A case that is being compared to the December 16 gangrape shows one key departure from precedent. The name and face of the woman who was murdered and allegedly raped in Kerala’s Perambavoor township has not been shielded from the public eye.

We know that a 29-year-old Dalit woman, who had been a student at the Government Law College, Ernakulam, and lived in a one-room house with her mother, was brutally tortured and killed. Her picture was circulated in local papers and her first name mentioned. Her mother and sister, who spoke to the press, have also been quoted by their first names. Her mother’s family name appears in some reports.

The details got out because the crime was initially held to be a case of murder. It was only after the autopsy that possible signs of rape were detected. Still, a week after her death, a hashtag with the murdered woman’s name was doing the rounds on social media and on television channels, her mother and sister were still naming her when they spoke to the press. Protests, many of which were led by groups from the Left, demanded justice in her name.

Journalists reporting on the case and activists running the campaign said that, since the woman’s identity was already in the public domain, they saw no reason to keep it a secret. Once revealed, the woman’s name is uttered again and again, in anger and in grief.

December 16, 2012

Three-and-a-half years ago, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student returning from a movie at a South Delhi mall took a bus from Munirka and was brutalised in the same way. She died two weeks later. In the weeks and months that followed, an outraged public was led into the room in which she lived, shown her nail polish and soft toys, told how well she did in her examinations. Every detail of her life was revealed but the woman herself remained out of sight.

In an interview to a newspaper later, her father said he wanted his daughter to be named, so that it gave courage to other women who survived such attacks. Later, he amended this statement to say he only had no objection if the government named an anti-rape law after his daughter. The cloud of secrecy persisted, however, and the Delhi police registered a criminal case against a tabloid, under Section 228 A of the Indian Penal Code, for naming the woman.

The BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, released in 2015, named the woman. But even that was a foreign production and the government tried to keep Indian audiences away from the film by banning it. Finally, on December 16, 2015, as the juvenile who was one of the rapists walked free, the woman’s mother spoke to the press. “My daughter’s name was Jyoti Singh and I am not ashamed to name her,” she said.

Dead woman’s burden

Women who have suffered sexual crimes in India are pursued by two wildly different myths, that of the shamed victim and the valiant survivor.

Our laws and court judgements tend to hush up the woman’s identity, protect her with walls of silence. Section 228 A, introduced in 1983 and amended in 2013, says the name of a person against whom a sexual offence is committed cannot be published, neither can any information that could reveal her identity. It is punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine. An exception may be made if the victim herself gives written authorisation. Suzette Jordan, survivor of the Park Street gang rape of 2012, elected to do so.

If the victim dies, her name may be published only after written consent from her next of kin. But this consent has to be routed through the chairman or secretary of a welfare organisation recognised by the Central or state government. It is a convoluted process, says legal expert Mrinal Satish, and few people who have just lost a family member will think of going through with it. The provision effectively ensures that the victim’s identity remains entombed for good.

The secrecy surrounding the victim was shored up by court judgments of the 1990s, which ruled that the victim’s name could not be mentioned in legal documents. In State Of Punjab vs Gurmit Singh & Ors (1996), the Supreme Court castigated lower courts for expecting the victim to depose:

  “In the normal course of human conduct, this unmarried minor girl, would not like to give publicity to the traumatic experience she had undergone and would feel terribly embarrassed in relation to the incident to narrate it to her teachers and others over-powered by a feeling of shame and her natural inclination would be to avoid talking about it to any one, lest the family name and honour be brought into controversy.”  

It concluded by saying, “The Courts should, as far as possible, avoid disclosing the name of the prosecutrix in their orders to save further embarrassment to the victim of sex crime.”

The raped girl’s safety or privacy does not seem to be the concern here. The judgment flows from paternalistic notions where the female body is the vessel of a society’s honour, so the brutalised female body must be the source of its shame. It becomes the raped woman’s burden to live out this shame, usually by burying herself in anonymity.

More recent years have seen an apparently progressive backlash to these ideas. As public protests against the December 16 rape gathered force, the case became a turning point for laws on sexual crime in India and the woman became a cause. Newspapers invented new epithets for her. She became “Nirbhaya” (the fearless one), “Damini” (lightning), “Amanat” (treasure) or simply the “Delhi braveheart”. A shaken public found consolation in stories of how Jyoti Singh fought back and resisted.

But even these stories impose stereotypes and patterns of behaviour on the woman. What if one does not not feel brave or cannot fight back in the face of such unspeakable violence?

No symbols now

Public opinion in India insists on making a symbol out of a woman who has been raped and the process is helped by her actual identity being erased from visible record.

In many instances, the woman who survives the attack may not want to reveal herself, and her choice must be respected. But there is a compelling case for less stringent laws on disclosing the woman’s name if she does not survive and her next of kin consents to making her identity known.

The identity of the murdered woman in Kerala became known by an accident of circumstances. But it brought the public face to face with something powerful – the living, hurting human being who met a violent end. This was no symbolic crime and she was no symbolic woman.