Sunday, March 15, 2015

Suzette Jordan showed that India isn't ready for rape survivors who deny their victimhood

Published in on March 14, 2015

A 40-year-old woman died of meningo-encephalitis in a Kolkata hospital on March 13.  We need never have known her name.  Yet Suzette Jordan is a name we do know.  She is also “India’s daughter” and her story is exceptional.

A little over three years ago, on February 5, 2012, Jordan went to a nightclub with friends on Kolkata’s famous Park Street.  A man she met there offered her a lift home.  Instead of dropping her to her destination, Jordan was gang-raped and then flung out of the car.

She picked herself up and reported the rape.  Because it happened in the heart of Kolkata, the crime attracted enormous media attention. Jordan became known as the “Park Street rape victim”.  But few applauded her courage at complaining to the authorities about the crime. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Jordan had fabricated the case.  Others suggested that she was a prostitute.  What was she doing out at a nightclub when she was the mother of two girls, people asked.  For months, Jordan suffered in silence, fought her case through a hostile court, with little sympathy from even the judge.

Going public

A year later, Jordan decided to come out in the open.  “Why should I hide my identity when it was not even my fault?” she told NDTV.  “Why should I be ashamed of something I did not give rise to?  I was subjected to torture, and I was subjected to rape, and I am fighting and I will fight.”

She fought.  But there was little sympathy from society. Her daughters, who she brought up as a single mother, were mocked at school.  No one would give her a job, despite interventions from the few who were sympathetic.  She finally got one with an NGO on a helpline for women in distress.

Jordan was not an exception in that she was raped.  In the last two weeks, the brutal rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi has foregrounded the intense discussion about whether the telecast of Leslee Udwin’s film on that rape, India’s Daughter, should be allowed in this country.

Exposing hypocrisy

But Jordan stood out because she decided to reveal her identity.  By openly declaring that she was the “Park Street rape victim”, Jordan exposed the hypocrisy of Indian society, its fake sympathies for women victims of sexual assault that disappear if the woman stands up and flings off the shroud of shame society expects her to wear for the rest of her life.

Jordan’s experience illustrates how the blame for rape continues to cling to the survivor if she chooses to deny victimhood.  Who knows what the December 16 victim, whose name we still do not take, would have suffered had she lived.  Because we now celebrate her life, have given her a fictitious name, we can fool ourselves into believing that we respect and honour women like her. But do we?

While India’s Daughter brought home the unrepentant attitude of the convict, Mukesh Singh, and the crass and misogynistic views of the defence lawyers, it did not reveal what survivors of rape face if they dare to fight their cases.

Humiliating court procedures

Speaking of her experience in court to a friend, Jordan mentioned how she was humiliated, made to repeat what she suffered and felt as if she had been gang-raped repeatedly in court.  Lawyer Flavia Agnes has written about how a Mumbai journalist who was gang-raped in August 2013 had to walk up and tap the accused on the shoulder in the police line-up and state loudly what he did to her.  The woman raped in December by a taxi driver in Delhi, what is known as the Uber rape case, has had to turn to the Supreme Court to appeal against repeated questioning by the defence.

Yes, the law has changed, but not the conduct of the police, lawyers, or the atmosphere in our courts where rape cases are heard.  This is what Jordan’s story tells us.

In her death perhaps she will get the respect that was denied to her when she was alive.  Respect for shedding anonymity, respect for refusing to be pitied, respect for insisting that the shame was with the rapists and not with the woman assaulted.

Unfortunately, given what Jordan went through in the two years since she came out in public, her story is unlikely to encourage others to follow her example.  We were not ready for Suzette Jordan; we still aren’t.

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