In all the reporting of the horrific gang rape and beating in Delhi that captivated international media in December, one thing remained obscured until very recently: the victim’s name. In keeping with Indian law and common decency, her name wasn’t printed in reports about the case. The names of rape victims are kept confidential for their safety and privacy, and they should have a say in whether that information is disclosed, because rape is such an intimate, invasive crime.
This isn’t about shame, but about the right to privacy, especially in high profile cases. Already, there’s been tension in India over revealing her name; a news network was charged for airing an interview with the man who was with her during the attack, and Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, demanded that her name be made public, ostensibly to name a law after her:
Wondering what interest is served by continuing anonymity of #DelhGangRape victim. Why not name&honour her as a real person w/own identity?
NAMES, NAMES, NAMES
And yet, that all blew open this weekend when the victim’s name was revealed and a tide of quickly contradicting stories racked up. Out of respect, I’m not going to name her here, because we have no way of knowing if she wanted to be named when her story was publicized. By law, her family gets to determine whether her name should be released, and here’s where things get tricky.
On 5 January, the “Mirror” published a detailed interview with the victim’s father and family in which she was explicitly named, and her father is quoted as saying, “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.”
That sounds like a pretty clear license to go ahead and print her name, which is exactly what the paper did, resulting in a rapid pickup of the news around the world and, yes, the creation of a Twitter hashtag.
However, what her father actually said may be a bit more complicated. Responding to the revelation of his daughter’s name in international media, he says that what he meant was that he would be happy to see her name revealed “if the government uses my daughter's name for a new law for crime against women that is more stringent and better framed that the existing one... I want my daughter to be known as the one who could bring a change in the society and laws, and not as a victim of a barbaric crime.”
Understandably. The names of victims too often become shorthands and rallying cries that reduce their lives to little more than the moments of horror in their lives (and noxious “I am/we are all ____” signs carried by clueless activists), and they become martyrs rather than whole human beings. I can definitely see why he might be excited to see a law (or a hospital) named after his daughter to mark social progress brought about in response to the brutality she endured, and why he might not want to have her name widely publicized just because, turning her into “that rape victim.”
TO PRINT OR NOT TO PRINT
The tensions over whether the victim’s name should be revealed, both in India and beyond, highlight ongoing debates about privacy for victims, especially in the wake of a death, when victims can’t speak for themselves. Media, of course, put tremendous pressure on victims and families to disclose as many details as possible because it makes for a better story; the details of people’s lives enrich a narrative and make it more captivating and dynamic for readers, even as they also strip privacy away from the lives of victims.
If you’ve consented to that and chosen to go public with your story -- take, for example, Maria Santos Gorrostieta, the Mexican mayor who proudly displayed bullet wounds from an assassination attempt to the media -- that’s one thing. But if you haven’t, and the media have chosen to break a story that also involves exposing you and your family, you’re forced to live with the consequences just like the people who willingly exposed themselves to get their stories out there, spark conversations, take control of their narratives, or, yes, make some money.
Something terrible happened that day in Delhi, and bits and pieces of the story are emerging as people start to piece it together. These are pieces that need to be told, though sadly the Western media seem to delight in taking an air of cultural superiority in all their reporting on the case (curious indeed, given that the US is currently dealing with the Steubenville scandal, which serves as a reminder that gang rape and other horrors aren’t limited to “those people over there”). These stories need to be told because we need to understand how and why violence against women happens, and what we can do to stop it.
MORE THAN A VICTIM
But as we tell them, do we need to reduce the victim to her victimhood alone? Because “Didi” (“elder sister”) was a lot more than a woman who died after being gang raped. She loved movies, says her brother, and she pressured her family members to do well in school. She was studying physiotherapy, and she was about to start an internship.
The last movie she watched with her brother was “Talaash.”
Whether the “Mirror” deliberately misinterpreted her father’s statements in order to get the scoop on revealing her name, or he genuinely gave permission and later regretted it, or the paper simply overrode his expressed wishes, we’ll never really know.
It’s likely that her name would have eventually come out anyway, even with measures like closing the trial to the public (rape trials are closed by law in India), but that doesn’t mean it should have been disclosed against the wishes of her father.
And the context in which it came out could have made a big difference. If her name had been revealed in the process of passing a law with tougher penalties and better protections for women, that would have been markedly different than in the context of a story reducing her life to a few terrible hours and days of struggling for her life, and a bid to sell papers with an exclusive.