When a 71-year-old nun, who has dedicated her life to the service of society, is gangraped, it becomes a symbol of our collective shame. Cardinal Ozwald Gracious, Archbishop of Mumbai, endorsed these sentiments while speaking at a public meeting held to express concern over the incident which occurred in West Bengal on March 14. He stated, “The incident has left me sad, angry and ashamed”. Not only because a 71-year-old Christian nun was raped. Irrespective of whether it is a six-month-old baby, six-year-old child, 16-year-old girl or a 60-year-old woman, this feeling of shame engulfs us all as citizens of India. Despite this, the stigma of rape is borne by the victim/survivor, for the remainder of her life. The incident affects both her social and personal life and all relationships. She lives as a fugitive, haunted constantly by the fear of being identified as a rape victim, as though she is the sinner, rather than the one sinned against.
Suzette Jordan, popularly known as the “Park Street rape victim”, tried to defy this norm by coming out of this life in exile. Alas, she did not live long enough to prove her point. She died a depressed soul, consumed by the price she was forced to pay for her defiance, both by our society and our justice system.
We know many of the earlier survivors by their names — Mathura, Rameezabi, Suman Rani, Maya Tyagi, all victims of custodial rape by police in the Seventies and Eighties. The women’s movement rallied around their struggle for justice. None emerged victorious in their court battles, but they became important motives for the anti-rape movement. There was no legal restraint against using their names then, so we freely used their names.
There were more to follow in the Nineties. The name of Banwari Devi from Rajasthan, who was gangraped for challenging the feudal norms of a caste-ridden society, shines among them. After fighting humiliating court battles, she too became bitter and depressed, but at least her struggle paved the way for the famous Supreme Court guidelines, known as Vishakha guidelines, which dealt with sexual harassment at work place and have today become the law.
With the onslaught of sensational media reporting and voyeuristic invasion of privacy by television cameras, it became necessary to demand restraint — to not disclose the name and personal details of the victim, to ensure confidentiality. Only with this assurance were many able to come forth and report sexual assaults. However, within a patriarchal social order and commercial interests of media houses, even the most positive measure can be turned on its head and be stretched to absurd and titillating lengths, as we have seen in the Delhi gangrape incident. All details about the victim become the property of the media and they prey on the most intimate details of her personal life. They also assumed the right to re-christen her, despite her parents’ wish that she should be known by her own name.
We live with strange contradictions. The name and face of the young lawyer in Mumbai, Pallavi Purukayastha, who died while struggling against the brutal sexual assault on her by the watchman of her building, can be splashed across newspapers and television screens because the watchman did not succeed in penetrating her. But for Jyoti Singh, the victim of the Delhi gangrape who succumbed to her injuries, the legal bar against disclosing the name must continue forever, as she died after her tormentors penetrated her. The gruesome attack becomes insignificant. The only thing that matters is the extent of vaginal penetration as this is the site of the victims’ “honour”.
In the case of the rape and murder of two teenaged dalit girls in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district, whose dead bodies were found hanging from a tree outside the village, there was criticism from various activists when the pictures of these girls appeared in newspapers to raise public sympathy, on the ground that the pictures violated the norm of confidentiality of a rape victim. Later, when official reports declared that the girls were not sexually violated, circulating their pictures ceased to be a violation.
In the Khairlanji rape and murder case, where four members of a dalit family were brutally murdered in a village in Maharashtra’s Buldhana district, in 2006, the naked bodies of the two women, Surekha and her daughter Priyanka, carried visible signs of sexual violations. The mutilation of their bodies was so gruesome, it became necessary to reveal their identity in order to construct their legal case. At the end of the lengthy trial, the sessions court ruled that the offence of rape was not proved, though some of the accused were awarded death penalty for murder. So it turned out that revealing their names was not a violation of the law.
Most of these cases, however, concern dead women. It is important to note that cases of rape and murder are few and far between. In most cases, including family rapes, stranger rapes and even gangrapes, the victims survive to tell their tale of violation and humiliation. After the legal battle, they need to move on in life and lead a normal life. Like Bilquis Bano. She survived the Gujarat carnage, and with help from activists like Teesta Setalvad, was able to lodge a complaint, withstand the trial and secure conviction for her violators.
How do we create a positive model for rape survivors to live their life beyond their court cases, on their own terms? That can only be done by women, women like Suzette Jordan. And, I hope, the nun. Only they can create a positive living model for survivors by choosing life and declaring that the shame is not theirs.
The article’s title is inspired from the phrase coined by a community-based NGO, Jeevika, which works with rape survivors in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, in an endeavour to challenge the prevailing culture of blaming the victim: “The shame is yours, not mine”. They explain that “yours” includes not just rapists but also the society and the state, both of whom engage in a game of victim blaming.
The writer is a women’s rights lawyer