Outrage breaks out on social and mainstream media every time a newsworthy rape occurs. Yes, I said 'newsworthy'. Rapes occur all the time, everywhere – unimportant rapes, unreported rapes. But some are worthy of the prime time news, of Twitter trends, of Facebook notes, of newspaper reams, of lofty pseudonyms.
Some rapes will take care of nine o' clock discussions for the rest of the week. The nation wants to know why its women are not safe. We the people want to know what measures will be taken to ensure our protection. The authorities need to face the nation. We will play devil’s advocate to every futile solution they offer.
Newspaper headlines, inside pages and op-ed pages are sorted. We know what the next several columns will ask – "Is Delhi the rape capital of India?" "Is Mumbai the new rape capital?" "Do cities rape people, or do men rape people?" "Are rapists to blame, or are their parents to blame?" "Should we forgive rapists – for they know not what they do, for they are usually victims of sexual abuse themselves, for they come from broken families – or hang them?" "Don't rapists feel remorse?" "How dare anyone say rapists should be forgiven?"
NGOs go into overdrive, composing pointless petitions, and spreading awareness of their own names along with word of the petitions. Activists hold candlelight vigils and protests. Freelance journalists are never more important than in the weeks after a famous rape. Newspapers and news channels run campaigns for the safety of women; magazines bring out special issues.
And, through all this, there is no thought for how the victims will feel when they wake up to Twitter hash-tags like #MumbaiGangRape and #DelhiGangRape.
What does it feel like for the violation of one’s body and one’s mind to be trending on Twitter? To make the newspaper headlines? To be tracked down by journalists gunning for exclusives? For people to speak to one's family? To have to watch one's relatives either break down or put on a brave face, as a stranger sympathises? To know that when the next big rape happens, they will be approached again, for a where-are-they-now type story?
Every time the media takes possession of an incident, this debate comes up. And yet, the media has not stopped making capital of the trauma and tragedy of individuals.
I remember sitting back in disgust, as I read an email from a colleague, following the death of a child who had fallen into a deep borewell in Uttar Pradesh, in 2008. I even remember the idiosyncratic capitals: “SONU IS DEAD. We have the visuals of the body! Great JOB, reporting team! Let's fire these away immediately, with an EXCLUSIVE band!"
I knew I had to get out of the mainstream media industry before I began to enjoy hyperventilating on screen, and banging my desk in rage as a politician or government official sat tiredly at the receiving end.
But then, I realised it isn't just the mainstream media that sinks its teeth into rape, murder, death-by-negligence and natural calamity, that feeds on it. I read recently that a play called ‘Nirbhaya’ by South African playwright Yael Farber won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Farber told media that she hopes to stage it in Delhi on the anniversary of the bus rape.
Should a rape be commemorated on its anniversary? Should it be honoured with a play on that date? The idea troubles me. It troubles me that rapes are treated as milestones, and the protests as radical. It troubles me that the subjects of this violence are treated as heroes, and not victims.
What am I suggesting, then? That we should not talk about rape? That we should not scream and vent and fume on social networks, mainstream media, and alternate media? Of course, we should talk about rape. But we need to be more sensitive to the victims. We need to start thinking of them as human beings and not news material. We need to look at asking questions that may eventually help them in some way, rather than simply get angry on their behalf.
In the process of making them folk heroes, everyone gets carried away – the media, the victims, even their families. There is no Nirbhaya in a rape case. Every woman is terrified of rape, and I can’t imagine what it feels like to be confronted by that fear. No one wants to be a hero then.
There is no such thing as a ‘brave rape victim’ or a ‘cowardly rape victim’. Rape victims don’t need adjectives. ‘Rape’ is adjective enough.
The fury that breaks out across media after news of a rape is, in some ways, comparable to the controversial finger test conducted as part of the medical examination. We go over the gory details again and again, we cross-examine authorities who consent to appear on television as if they were the rapists themselves – “Mr So-and-So, this bus passed through five check-posts, and your police did nothing?!”
Yes, these are issues that should be raised. But we need to think about the way in which we raise them. Most importantly, we need to stop quoting the nutjobs whom we ourselves refer to as “godmen”, and spewing venom at them. Because, in doing so, we are capitalising on the publicity anything to do with the rape will garner.
Perhaps this column is meta – perhaps I am capitalising on the Twitter trends to be heard. But I feel we haven’t given enough consideration to this aspect of rape – to the effect our media debates have on rape victims.
People like Sohaila Abdulali and Sunitha Krishnan have brought their stories into the public domain, to show victims that they can live on and do things, that their lives need not be remembered for this incident alone. That one day, they will not be afraid to go to that same place again. That one day, they can “wind a scarf around [their] throats without having a flashback to being choked”.
Both have spoken about the unpleasantness of becoming symbols of rape. But what they have said is far more valuable than the outrage.
We need to find ways to reach out to victims like they have. We need to think about what we are going to do after. Grand statements will not achieve anything.
However, the sad truth is that nothing we do can stop rape. There is no solution. There is no country that has succeeded. There is no country anywhere in the world where no one has been raped. Education and awareness will not stop perverts.
The only thing we can do to keep ourselves relatively safe is operate with vigilance that borders on paranoia.
But we can help victims by learning to use media more responsibly, by looking at issues that are more relevant to victims of rape. Putting out the sketches of the five suspects is an example of how media reach can be put to use.
Another possibility is gearing our discussions towards coping with rape, emotionally, physically, and legally. Instead of finding targets for our anger on news shows, we should probably call in experts in these fields, who can help victims deal with the aftermath of their trauma.
This may motivate these women – and men –to face their fears, allow them to live something close to a normal life, afforded the degree of anonymity they choose.
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The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com and tweets at @k_nandini