Rape victim's identity: disclosure for whom?

BY Laxmi Murthy| IN Media Practice | 04/09/2013
When and how a sexual assault victim chooses to reveal her identity is a product of complex factors. It takes immense courage to stand up and fight, but the decision must remain hers, not the media's.
LAXMI MURTHY responds to Bachi Karkaria~s "Don~t make her lose her face".

In June this year, Suzette Jordan, 38, shed the title "Park Street case" and courageously claimed her identity as a woman who had been raped but was not willing to remain a victim. This process of "coming out" took place almost a year and a half after she had been gang-raped in a moving car in Park Street, Kolkata. She joins the ranks of feisty women like Bhanwari Devi, Suman Rani, Bilkis Banu and Soni Sori, who have been subjected to rape and sexual violence but are determined to break the silence and fight back. With the support of the women's movement and civil rights activists who have stuck by them, these women chose to challenge the stigma of rape and have gone on to become the "face" of campaigns to end sexual violence against women. 

In her disingenuous editorial page comment in the Times of India on 3 September, "Don't make her lose face" Bachi Karkaria exhorts women who have been raped: "reveal your identity and help cast aside the veil of misplaced disgrace." Ms Karkaria adds to the victim blaming by declaring: "It's time the raped woman stopped allowing us to add insult to her physical and mental injury by doubly burdening her with shame." It is cruel to even suggest that a raped woman has a choice in being further burdened with shame, when shame and stigma are societal burdens thrust upon her without her consent. The veil of shame around rape and other forms of sexual violence were not created by women, but by a culture that valorises sexual purity and celebrates violent masculinity as the norm. 

A victim is "one who is harmed or injured", and all women who have been subjected to sexual violence are victims of crime. However, it is on the strength of their tenacity and grit; with the continued support of family and friends and women's organisations; with legal redress and access to justice that many victims are able to become survivors. Transformation cannot occur with replacing a term as Ms Karkaria seems to suggest - there needs to be not only a change in mind-sets, but in support structures for victims to challenge impunity. Merely by employing the term 'survivor' instead of 'victim', while encouraging reporters to go forth and rake in lascivious details of the acts of sexual violence, extent of injuries or medication being prescribed, the media is not doing a public service or furthering the ends of justice for the victim. Ms Karkaria's post-facto justification of the TOI's deplorable coverage by conveniently employing feminist metaphors rings rather hollow. In fact, it is the "card carrying feminists" she derides who have been consistently spearheading campaigns to end sexual violence, through street protests, advocacy and law reform, and ending stigma around rape has been one of the fulcrums of these campaigns.

Undoubtedly, the strictures - both legal and in media ethics - against revealing the name or any identifying details of those who have been subjected to rape or other forms of sexual violence emanate from notions of honour and shame not only of the individual woman but also of the family and community. Stigma is also linked with the loss of virginity and the high premium in Indian society placed on this tiny membrane. However, they also emanate, it must be remembered, from notions of privacy and confidentiality and the creation of a space to heal with dignity, free from the label of "rape victim". Victims of violent crimes deserve to be allowed to recuperate in every way possible - medical, emotional, psychological and at their workplace. They need to be left in peace, to recover from trauma - both of the rape itself, and the difficult journey to give evidence and stand witness. This is simply not possible with a prying media trying to lap up any tiny detail that would give a new angle to their stories. The media must also be alert to instances where their zeal to outwit their competitors and publish details, such as photographs and statements, or broadcast on-camera testimonies could in fact prejudice the legal case.

Cases of child victims require all the more sensitive handling, as they are in no position to intervene in matters of the media or the criminal justice system. Some issues have special implications when it comes to children. For example, in cases of incest, naming the alleged perpetrator almost directly reveals the identity of the child. While saying that the perpetrators must be named and shamed, in these cases, women's organisations have had to review their strategies of public pressure on high-profile child abusers, as the publicity could back-fire on the abused child, severely impeding her or his road to recovery and rehabilitation.

Currently, there is a well-defined legal position on the question of disclosing the identity of victims of sexual crimes. According to Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, "Whoever prints or publishes the name or any matter which may make known the identity of any person against whom an offence under section 376, section 376A, section 376B, section 376C or section 376D is alleged or found to have been committed (hereafter in this section referred to as the victim) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine." Thus, the IPC prohibits the disclosure, not only of the victim's name, but also of facts that could lead to the identification of the victim, such as the place of residence, identifying or naming the victim's family or friends, university, or work details. This covers dead, minor victims and those with unstable minds. Even if the name is to be disclosed for welfare or legal reasons, this must be done in writing, only to the appropriate government authority, which does not include the media. The only exceptions are when identities are revealed to the police, or by, or with the authorisation in writing of, the victim; or where the victim is dead or minor or of unsound mind, by, or with the authorisation in writing of, the next- of- kin of the victim. One newspaper, The Hindu, desisted from publishing the name of the young woman who was gang-raped in Delhi in December, even though other publications had begun publishing her name after her father revealed her identity and also expressed the family's desire to have the new law on sexual offences to be named after her. They did not have the written permission from her next-of-kin, said a statement by the editor.

Court proceedings also fall under the protection of the law in terms of identity disclosure. The same section says, "Whoever prints or publishes any matter in relation to any proceeding before a court with respect to an offence referred to in sub- section (1) [i.e. sexual crimes] without the previous permission of such court shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine."  The printing or publication of the judgment of any High Court or the Supreme Court however does not amount to an offence within the meaning of this section.

Clearly, several publications have violated the law of the land by publishing identifying markers of the survivor of the Shakti Mills incident, and it is equally evident that these details did not drop into their laps by chance. Reporters were let loose to aggressively seek out anyone willing (or even not so willing) to talk and extract information in desperate attempts at one-upmanship. Why else would reporters swoop down on the locality where the young woman lives and speak to her neighbours or security guards? Why else would they climb on to the window of her hospital room? The larger back-drop of the race for TRPs and the market-driven news industry cannot be ignored while commenting on the flouting of law or lack of media ethics, since the Norms of Journalistic Conduct issued by the Press Council of India (2010) are also unequivocal on the issue of revealing identity. With such clear laws and guidelines in place, media houses must be held accountable for any violations, no matter what their purported motive.

Names are emotive, and undoubtedly laden with potential for compassion and action. It is not surprising that the unknown physio-therapy student, whose rape and murder in Delhi last December prompted large-scale agitations, soon was given names - even the pseudonyms 'Nirbhaya' and 'Damini' became symbols of protest. Yet, the process of privacy and disclosure is complex and must not be reduced to a binary of brave vs cowardly. Often, the drive for justice obviates concerns of privacy, especially in rural settings or close communities where privacy is at premium. Bhanwari Devi for example, has continued to live in the village where she was gang-raped by upper caste men more than 20 years ago. She does not have the luxury of confidentiality, as she was boycotted by her own community for daring to fight the case, and even single trip she made for a court hearing was open knowledge and the subject of taunting. 

When and how a woman chooses to reveal her identity is a product of complex factors. Revealing her own identity can be an empowering process and one that contributes to furthering justice and ending impunity of perpetrators. It takes immense courage to stand up and fight, but the decision must remain hers, not the media's.
Laxmi Murthy is a journalist based in Bangalore.
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