x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A light leads the way forward from India's crisis of conscience

In revealing his daughter's name, a father in India was not just being brave. His courageous action may break the stigma about naming victims in India.

What would Delhi's "braveheart" have wanted? This is a question that faces India in the aftermath of the brutal rape of a student on the night of December 16.

The father of the victim revealed her name to The Sunday People newspaper in the UK on Saturday. "My daughter didn't do anything wrong; she died while protecting herself," her father told the newspaper. "I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter."

More prescient words in the face of tragedy have rarely have been spoken. For far too long, and in too many cultures, victims of rape have had to shoulder the blame.

In many countries, laws grant victims anonymity, ostensibly to protect them and allow them to move on with their lives. But such protection also implies a certain culpability - "she invited it" - that is unusual with regard to the victims of other crimes.

The unspoken attitude is that women who have been raped - and the victims are usually women - are somehow different from the victims of other crimes. Attitudes in many societies, and not just in India, have a pejorative edge when it comes to rape.

In revealing his daughter's name, the father was not just being brave. He may well change the course of Indian lawmaking and attitudes towards women. Certainly, his courageous action may break the stigma about naming victims, which still restrains journalists in India, including myself in this article, from naming this 23-year-old woman in print.

Politicians have gone on the record saying some very stupid things. One ventured that rape happens only in cities, not in rural India, which is absolutely absurd. On tea plantations and in villages, women are often molested by their bosses or even relatives. Others have made crass comments about how rape is a modern phenomenon. Also untrue, and idiotic to boot.

Naturally, these comments have been made by men. The good news is that such commentators have been mocked by Indians of every stratum. Protests and calls for more stringent laws against rape continue everyday. India, it seems, has finally risen in unison.

I am not 23, but I am a woman in India and, like most, I have experienced sexual harassment in a multitude of shades: in public and private, from relatives and strangers, on roads and in rooms, through word and deed. I am familiar with the sexual innuendo, taunts and threats that fall under the misleading phrase "Eve teasing".

But my experiences are mere specks when compared to the scale of this tragedy. India is a minefield for women - as the mother of two daughters, I worry about this every day. It could have been any of us taking a bus home that night after watching a movie.

What would this woman have wanted? I believe that she would have wanted what her father has done: she would have wanted her name to be revealed. The nebulous way in which she has been described by the Indian media and public for so long is insulting given how much we know about the crime.

Some media call her nir bhaya, which means "without fear" in Hindi, when in fact she was probably terrified. They have called her Amanat, which means "treasure", which she certainly was: a treasured daughter, sister and friend. They call her Damini, or bold, which she may have been. But it shouldn't be an act of courage for a woman, with a friend, to take a bus in Delhi at 9.30pm.

The law is taking its course in this case with a speed that is unusual for India. People from all walks of life continue to protest in India's unsafe streets. Politicians are half-heartedly crafting policy to make India safer - and keep the protesters at bay.

Given that her father has revealed her name, lawmakers have a new, powerful option. This woman could be honoured by a new stringent law on behalf of all Indian women. There is a precedent: in the United States, Megan's Law and Amber Alert are named after children who were abducted and murdered.

If done right, and with a great deal of sensitivity, a similar law named after this young woman - a light who has been extinguished in our society - would be a step towards making our country safe. All Indians, both men and women, need such a collective conscience.

 

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

www.shobanarayan.com