As the ashes of the young New Delhi rape victim were scattered in the Ganges this week, a new debate started to take shape about the chilling attack that has sent India into a period of deep introspection. For weeks, protesters and newspapers have used a series of symbolic names to refer to the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who died Dec. 29 from the injuries inflicted on her during a brutal gang rape earlier in the month. One network calls her the Braveheart; another calls her Amanat (Treasure). That’s because Indian law prohibits making public the names of victims of rape. The Indian press, which has reported extensively on the victim’s family, friends and hometown, has taken great care to obscure any details that may identify her.
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Now some are questioning why. This week, Minister of Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor wondered aloud on his popular Twitter feed what, exactly, the purpose was of keeping the victim’s name shrouded in secrecy. “Why not name&honour her as a real person w/own identity?” he wrote on Jan. 1. “Unless her parents object, she should be honoured & the revised anti-rape law named after her. She was a human being w/a name, not just a symbol.”
Protecting the anonymity of rape victims in court and the media is a widely practiced way to give them the space to recover and to protect them from further harm. It is part of the Indian penal code and has been supported in amendments to the country’s antirape legislation. In 1983, that law went through several changes after another egregious sexual assault mobilized women’s groups to fight for improvements to the law. In recent weeks, the government has again promised several revisions that would toughen it further, one of several measures the government has taken to improve the safety of women in India since the Dec. 16 attack. “Confidentiality is a human right when it comes to the victim,” says Anne Stenhammer, the regional program director for U.N. Women South Asia. “If the family of the victim wants to reveal the name, that is a different case.”
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Evidently, at least some of the family does. Support for Tharoor’s idea has come from protesters, activists and more recently the victim’s father. Naming the revised antirape law after his daughter would be “a step in the right direction,” the father said in a recent interview with news network CNN-IBN. “A law named after an individual, for whom the entire country came together, will obviously be much more effective,” he said. “This will also ensure that she will be immortalized forever.”
But not everyone has clambered aboard. The ruling Congress Party, to which Tharoor belongs, was irked that the high-profile Minister floated the idea without consulting the government first. While not prohibited, naming laws after individuals in order to memorialize them and help the public identify with a cause, like Jessica’s Law and Megan’s Law in the U.S., has not been practiced in India. That in itself is not much of a reason not to reconsider. But there is a graver case to be made for not changing India’s culture of confidentiality for rape victims, even with the family’s permission. More than in other societies, “there is a huge stigma to the survivor and victim of rape [in India],” says Vrinda Grover, a human-rights lawyer in New Delhi. “It is the survivor and victim who is blamed for the sexual assault, and her life is made completely hellish … Confidentiality allows her to move on.”
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Grover feels that the anonymity of the victim may have helped people in India wake up to the fact that they too are not safe, making their demands for change louder. The gang-rape victim had just left a movie at a mall with a companion and was lured onto a private bus, where she was attacked for over an hour. The banality of her circumstances has helped bring her case home in a powerful way and has helped sustain the weeks-long protests around the country. “My sense is what drew [the protesters] to this was the anonymity of the victim,” says Grover. “Each one of us could identify with her suffering.” Others say the debate, which has gotten a lot of ink and airtime in recent days, has simply become a sideshow. A spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party called Tharoor’s suggestion a “needless diversion” from the real task at hand — getting changes made to the existing law that will make it a more effective tool in protecting women in a nation where rape is unsettlingly common.
But the fact that it is a debate at all is yet another encouraging indicator — like the unprecedented tide of outrage that has swept the country — that people are rethinking everything at the moment. The victim has become an unexpectedly vital symbol of just how dangerous the institutional and social complacency over treating women as second-class citizens has become in India. With so many young people out on the streets, a sense of real hope is forming that this case could stir lasting change. “There has been an earthquake,” says Stenhammer. “The most important thing is not to lose focus — fast-track the courts, change the law where we have found gaps and focus on what we can do together. There has to be a basic systemic change, a mind-set change. There is a lot to do.”
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