[Content Warning: Mention of rape and sexual violence.]
Eight years ago, the news of a gang-rape in Delhi case prompted a series of tumultuous protests and even an amendment to India’s criminal legislation. Through the course of these events, we unwittingly began to refer to the victim as ‘Nirbhaya,’ meaning fearless or braveheart. In this piece, Sneha Ahmed discusses how such renaming is detrimental to the victim and to the fight against rape culture in India.
In 2012, a young student was gang-raped amidst the hustle and bustle of our capital city. This led to a widespread outcry from all corners of society. We took to the streets, held mass gatherings, and with this wave, we came to refer to the victim as ‘Nirbhaya,’ meaning fearless or braveheart. There lies a grave concern in drawing this parallel. What gets lost in translation is the raw truth of her suffering and her death. In reality, there may be no heroes, no bravehearts, no undying spirits, and no martyrs; there are victims who suffer, and this needs to be stopped. Valorizing a rape victim as 'braveheart’ is an attempt by the rest of us to shirk responsibility for the act.
To ensure victims' privacy, Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes the disclosure of the identity of victims of certain sexual offences, including rape. However, what remains confounding is the attempt to assuage a nation's soul, pulverized by the rape of a girl, by renaming her, by exalting her. By allegedly recognizing her "bravery," we release ourselves of the guilt, and beyond that, we let women’s rights, to quote Poulami Roychowdhury, “become an organizational resource in India for diverse actors to prove their social usefulness.”
Some argue that calling a rape victim a braveheart does not ignore the fact she was brutalized but emphasizes that she possessed the will to live and fight back. For example, see Sushma Swaraj's remark that “Ab toh uski zindagi maut se bhaddar ho gayi hai” (she resisted the shame a victim may feel, and the power that a rapist may feel in making someone’s life “worse than death”). The belief that hailing ‘Nirbhaya' as an example of how rape victims must refuse to be cowed distracts from the brutality of rape and the victim's suffering. There is a re-emerging contention that bravery, in this very context, is refusing to act precisely the way rapists and rape culture expect, i.e., with shame. In wanting to live and be saved, she displayed an attitude that her life was more important to her than her rape, which is what rape culture tries to suppress. And that unnamed girl's desire to live, "in shame," is in direct contravention of a culture that expects her to be beaten by the act.
The definition of bravery itself here is flawed. A girl brutally raped to the extent that she was in a coma is in no way conscious to ‘choose’ life over death. When was she given a choice? When media houses brand her Nirbhaya or Damini, they are essentially co-opting her personality and naming her after a hideous incident. What is to be noted here is that this victim in question was not even conscious enough to realize her condition. Had she been alive, she may have responded to her predicament in numerous ways. But because of the severity of her condition, she never had the chance to come back and display any such attitude. This remains her tragedy – because she never lived again, she could not have shown the ‘desire to live.'
To refuse to call her Nirbhaya or Damini would be to shatter the socially constructed lens of Nirbhaya as a revered symbol and acknowledge her human suffering. We live in a nation built on myths of a "Mother," which feeds off the patriarchal norms of turning women into goddesses, denying them their innate humanness. In the said setting, the bravery-alleging title of ‘Nirbhaya’ is just another one of the delusions that it can use as crutches to explain its institutional misogyny and masquerade patriarchal reactions. As Purnima Tripathi notes, “We put our goddesses in frames and install them somewhere. If those goddesses were to step out of those frames and speak out, we would stop worshipping them.” The semantics related to rape victims in the mainstream media are inherently structured by these norms and a direct reflection of the flawed notions of power dynamics in our society. To assert that not giving up, which is the most basic, primal instinct of survival, is a qualification for a woman's bravery – is not only fallacious but also adds to a culture so carefully crafted to keep women at its bottom.
Those who see no pernicious effect in the victim's renaming by media houses (where the family expressly asked for her real name to be used) most likely believe that renaming helps people relate to her. They argue that it breaks barriers of apathy and indifference by making her a symbol of a larger, more directly relatable struggle over which we all harbor long-overdue outrage. But the precise problem here is in the renaming of the victim. Despite having no will over what she went through, she would only be known for that singular incident had she lived. But when someone becomes the symbol of this one heinous crime, they become that symbol and nothing else. This symbolization, this very valor attributed to her, in turn, contributes to the construction of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ victim - the former who chooses to dedicate her entire life to this cause, and the latter who chooses silence, which is just as human. Had she been alive, this symbolization would have led to a life of explaining her choices.
During the Godhra riots, a photograph of a man with tears begging for help became the symbol of those riots. Some years later, when asked about it, he wished he was never photographed in that manner because soon after, he was known only as the 'Riot Man.' That is all his life was. Similarly, a 9-year-old was photographed running naked after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Fortunately, she survived, but because of the stress she went through after the intense scrutiny of being that girl who was photographed, she wanted to escape it. She did not want that scrutiny. That is the problem with making a person the symbol of a heinous incident – they become the very memory they are trying to overcome. Giving a name like Nirbhaya/Damini instead of the 'unnamed rape victim' may allow more people to connect to the issue at hand, but is that not selfish - to reduce her to an incident so that we can 'connect' to an issue? Of course, there is no shame, but there is trauma, and after we christened her ‘Nirbhaya,' she would have constantly re-lived that trauma every time we were to call her that. In which case, her choice was disregarded - her "choice" in becoming a public icon. This is what happens when a crime is of such public import - the public at large is reminded of an issue they are apathetic to solely through turning victims into symbols.
Yet what needs to be understood is that the only impetus needed for any rape to serve as a catalyst for a movement is the raw fact that it happened.
Edited by: Vasudev Devadasan