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Kathua rape: No, your Lordships, don’t shroud her name in silence

My problem with it is that it reinforces the hush-hush element to our conversation about sexual violence. It subliminally signals that silence or discreet whispers is the way to talk about rape

columns Updated: Apr 20, 2018 19:13 IST
Kathua,Jyoti Singh,Gang rape
Lawyers and students hold placards during a protest demanding justice for the 8-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in Kathua, Srinagar, April 18, 2018(PTI)

The most powerful moment in the ‘Nirbhaya’ protests against the gang rape of a 23-year-old medical professional in Delhi came three years later thanks to her mother, Asha Devi. We were at a citizens’ rally to commemorate her daughter. When the time came for me to speak I argued that a country that still needed to push women behind a veil of namelessness and facelessness was never going to stop the stigmatisation of rape victims and survivors. Asha Devi rose to react; she took the microphone from me and said: “My daughter’s name is Jyoti Singh. I am proud to name her.” The audience burst into applause.

Yet, here we are in 2018 arguing over whether a little girl raped and murdered in Kathua in the most unspeakable act of brutalisation should be known by her own name. The Delhi High Court thinks otherwise; it has penalised media organisations that named the child, and reminded journalists that a six-month prison sentence can be the punishment meted out.

Isn’t it time to challenge this law -- and what it says, unwittingly, about sexual violence?

By using grandiose adjectives like ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless), we foist an abstract , and artificial, greatness on victims of abuse and assault that may address our collective guilt and anger, but fails to humanise what the individual goes through. It reduces a woman’s account to yesterday’s headline, or worse still, a shrivelled-up statistic. Not only does this deny women the right to record their own stories, but it also stands in the way of raising public outrage against such violence. You can say 34,000 rape cases were registered in India in 2016. You can point out that on average, five rapes were reported every day in 2017 in Delhi alone -- and it is all important and meaningful data. But if you want to shake the conscience of the nation none of these dry numbers are as effective or moving as an individual sharing her experience in her own words; or a single photo of a once-smiling child who had eyes full of hope, now lying abandoned in a forest after her head was hit with a stone to make sure she was dead. Yes, when it comes to children, I understand the law’s intent, as well as that of the court: children do need extra layers of protection especially since our society is cruel and unforgiving in how we mock victims and survivors instead of perpetrators. But isn’t that attitude precisely what we need to start changing?

In the Kathua case, the national media (save some exceptions) is already shamefully late in responding to this heinous crime – and reporting that the accused were defended by law makers who used our flag as a cover for bigotry and misogyny. If millions of Indians are apoplectic today, there are two reasons for it: the gut-wrenching details in the chargesheet submitted by the police and the image of a little shepherd girl who had taken her ponies to graze, when she was abducted and forcibly drugged. Without that photograph and a name, we may not have even been talking about her today. She is dead now and her parents have chosen to take her name in all their interviews. Why should the country remember her as a mere statistic or data point? Why doesn’t this child have a right to be remembered as she was? Why must her identity be erased by the law?

Of course, it should entirely depend on the victim , or in the case of murder, her family, to take a decision on whether they want to reveal or cloak her identity. And the media has to respect the red line drawn by them. But I think the fight for equality is incomplete without also assuring women and the parents of children who are abused, that there is no shame in what has happened to them; the shame must be entirely of the abusive and violent men.

Let us not forget India owes the now-mandatory sexual harassment guidelines to a Dalit woman called Bhanwari Devi who was gang raped for trying to stop the child marriage of an infant. She never hid her identity. She is a hero.

Let’s take a leaf from her book and re-examine or at least modify this paternalistic law. My problem with it is that it reinforces the hush-hush element to our conversation about sexual violence. It subliminally signals that silence or discreet whispers is the way to talk about rape. No, Your Lordships. We women want to shout about sexual abuse. Rape is not a blot on us; it’s the blot on the men who do this and are protected by our political and legal systems.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 20, 2018 18:55 IST