previous interaction, but clear pictures. Clear enough for anyone meeting Suzette in the street to be able to recognise her.
With that one move, the shrugging off of the veil of anonymity that most rape survivors are draped in, Suzette did something so radical that generations of women will look to her with respect. She reclaimed her name. She dropped the tag of a victim.
“I was sick of being called ‘Park Street’. I realized that I can’t fight this behind a mask. I had to make the point that we have nothing to be ashamed of. Society should be ashamed to make rape victims feel a stigma. Me? The ‘Park Street Rape Victim’? Bullshit! I‘m a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m a sister. People depend on me and love me!” (Yahoo news, 3 July 2013)
We all know the bare outline of Suzette’s story. She accepted a lift home from a man she met at the Park Street nightclub Tantra in February 2012. Four of his friends got in with her, the doors were locked shut. She was beaten brutally, gang raped and thrown onto the road at 3.30 am. It took her a couple of days to gather the courage to go report the case. The case, when it reached the media, raised a storm. The chief minister of West Bengal called her case a ‘cooked up’ story. People guessed her identity and so began the gradual social ostracism. She couldn’t find a home to stay, she couldn’t find a job, no one wanted to have to do anything with the ‘Park Street Victim.’
By law, a person who reports a rape in our country is entitled to anonymity. There are reasons to this anonymity being enforced. And this anonymity is being debated—is it something that tacitly endorses the shaming of the survivor or does it protect the survivor from social castigation and ostracism? There are no easy or clear cut answers to this.
In recent times, feminist author Germaine Greer stated on BBC’s Question Time that she is in favour of rape complainants being named. According to her, the stigmatisation of a rape survivor comes about from the patriarchal concept of honour being bound with a woman’s chastity, from an era when a woman’s virtue was intrinsically tied with the social standing of her father or husband, where attacks on a woman’s ‘honour’ were perceived as an attack on the male ‘responsible’ for her.
On the other hand, it could also be argued that perhaps, it is the assurance of anonymity that does give some survivors the strength to come forward to even lodge a complaint. Even so, this is an anonymity that is thin and precious, an anonymity that is easily lost in this, the age of internet and 24/7 news television.
The issue here is perhaps, not the implied ‘shame’. The issue is the social ostracism, the kind that Suzette talks about, and the kind she faced even before she revealed her name and her face. What every rape survivor faces is the finger pointing, the character assassination and vilification, the whispers that perhaps, she in some way was complicit with being raped, that she asked for it, what was she doing out so late, why did she accept a lift, was she drunk, what was she wearing, maybe she was that kind of a woman….it never ends. Knowing that not everyone they encounter in the course of a regular day knows what they have undergone could give most rape survivors a chance to get back to a semblance of normalcy with their day to day routine. For some survivors, their anonymity is a cloak of security they wrap themselves with in order to deal with the subsequent trauma that the assault causes until they heal, not just physically but also emotionally and psychologically.
Rape isn’t just a physical violation, it is a violation of privacy, where the complainant has to repeat her testimony umpteen times, answer insensitive questions, undergo intrusive tests conducted without sympathy. The culture of shaming the survivor continues while the perpetrator is shielded by the construct of machismo—giving into his lustful urges is what ‘men’ do. There is no shame to it. The scale of shame is tipped unfairly towards the survivor.
The aftermath of the horrific Steubenville case which had a high school girl, drunk or drugged, being taken from party to party and raped, saw an internet campaign being launched on twitter under the hashtag #SilentNoMore. Women tweeting with the hashtag told stories of the violence, harassment, abuse they had faced. Horrifically, they faced more online misogyny, including rape threats. Journalist Nick Kristof wrote about the dilemma about keeping rape survivors anonymous. “Newspapers have traditionally not reported the names of victims of sexual abuse, on the theory that the victim can suffer a reputational loss and humiliation in a way that is not true of other crimes. But there is some push back from those (I think Geneva Overholser was the first) who argue that this practice plays into the notion that the rape victim is somehow at fault. Others say that it is unfair to have an anonymous victim accuse a named suspect of rape. What do you think? I agree that it would be better if we could name victims of rapes as we do victims of armed robberies and assaults, but I don’t think we’re there yet as a society.”
This could hold good of India too. We aren’t there yet as a society. In fact, we are far from there.
If the survivor chooses to tell her story, reveal her name and identity that should remain her prerogative. We had a Nirbhaya, an Amanat who, alas, didn’t have the opportunity to make that choice. And we have so many others who choose not to. They have their reasons, all valid. But Suzette Jordan did. She refuses to be the ‘Park Street Victim’ any more. And we can only applaud her for the courage it took her to do so.
(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)