The power of naming

The rape victim's family defies those who view the crime in terms of shame. It's a moment to build on

Congressman and Union minister Shashi Tharoor created a ripple when he suggested that the upcoming law on sexual assault be named after the young woman whose example has so radically jolted society. Now, her family, pursued by mediapersons on this matter, has said it would be an honour if her name was inscribed in the law. This is a deeply courageous stand, one that flies in the face of the rape law and its assumptions of lasting stigma for the victim of sexual assault. In India, Section 228-A of the penal code forbids the public disclosure of a rape victim's identity unless permitted by her, or by the closest member of her family if she has died. It is a sensitive law, mindful of the social shaming that accompanies rape in all too many contexts, and one that leaves the decision to the person most affected by the crime.

This young woman's family has upended that logic, however, rejecting the idea that sexual crime carries an unspeakable shame for the victim. This is the great patriarchal con-job ó a woman's sexuality is first burdened with notions of izzat and honour, her freedoms limited by that imposition. And then, if she is assaulted, she is further stigmatised for losing that "honour", for being somehow defiled, despite herself. This language is also used by well-meaning people and institutions, even as they aim to defend women's rights. It is the kind of logic that leads to rape survivors being described as "living corpses". This family's response restores the right perspective to the matter, in wanting to hear her name spoken loud and proud. It reminds us that the public shame should attach to the attacker, not the victim. Whether or not the law is named for her, their readiness to attach her name to it is an enormous gesture.

The intensity and determination of the recent outcry over sexual violence has already changed the terms. For the first time, the question of women's freedoms, their sexual autonomy, has occupied public discourse. Along with necessary changes in the institutional response to sexual violence, some lasting good could come out of this moment if it compels us to examine our own words, the way we give voice to patriarchal presumptions. Language is never neutral, it both describes and creates reality. If this young woman's case can focus public attention on the many misogynistic "givens" of our culture, it would be an enduring legacy.

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