Every woman has a name. Some names are assigned to her at birth. The young middle-class woman who was studying to be a physiotherapist and was gang-raped on a moving bus in Delhi in 2012, was named Jyoti Singh at birth. Some names are bestowed upon her, supposedly as a mark of respect. The same young middle-class woman who was studying to be a physiotherapist and was gang-raped on a moving bus in Delhi in 2012, was named ‘Nirbhaya’ and ‘India’s Daughter’, long after she was cognizant of these names. Some names tell us about her identity. Some names tell us about ourselves in the shadow of her identity.
Since its release, there has been a lot of criticism around India’s Daughter – Leslee Udwin’s documentary on the brutal gang-rape of Jyoti Singh.
“Isn’t the title India’s Daughter a reinforcement of the patriarchal notion that we must respect a woman only due to her association with a man? Calling Jyoti Singh India’s Daughter crowds out her individuality and focuses only on her identity as a daughter – especially a ‘good’ daughter, obediently studying for her medical exam.”
But maybe the reason we feel offended by the title has little to do with Jyoti Singh, and more to do with what helps us sleep at night.
We don’t want to admit that the society we live in – India – allowed such a brutal incident to take place. The society we live in did not respect her. The society we live in did not give her an education for which her family didn’t have to sacrifice every penny. The society we live in did not give her a safe bus to go home. Admitting this failure of our society would be admitting that our society is one that produces rapists. This admittance would require us to acknowledge that we’re complicit in rape culture. So we denounced Jyoti Singh as India’s Daughter, because how could we be a part of rape culture? We, who took to the streets in angry mobs holding candles and slogans screaming ‘We are not rapists!’ – Just to reaffirm to ourselves that we were in deed innocent, forgetting briefly that people aren’t born rapists, but are products of the environment they spend their lifetime in. We, as a country, made the six men who raped Jyoti Singh.
Instead of accepting our role in her rape, we gave her names such as “Nirbhaya” (one without fear), and perhaps that tells us more about our desire to participate in the unfolding of her fate than it does about her actual identity. Till date, we really don’t know (and will never know) anything about her actual identity – what she was through her own eyes. We don’t have any first-hand accounts of her dreams and aspirations and who she saw herself to be. And yet we embraced ‘Nirbhaya’, for we were so thirsty to be included in her valiant tale, and to feel like heroes chanting ‘We are not rapists!’ – Anything to distract us from our role in rape culture.
Even as she was lying unconscious in a Singapore hospital from the gruesome injuries they inflicted on her, we called her a survivor. And when she closed her eyes to never open them again, we said that she died fearlessly – Nirbhaya. What is this obsession with a fearless survivor rhetoric that fascinates us so much? If Jyoti Singh were still alive, she may have told us (like many rape ‘survivors’ have spoken out about in the past) that she was scared for her life when the men inserted a rod up her vagina. She may have told us that nothing was worth dying for.
Not only is the survivor rhetoric psychologically disorienting for a victim of sexual violence, it is inactionable. Imagine being a victim of sexual violence, and having only fearless survivors around you to pressurize you into pretending to be brave? Imagine being told by the media across the country that you are a survivor when you yourself don’t feel ready to take on such a big name?
Let me make an important disclaimer at this point – I am not claiming that victims and survivors are a binary. A temporal, context-specific element is also relevant: ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ may refer to the same individual at different points in time and in different contexts, ranging from the direct experience of violence to the process of recovery and from legal settings to advocacy efforts.
Being a victim is too often associated with the baggage of being vulnerable and powerless and the shamefulness of being considered weak. We rarely come to the realization that being a victim also brings with it the capacity to uniquely effect change – reconnect with other victims, channelize the anger towards a perpetrator into societal traction. (Of course this does not imply that only a victim can effect change or that all victims should necessarily effect change). However, at the point where as third-parties, we jump in to proclaim a victim a survivor prematurely, we lose the tiny window of opportunity to do that.
I was conversing with a victim of childhood physical assault and traumatisation of being gay in a homophobic society such as ours recently. He said that he had adopted this popular garb of being a ‘survivor’ to make himself feel better about his situation. However, at the point where he sat down at his desk to write about his experiences so he could share them with the world, he found himself staring at a blank screen. How could he write about being a victim when he was not supposed to be one, when he had supposedly risen above victimhood altogether? It was only after he shed his survivor-hood facade that he was able to reconnect with his vulnerability and express it. He could then go back to his childhood home, reconnect with his abusive family, and gain closure.
So yes, at some point, we all need to transcend the phase of being a victim and enter survivor-hood, leaving behind wounds to the best extent possible, even if the scars may never fully go away. But please, let victims decide when that time has come, and allow them to take control of their own narrative. Let us recognize our role as society in that process and our complicity in the crime. Acknowledging complicity can help us as a society be more careful with the rhetoric we have so far taken the liberty to abuse. Let us reclaim victimhood for the powerful phase that it can be for the victim, instead of prematurely pressurizing one into being a survivor. And as far as Jyoti Singh is concerned, let us remember her for who she was – not some fearless hero who laughed in the face of rape and death, but simply as a woman who paid with her life for our failure in creating a safe society.