When Vishnu Som of NDTV asked Peter Jordan if his daughter, Suzette, had been a handful as a child, Jordan's first reaction was to smile. Then he said, "There wasn't any rebelliousness in her." And with that one sentence, Jordan dashed any image that Som and others may have had of Suzette being an incorrigible firebrand who made her parents want to tear their hair out as a child before blossoming into a vocal anti-rape campaigner.
Som can be forgiven his assumption. The Suzette Jordan that India knew — or at least glimpsed — because of her appearances on talk shows and news media, blazed with defiance. Incandescent and outspoken, she stood out in a society that associates such deep shame and trauma with rape that it cloaks those who have been raped in a protective cloak of anonymity. But not Suzette. Again and again, in interview after interview, she asserted that she was not a victim. She didn't even want to be known as a rape survivor because she was more than that. She had been raped, yes, and she had survived that horrific experience as well as the nightmare of victim-blaming that had followed. However, being raped didn't define her, for better or for worse. She was Suzette Jordan, an ordinary woman who showed extraordinary spirit when circumstances demanded it of her.
"There wasn't any rebelliousness in her." Peter Jordan's memory of Suzette, who passed away on March 13, is searing in its simplicity because it's a reminder that in many ways, Suzette was like any other Indian. She wasn't born with a need to rage or challenge the world. She grew up like millions of us and her rebellion came when society tried to strip her of normalcy by branding her either a victim or a slut.
When she demanded to be known by her name rather than as an anonymous survivor of rape, Suzette claimed for herself an ordinary life. She demanded that the stigma be taken out of rape — not to downgrade the seriousness of the crime, but to free those who experience rape from the stranglehold of trauma and victimisation. As her daughter wrote in a heart-wrenching school essay that's gone viral, Suzette drank, had tattoos, went to nightclubs, held down jobs — just like so many of us. And she was raped. The crime was heinous, but she didn't experience it because she was different.
The ordinariness of women who get raped is something that we've been forced to confront as a society in recent times. It's that sense of identification with the 'victim' that moved so many of us when we heard of the 2012 Delhi gang rape, in which a young woman's 'mistake' was to go for a movie with a friend and then get on a bus because she wanted to get home quickly. That sense of identification was piercing for so many working women when the Shakti Mills gang rape was reported in Mumbai, in 2013. Cases like these two became high profile because they forced us to confront what we've been trying to ignore as a society — that a rape could 'happen' to any woman, anywhere.
In this fearful gloom, Suzette Jordan shone like a beacon of hope because she was determined to prove that being raped didn't mean the end of life as a woman knows it. Suzette refused to be defined by an act that was beyond her control and actually questioned the normalcy of the perpetrators. When she shrugged off anonymity, she reminded us that she was an ordinary woman who wanted her normal life back; not in a way that would shove rape under the carpet of silence, but to neuter rape of its ability to spawn fear.
It's a crucially important message because the idea of a woman as a victim, particularly if she has survived violence, is embedded so deeply in our consciousness that we hold up any woman who resists misogyny as extraordinary. The balance of power is often so ludicrously against her that it does seem like foolish heroism to challenge the system. And so, she becomes a hero, for reacting in a way that should be but natural.
The woman who confronts the man making lewd comments, the girl who reacts to being groped in public transport, the professional who files a complaint against her boss sexually harassing her, the rape survivor who demands respect and justice — all these are challenges against status quo, but they're also what should the logical consequence of such behaviour. That's why there are laws to this effect. Yet, to complain, resist or file charges seems extraordinary because most of us are too afraid to react. We're scared of possible consequences, of the trauma that could follow, of how the complainant will be singled out instead of the guilty. And so, we encourage ourselves and others to keep quiet. It's termed dignified behaviour, but is actually just accepting perverse behaviour as normal. All because of fear.
In the documentary India's Daughter, Mukesh Singh, convicted in the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, tries to capitalise upon that fear when he says that hanging him will only make other rapists more desperate. If raped women start complaining and those complaints mean death sentences for the rapists, then rapists will just murder their victims, Singh claimed. This is not a theory of human behaviour that's based upon any evidence; it's simply Singh's attempt at scaring those who are clamouring for death sentences for rapists.
Fear happens to be one of the most basic elements of human behaviour and one of the emotional responses that is believed to keep us safe because it enables us to identify threats. There are, however, people who are literally fearless. The 400 recorded cases people with Urbach-Wiethe disease are biologically incapable of feeling afraid because a part of their brain (the amygdala) are calcified. The American radio station NPR spoke to a woman who has Urbach-Wiethe disease and the interview revealed an interesting side effect to fearlessness. Yes, not being afraid has made this woman vulnerable to attack. She's been held at gunpoint and knife point repeatedly. Her first husband beat her viciously. And yet, her response to being held at knife point was to tell her attacker, "Go ahead and cut me. I'll be coming back, and I'll hunt your a**.”
Despite the harrowing incidents she's survived, this woman isn't a quivering mass of paranoia and trauma. Stripped of fear, her experiences aren't traumatic. They're still criminal and unpleasant, but they don't leave scars.
How liberating to imagine looking at violent crimes with that equanimity! Just think of a world in which the onus is upon the one committing the violence, rather than the one who survives it.
Of course, we can't all hope for calcified amygdala in order to deal with the reality of rape and violence, but we can do the next best thing: strip these acts of their ability to instill fear. The only way to achieve this is by removing the stigma that surrounds them. That's what Suzette Jordan did for herself and all of us when she demanded we acknowledge she's much more than than rape survivor.
Suzette Jordan leaves an enormous absence, but hopefully, it's one that we will fill with the necessary conversations about how to survive as a woman in a society that's being struck by a backlash against women who are wriggling out from under patriarchy's thumb. Our statistics for violence against women may not seem as bad as those of countries like America, but the levels of misinformation and victim-blaming in India are depressingly high. We need to talk about rape and harassment responsibly and sensitively, so that understanding is furthered instead of stigma.
In the cacophony surrounding violence against Indian women, we need more voices like Suzette's. Voices that are clear, loud and unashamed. Voices that will start conversations, not fights. As long as we don't let ourselves be gagged by fear, in our ordinariness lies our strength. Suzette Jordan taught us that.
Updated Date: Mar 18, 2015 08:13 AM