The Delhi rape victim's identity: Symbolism or voyeurism?

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 11, 2013 05:17 hrs

A couple of weeks ago, our media took on the role of christening the victim of the Delhi bus rape – Times of India reiterated several times that they had given her the name ‘Nirbhaya’, while NDTV went with ‘Amanat’, and India Today was among those that called her ‘Damini’. In one particularly intrusive article, though, they claimed they were calling her ‘Jyoti’, because she was a flame that would never burn out.

Shashi Tharoor wanted a law named after her, and her family reportedly wanted a hospital named after her. Finally, the father of the victim came out and said she was ‘Jyoti Singh Pandey’.

While the family decided to reveal her name, several articles said her relatives did not want her photograph circulated, though the journalists interviewing them did get a peek at an album.

Yet, within hours, a photograph of the smiling girl had surfaced online, as had an inset, purportedly taken when she was in a hospital in Singapore. A reporter friend told me, in the last week of December, that some journalists waiting outside Safdarjung Hospital had tried to storm the ICU for photographs.

To start with, I find the coining of a name for the victim troubling enough. Why not just refer to her as ‘the Delhi bus rape victim’? Why ‘Nirbhaya’ or ‘Amanat’ or ‘Damini’? Do we need a name to acknowledge that she was a person? Do we need a name to see her as a symbol that this country is not safe for women? That people can be savage? That rape should not be associated with honour?

The revelation of her name was met with a reaction from an acquaintance that told me why some of us needed a name.

“Oh, so she wasn’t Muslim!” the acquaintance said, “They kept calling her ‘Amanat’, so I thought she was.”

Is that what we wanted from the start? To find out what she was? What her religious, caste, and regional identity were?

Perhaps we needed a face for similar reasons too. To find out whether she was pretty, whether she wore makeup, whether she looked like the kind who would wear venturesome clothes, whether she was ‘respectable’ – because, as arguably the most hated man in the country right now, Manohar Lal Sharma, the defence lawyer for her rapists, says, “respected ladies” don’t get raped.

The argument supporting the revelation of her identity has been that the protests needed a face and name, that she was a hero who should be given her due, that she had to be a symbol of the change in attitudes to women here.

First, she was already all that she could be before her name and face made it to the news and social media. What happened to her had sparked off protests that wouldn’t let up, that caused the Delhi Police to erect barricades across the city, that got the government so worried ten key metro stations remained shut for days.

Second, the protests don’t need a symbol. If we are taking a stance against rape, we don’t need a name and a face. If there is a change in the law, one that increases the prison term for rape, it shouldn’t be a bone our politicians throw the protesters lighting candles and organising marches in the capital.

Yes, the rape was more brutal than many, if brutality in rape can indeed be graded. But there have been many unimaginably brutal rapes in this country. Just over two years ago, a ten-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother were kidnapped in Coimbatore. Their abductors raped the girl, tortured the boy, killed them, and then threw their bodies into a canal. Decades ago, a young nurse was suffocated, strangled with a chain, raped and sodomised by a man who walked free seven years later, while she lives on in a vegetative state.

In all these cases, the names and photographs of the victims were in the public domain. Even if the families of these victims had no objection to this, our curiosity about their names, faces, and lives, is disconcerting.

To me, it seems symptomatic of a particular brand of voyeurism, of something bordering on rape pornography. As if, with names and photographs, accompanied by the details of the rapes, we could imagine it better. As if, even with changed names and imagined faces, accompanied by the details published by the media, we could imagine it better than without. As if we needed to imagine it all.

I believe it was important to know what happened in each of these cases. They tell us what the people we see every day, the people who drive our children to school, the people we buy vegetables from, the people who sign the same registers we do, are capable of. They mobilise public opinion in favour of harsh punishment for rapists. But I don’t see why we need names and faces, because without those, the victims are Everyman and Everywoman. With them, they are the people we cluck our tongues in pity about. They are the people bad things happened to. They are not Us anymore.

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