Adding to the Victim’s Trauma

We have to question the media’s thirst for every detail about this woman’s condition, their invasion of privacy. Was it really necessary for the doctors to give out a daily health bulletin on live television, asks KALPANA SHARMA.

“It’s like the life we have never existed … every day now passes in a flash”.  This was the headline in the Indian Express on December 25, 2012.  And it is a quote from the younger brother of the 23-year-old survivor of the heinous gang rape that took place on a Delhi whiteline bus on December 16, 2012.

Since then there have been thousands of words spoken on television and written in the print media, scores of slogans shouted on the streets, especially in Delhi, by women and men, many of them young.  There is justifiable anger and anguish over what this one rape, among the daily occurrence of sexual assaults all over India, represents for the future of Indian women, not just their safety but also their lives as free individuals in a free country.

Yet in the middle of all the noise and slogans many people, including the media, appear to have forgotten that the story is also about an individual and her family, and their right to have some privacy.  The Indian Express story was an essential reality check, a reminder of how things could be, or should be, when such terrible things happen.

Put yourself in the shoes of the 19-year-old brother of this woman.  She is constantly described as a “victim”.  While she certainly was the victim of a horrendous crime, surely the more accurate description is to call her a “survivor”.  This might be just another term, but it places everything in a different perspective.

Amongst the many articles that have been written and circulated in the last 10 days, one that raised a pertinent point appeared in the American feminist journal “Off our backs”.  In the article “Male-pattern violence”, the author, Jennie Ruby asks why the media always reports that a woman has been raped but not that a man has raped a woman.  Terming it “gender dyslexia”, she writes:

“This reluctance to talk about men’s violence is widespread and seems to amount almost to a taboo. The news media report that “a woman was raped,” but never say “a man raped a woman.” Analyses of school violence talk about “kids killing kids,” ignoring the fact that it is almost exclusively boys committing the violence. Terms like “domestic violence” mask the fact that most of this violence is committed by men. Feminists and feminist organizations also fall into this pattern by using the term “violence against women.” This wording puts the focus on women as victims and hides who is perpetrating the violence. If we can’t even say who is doing most of the violence in the world, how can we hope to stop it?”

So even if nothing else changes, the media should at least have another look at the terminology it uses when reporting on such cases.

Secondly, we have to question the media’s thirst for every detail about this woman’s condition.  Was it really necessary for the panel of doctors to give out a daily health bulletin on live television?  How does this help?  Is this not feeding into voyeurism?  When a person is so critical, they waver between life and death.  There are days when there is an improvement; at other times it seems hopeless. Anyone who has had to care for a person in this condition knows how your emotions swing from hope to despair almost by the hour.  In such a situation, you do not need people constantly asking you “how is she/he?” or “what is her/his BP, pulse rate, red blood count etc etc”.  Why should anyone but the family be told all this?  Is this not a gross invasion of privacy?  What were the doctors at Safdarjung Hospital thinking when they agreed to the demand for a daily news bulletin? Surely the doctors could have told the media firmly that the girl’s privacy had to respected and that they would give information as and when the family agreed to this being made public.  Was the family even consulted before all this was done?

And fourth, let us look at why some newspapers and TV channels felt they had to give the woman a fictitious name, as if respecting her anonymity was too daunting a challenge for journalists to respect.  Hence, while Times of India has decided to call her Nirbhaya, and patted itself on the back for having picked what it deems is an appropriate name given her courage, other are variously calling her Damini, Amanat etc.  But her brother, who has to hear these names, told the Indian Express,  “It’s hard to digest that this is my sister they are talking about.”  He says the first time he saw one of these names flashing on TV, he thought the channel had got his sister’s name wrong.  He says he was furious but then someone explained to him that “it is a phenomenon known as personification.  I don’t like it, but they say she is the face of a movement.”

Unfortunately, the young man was misinformed about the meaning of “personification” and how it is commonly used.  Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Anthropomorphism or personification is any attribution of human characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to other animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organizations, governments, spirits or deities.”

Is it really that difficult to follow this story without dramatizing it further, giving the survivor a fictitious name – as if by doing that the horrific aspects of this story will become more believable.  It is astounding that responsible media persons can endorse such a decision from within these media organisations.

The survivor’s brother also told the Indian Express about the pressure put on his father to issue an appeal once violence broke out during the demonstrations at India Gate.  After this experience, his father does not want to speak to anyone in the media. “My father is scared that a wrong message has gone out.  It seems like we don’t want the protests. We are suffering so much, why should we be against the movement?  Now he has decided against speaking to the media.  There were more requests from the police, but we told them we don’t want to risk it again”, he told IE.

As I write this, the woman has been taken to Singapore for treatment and her life still hangs by a thread.  One hopes the daily health bulletins will stop and the family is allowed its right to choose what it wants to convey to the world outside.  She is their daughter/sister.  Her story might have galvanized people to come out on the street and demand changes in the law.  But that is a decision that people made; she did not and neither did her family.  The media must respect that even as the wider debate on rape, on women’s safety, on the criminal justice system and the law, and on the misogyny in Indian society continues.  (Courtesy: thehoot.org)

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