How kind is Indian society to victims of sexual violence?
Recently, I had gone to pick up my son from school along with a noted film director. We just had a meeting and she accompanied me there only to continue our discussion.
As we stood in front of the school waiting for my son, I noticed people looking at her approvingly.
While heading home, I wondered how the same people would have turned their faces away if Suzette Jordan had accompanied me instead of this celebrity.
The survivor of an infamous “Park Street gang-rape” in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata in February 2012, Suzette suffered the social stigma of being a rape survivor.
I really don’t know what would have happened if Suzette had been with me. But I am sure of one thing: My fellow school guardians would definitely have been divided in their reactions. While some would probably be sympathetic towards her, some would have staunchly disapproved my association with her.
While Suzette told me that people such as her daughter’s friends’ parents and their school principal were wonderful in supporting her after the incident, there were many people around her who were not.
In one case, Suzette went to a restaurant with a friend and was denied entry. When the media intervened and protests popped up on social media, the restaurant came up with vague excuses for denying her entry. They said it had nothing to do with her status as a victim.
Fortunately, Jordan is not in this world to suffer that pain and humiliation any more. This single mother of two girls died earlier this year after getting infected by a deadly form of meningitis.
Although cases of sexual violence against women are reported in media and at police stations in India, the shame of it sticks with them.
What is happening in India may be true to most rape survivors in societies across Asia.
In a recent case of sexual abuse of two girls in West Yorkshire, the judge gave a more severe sentence to the perpetrator Jamal Muhammed Raheem Ul Nasir, as he felt that the two girls would suffer more because of the social stigma attached to rape survivors in the continent.
Sally Cahill Q, the judge who jailed Nasir, specifically said that the fact that the victims were Asians had been factored in as an “aggravating feature” when passing the sentence.
She stated that the victims and their families had suffered particular “shame” in their communities because of what had happened to them.
Additionally, there were cultural concerns that the girls’ future prospects of being regarded as a good catch for arranged marriages might be ruined.
Survivors cannot be named
This is precisely why disclosure of the name of a rape victim or any other clues that might lead to the identification of the rape victim is an offence punishable by law in India.
In more advanced societies like UK and US, the victim is not named. This allows her to go back to a normal life and have a future and not be judged constantly by people for a crime in which she had no part to play.
In fact, countries like Canada and Australia have the rape shield law where a victim’s past sexual behavior cannot be taken into account to prove her consent during her rape trial.
People knew Suzette Jordan as the rape survivor because she chose to disclose her identity.
Once she told me in an interview that when she was shown on TV, her curly hair was a dead giveaway and one television channel even gave out her father’s address so she had random neighbors stopping her and asking, “Were you the one on Park Street?”
Sensitivity towards victims
The Mathura rape was the first case in India that brought attention to the issue of violence against women way back in 1972.
Mathura was raped by two police men in custody. She was around 16 then and wanted to marry a man from her village but from a different caste. Her brothers objected to this and filed a police report. She and her boyfriend were picked up by police. Later, her alleged rapists were acquitted.
This led to widespread protests which became a turning point in women’s movement in India. Rape laws were amended and several women’s organizations began giving voice to the voiceless rape survivors.
Four decades later, CNN reporter Moni Basu went looking for Mathura and found that she had moved to another village, got married and had two grown-up sons.
She still kept her original name as media lacked the sense to protect her identity.
The law that survivors of rape cannot be named was passed in 1983.
When Basu tried to interview Mathura, her son did not let her talk.
Basu wrote: “I understand he will not allow his mother to speak freely, that Mathura has no say in the matter. They have nothing but their reputations. They will not risk the black mark of rape again.”
She further wrote: “I look at her and think that … poverty and lack of education alone saved her. She was unlike Nirbhaya (name changed), the 2012 Delhi rape victim.
Nirbhaya was a college student studying physiotherapy. Had she survived the brutal attack in a moving bus, she might have had to deal with the stigma of rape that could have affected her career and caused immense pain to her family.
In the case of Mathura, her simple routine life hardly gave her time to dwell on her trauma. For her, what people thought or said about her also did not matter.
Getting back to normal life
Dr Tumpa Mukherjee, who teaches sociology at Women’s Christian College in Kolkata, said: “Many rape victims are not letting the perceptions of society affect them. For instance, the photojournalist who was gang- raped in the compound of the defunct Shakti Mills in Mahalakshmi, Mumbai, is still continuing with her job.”
In rural India, not much has changed since Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped in 1992.
Devi was an dalit social worker from Bhateri, Rajasthan, who was allegedly gang-raped in 1992 by higher-caste men for her efforts to prevent a child marriage in their family.
Her subsequent treatment by the police and court acquittal of the accused drew national and international media attention and became another turning point in India’s women’s movement.
Later, she was honored with cash awards and other prizes for her courage.
But soon, she, along with her husband and son, was ostracized from her native village. Despite efforts by her brothers, villagers did not want her back.
A film was later made in Hindi on her life titled Bawandar (Sandstorm).
A few years back, I had visited a residential rehabilitation home in Kolkata where girls recovered from the trauma of sexual violence and got themselves educated and learned skills that would help them find a job.
A marriage ceremony was going on at the home. I was informed this was not uncommon. These were mostly love marriages.
One woman I met with said she had been a rape victim and an inmate there. Later, she was married to a doctor and had children. She comes to attend weddings and functions there regularly.
“My presence gives them hope that it is possible to have a life after what we have gone through,” she said.
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
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