Editor's note: Suzette Jordan, 40, died of meningoencephalitis at a hospital in Kolkata on Friday. This is an interview we ran with her on 2 July 2013, detailing her immensely brave struggle to break out of the 'rape victim' label and fight to be recognised as 'Suzette Jordan'. In tribute to her struggle, we are republishing this piece.
Suzette Jordan went out with friends to have a couple of drinks at a nightclub in a five star hotel in Kolkata in February 2012.
At the end of the night, she was thrown from a car onto the street, bruised, battered, gang-raped, her clothes ripped half off. Her personal tragedy soon became a political football. The Chief Minister dismissed her case as a sajano ghatana (manufactured incident). Ministers made remarks about Jordan’s character – what kind of a mother would be out at discotheque so late at night?
Over the next fifteen months, Suzette Jordan became a blurred image on our television screens, a silhouette, a disembodied voice with an identifying label: the Park Street rape victim.
But those who knew her could easily tell who she was, even from a silhouette. “My hair, it’s so curly,” she says. Perfect strangers came up to her on the street, sometimes while she was with her teenaged daughters, to ask, “Are you the Park Street rape victim?”
“It frightened me. I started going into a shell,” she says. Then one day she decided enough was enough. “I was raped. I was brutally raped. But I am alive and I want to fight,” says Jordan. “I need to fight as I am, not behind a mask, not behind a screen, not behind a blurred image.”
Like a re-rape
The journey back from being 'the Park Street rape victim' to becoming Suzette Jordan once again has been tortuous. Rape makes news but the grueling aftermath often wreaks a whole other trauma. Jordan remembers the first few days after the incident as a blur of pain and humiliation. “I couldn’t even get up to go the loo. My father had to lift me off the bed to take me to the bathroom. I am 37 years old. That was so embarrassing.”
She recounts the gauntlet of trying to file the FIR at the police station where there were only men. “They laughed at me. They didn’t take me seriously,” she says. She remembers the policemen who made leering comments about going to the disco and drinking beers on Valentine’s Day while she waited.
She shudders as she talks about the medical test, standing naked, being poked and prodded, the finger testing, the swab testing even though the doctors tried to be comforting. One said she was lucky she was fair. The bruises were still visible. “I felt like a piece of meat,” she says. “It’s like a re-rape,” says Women’s activist and entrepreneur Santasree Chaudhuri.
Every time she would read about another brutal gang rape she’d wonder about her own ordeal. “It drove me crazy, wondering what the hell they did to me while I was unconscious. I was in so much pain. I couldn’t move my body.”
Then there were the innumerable comments from strangers and acquaintances alike. Politicians dismissed her as a prostitute, claiming this was not a rape but a deal gone wrong. Her case was compared unfavorably to the Nirbhaya case – bad victim vs good victim. “When my daughters went to school in the morning, some people would look at them in weird ways and pass comments,” says Jordan.
The comments about her character stung.
“I’ve been a single mom for 11 years. Instead of saluting you for being a both mother and father, they cast aspersions on you. Oh, she’s a single mom. Her husband left her. She might have been a prostitute.” She says the “dignitaries” who make these remarks don’t realize the implications of what they are saying. “You called me a prostitute and you don’t even know me. And then you endanger the life of an actual prostitute. You are trying to say her word does not matter and anyone can do anything to her.”
Her decision to make her identity public has also ruffled feathers at her trial which is taking place in camera. “A lawyer has said I am ruining the sanctity of the courtroom,” she says. “But when the courtroom doors open, the entire families of the accused are outside. They are clicking me on their phones. What about my sanctity?”
No one called back
In the aftermath of the rape, Jordan's family rallied around her, her teenaged daughters told her they didn’t care what anyone called her, her 76-year old grandmother stoutly encouraged her to go to the police, and the NGO Swayam supported her. But emotional support didn't pay the bills, and she was running out of money.
She went for job interviews but once they saw the NGO reference in her CV, they would put two and two together. “Never ever till today has anyone gotten back to me,” says Jordan who started wondering “Am I really that worthless? Because I was at a nightclub? If nightclubs are so bad then shut them down.” Her confidence was shattered. “I started taking so many anti-depressants, sleeping tablets. I had nightmares. I would wake up screaming. I was a mess. I was hurting myself. Had it not been for my parents and my babies, I definitely would have been dead.”
Women’s activist and entrepreneur Santasree Chaudhuri also tried to get her a job. “With my background and social contacts, it’s not very difficult for me to get anyone a job in Kolkata,” says Chaudhuri. “I’ve been into women’s activism for twenty years. I empower women by giving them jobs.” She didn’t hide Jordan’s identity from those she approached. “They all said OK, I’ll get back to you. I just waited for the return call. Till today no return call. And these are very good friends.”
In the end, Chaudhuri hired Jordan at a helpline she started called Survivors For Victims of Social Injustice. The remuneration is modest. “I am still waiting someday a call will come with a 60,000 rupee job for Suzette,” says Chaudhuri who works mostly with domestic violence victims, something she herself once had to face. She says she could have done a charity event, collected 1000 rupees each from wealthy friends, instead of hiring Jordan. But she thought the helpline would be an act of active compassion. “She’s not only healing. She’s also helping.”
Healing and helping
Last month, a 20-year-old student was set upon by a gang of men on her way home from college in Kamdhuni village in Barasat on the outskirts of Kolkata. She did not survive the attack.
Jordan went with Chaudhuri to Kamdhuni village to visit that victim’s family, but could not bring herself to talk to the mother. “My feet just froze,” she says. A few days later there was a protest led by women’s rights groups for the rape victim. Chaudhuri asked Jordan to come along.
“I told her do you want to go out every day as a victim or as Suzette,” says Chaudhuri. "Are you still a victim or a survivor? Criminals should hide their identity. Not you." On the way to the protest, when Jordan realized she hadn’t brought a scarf to hide her face, Chaudhuri told her, “You have forgotten, perhaps that was God’s instruction."
Chauduri says as Jordan walked into that crowd of 300-400 women, many of whom already knew her story, it was electrifying. “More than me, she was ready. When we turned into Park Street and she shouted halla bol I knew something had clicked.”
Jordan is now taking life one day at a time, re-learning the simpler pleasures of life – cooking a big prawn curry for the family, playing with her feisty little white kitten, looking after her plants.
However the toll still shows. She screams at her daughters if they are even 10 minutes late coming home. And her own social life has changed inalterably. “I love discos. I love dancing but haven’t been back since then. I want to go out to a party. I want to dress up the way I like. But I am so scared to do that.”
Asked if she wants the politicians who to apologize, Jordan says she doesn’t care. “I have nothing against those people. I just don’t know why they are taking my rape so personally. I have been raped. They can make it up to me by giving me justice. Not just for me but for every other woman like me in the state.”