It is indeed tragic that even in this day and age, our attitudes towards women do not change, specially about rape victims/survivors. The same old stereotypes get whipped up time and again. The good and the bad, the dividing lines are clearly drawn. Those who deserve our support and sympathy and those who don’t. In order to deserve our support, the victims must be without a blemish. They must die defending their honour. They must be larger than life, so we can honour and revere them.
We hate those who survive to tell their tales of violations. Those who wish to live beyond the frame of victimhood, live life on their own terms, with their heads held high. The real women with a zest for life, with their sexualised bodies. Those who laugh and cry, sing and dance and fight for justice. As a friend of Suzette Jordan and a gay rights activist, Harish Iyer told us in a highly emotional article while paying tribute to her, at her untimely death, we humiliate them, we rob them of their dignity, we cast stones at them and we kill them.
The fact that she has braved the world with her own name, talked about the incident in her own voice before television cameras, has become an inspiration for thousands of others in a similar situation, jars us. We prefer not to see her, know her, dine in the same restaurant with her. Even in her death, some newspapers prefer to refer to her as “the Parkside rape victim”, a term she despised, because our laws do not permit a rape victim’s name to be publicised, even against her own wishes, even after her death. The shame and stigma of rape must remain with her, follow her to her grave. The hypocrisy of it all baffles me.
A rape victim is doomed to live a closeted existence, the memory of the incident must be her constant companion. She cannot have an existence beyond this. The fear that someone will identify her as the rape victim must constantly torment her. Unless, of course, she is a Nirbhaya.
We love Nirbhaya, the one who died defending her honour. Through her death, she keeps the bright torch of “honour” burning. In her death, she can be transformed into a larger-than-life icon, the modern “Jhansi ki Rani”. The more gruesome the brutality, the greater is our love. We get perverse pleasure in re-enacting her final journey, recounting the injuries on her mangled body. But she must not be a poor dalit or a tribal raped and maimed. They don’t make good icons. She must be from our own background. We must be able to identify with her.
Everyone can lay claim to this icon because she does not exist. She is just a memory, not a real woman in flesh and blood, immortalised through her vaginal brutality. She cannot exist outside this frame. She is then the property of the nation or even beyond its shores. She can be re-christened. Laws can be reformulated, schemes can be instituted, mobile apps can be launched in her re-christened name. Films can be made on her, controversies can be created around it. She is a high-voltage publicity material. Free for all.
At the same time, the memory of her ordinariness must be erased — the young woman with normal sexual desires and career ambitions, who seeks pleasures in visiting a mall or watching a movie with a male friend. She must now be sanitised, rendered into a blemishless sacrificial goat. Only then can she become worthy of our adoration. India’s daughter. We will come out and march in protest, we will light candles and fight for justice on her behalf. With shrill voices we shall clamour for death penalty for her violators, who are the other, the scum of our society. This makes us feel good, it rekindles our fervour and our activism. This in turn paves the way for a quick trial, and stringent punishment. After all, our honour, the honour of our nation is at stake!
But not so for Suzette. Her vibrancy, her zest for life becomes her undoing. We want to crush it. We want to render the trial process most humiliating, sufficient to daunt her spirit. The trial can drag on for years on end, until her death, with no one, not even a woman judge in the trial court standing up to help maintain her dignity. Her soiled panties can be held up on a stick for identification to humiliate her.
There is nothing wrong with undergarments. We see them on hoardings and in newspapers everyday, draped around sexy female and male bodies, an object of desire. But for a rape victim, her soiled and torn undergarments, worn by her at the time of her brutal violation, which are now held up for scrutiny in the dignified and sacrosanct precincts of a trial court, by male lawyers, is like an arrow piercing her soul. Sadly for Suzette, this is precisely what happened on one of her last court appearances, in a trial that had gone on and on, and finally consumed her.
This is indeed shocking for us in Mumbai who have followed up cases of around 300 odd women through various stages of investigation and trial. We have dealt with cases of brutal gangrape by half a dozen men, upon a 15-year-old, who survived to tell the tale, despite the police refusing to register her case for over a month, while the injuries caused during the rape were festered. Her entire evidence was recorded on one court date. The judge refusing to adjourn the matter for further cross-examination and insisting that the six defence lawyers must complete on the same day even if it meant sitting beyond the court working hours. But the victim shall not be called to the court again. The judge thwarted all efforts by the lawyers to project her as the daughter of a sex worker, citing Supreme Court rulings, which have held that it is not the victim who is on trial but the accused.
It is indeed sad that a woman who braved the world had to endure such humiliation with the lady judge looking the other way, failing in her constitutional duty to maintain dignity of the victim and decorum of the court. So much for our demand for women judges!
But I am almost certain that Suzette knew that she gave hope to so many across the length and breadth of the country. She knew that she was an inspiration, a symbol of courage and bravery. Many watched with admiration as she came alive on television screens. There were, of course, those who could not watch as it reminded them of their own violations. Their wounds had not yet healed. But they admired Suzette and hoped that one day they will be able to follow in her footsteps.
Despite the humiliation and hardship she endured, Suzette was also a role model and a beacon of light to her teenaged daughters, who I am sure will have the strength and courage to live their life on their own terms, the way Suzette has shown them — uncompromising, always standing tall, fighting for justice. And through her moments of sadness and depression, she has taught them to enjoy every moment of life, especially the small everyday joys of life, for life can sometimes be cut very short.
The writer is a women’s rights lawyer – Majlis Legal Centre