Why does media want to give Delhi gangrape victim a name?

by Dec 24, 2012

One newspaper calls her Nirbhaya. A television channel calls her Amanat. Or Damini. The 23-year-old rape victim is undergoing a rebirth of sorts in the media.

The reasons are perfectly high minded. The names are carefully chosen, laden with the values of Sister Courage and trust.

“She has come to symbolise rare courage, an inspiration for a movement demanding respect for women and much more. Such a symbol deserves a name. We will henceforth call her NIRBHAYA (the Fearless One)” writes TOI.

But the 23-year-old in that hospital bed already has a name. Does she want another name foisted on her? At a time when every day she is trying to retake control over her life and her vital functions, inch by painful inch, what must it feel like to know that a newspaper or a television channel has on its own re-christened her?

A name is a huge part of your identity. That’s why parents spend so much time in choosing a name for their child. That’s why there are entire books about baby names. The purpose of anonymity was never to create the empty space for a ‘name-the-victim’ competition. The victim has become a symbol for so many in India but like the unknown soldier, some of her power lies in not knowing her name. The act of naming ironically erases that, even if it is meant to honour her.

Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

This was, and remains, a gangrape that took place on a bus in Delhi, plain and simple. It’s not the ‘Amanat’ gangrape. Or the Nirbhaya gangrape. It’s disconcerting to see headlines like “Support grows for Nirbhaya” or references to her as Nirbhaya without even quotes around the name. It’s as if that is her name now. Why should media have that kind of power? It’s strange to think that a name that is not her own will now become a Google search term for this young woman.

That’s what’s troubling about the media’s rush to give her a name.  It is because we are just unable to write stories about people without naming them? Does she need a name because otherwise she cannot become a slogan - Damini tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhare sath hain (struggle Damini, we are with you)? Is it because it makes it easier to write shorter headlines? Or is this lofty rhetoric some kind of a reflexive defense action because as media we are so terribly implicated in the sexual objectification of women – filling our pages every day with gratuitous pictures of women in come-hither undress? It reeks of piety-come-lately. The question remains: What’s in a name? Does she need a name? Or is it the media that needs a name for her? Are we just plain uneasy with namelessness?

If the young woman at the centre of this decides that indeed she wants to come out and be known, that’s her choice. But all we know until now is that her family has requested that media do not come to them looking for interviews and reactions. Given that, this act of naming feels like a sideways maneuver to thrust an identity on the victim whether or not she wants it.

Actually until this point one of the few good things that came out of this horrendous story was the media’s reaction to it. For a change, the media seemed more preoccupied with the rapists than with the victim. I remember the Park Street rape case in Kolkata and how many stories were published about the victim’s personal life, her family history. Rape by media is too extreme a term but there was a certainly some stripping by media that was happening in the name of reportage. The absconding rapists did not get that much media glare.

This case has felt different  in very welcome ways.

Right from the get go, the focus has been on the perpetrators. Television reporters went to their slum and talked to neighbours. Journalists trudged to far away villages to track down their parents. More and more details have emerged about the family stories behind the men, their schooling, their jobs, what they had for dinner that terrible night. We know now how one was called Mental because of his propensity for violence, that one was a minor, a runaway who slept on the bus, that another was a gym attendant.

We can argue whether it's intrustive to thrust microphones into the faces of poor bewildered villagers and ask if their sons should hanged. But as Salil Tripathi writes in The Mint the media glare should definitely not be on the woman.

I don’t want to know where she lives. I don’t want to know details of what was done to her. I don’t want to know her friend’s name, or where he works, what he wants to do with his life, and where they live. I don’t want to know if they had gone out the first time or many times. I don’t want to know if they were active in the social media, nor to see their Facebook pages, their Tweets, their Orkut profiles, or recollections from their friends. 
I don’t want to know if she had boyfriends before. I don’t want to know if they had a favourite restaurant or what she likes to eat.

Let’s not deny it. As a culture, we have a prurient interest in exactly all those details. And the media, in the name of giving us what we want, has been happy to supply us with much of that.

If this 23-year-old is able to shame the media into changing its culture that is very welcome indeed.

But the media needs to remember the power of this young woman is not because she is Nirbhaya or Amanat.  Those are names that retroactively give her special powers. What happened to her has resonated so sharply is because she was not special. She was just an ordinary nameless woman who boarded a bus to go home after watching a film. We can all relate to that. We should leave it that way.

She does not have a name, not because she lacks one, but because its absence reminds us again and again about the horror of what happened to her. Sometimes there is power in namelessness beyond the privacy issue. It allows her to be anybody. And it allows everybody to put themselves in her place.

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