On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the National Commission for Women reiterated its commitment to the victims of violence in a print advertisement that bore the following caption written in a bold, red font — “Fearless Nirbhaya”. In an exclusive piece for another newspaper on the same day, the newly appointed US secretary of state, John Kerry, declared that he found Nirbhaya’s resolve and courage inspiring.
Nirbhaya, “the fearless one”, is one of the four pseudonyms — Damini (lightning), Jagruti (awakening) and Amanat (treasure) being the other three — that the media have coined to identify the 23-year-old woman who lost her life in a vicious sexual assault in Delhi last December. (The Indian Penal Code prohibits the disclosure of the identity of victims in such cases.) Two pseudonyms, Jagruti and Damini, were perhaps chosen because the gruesome incident led to a sustained and inspiring protest by ordinary people who took to the streets in many Indian cities, demanding an end to the myriad forms of violence that are perpetrated on women.
I have always been confronted by troubling questions while reflecting on the attempts to christen the victim with the adjective nirbhaya. This is because some of the reasons cited behind the choice of the epithet reflect the misogyny that remains entrenched in institutions such as the media and the elected government. For instance, even while the woman was fighting for her life in a hospital, the media had adjudged that she could be issued a certificate of courage because she had attempted to fight back against her tormentors. Moreover, in spite of her physical debilitation, she had declared that she did not want to die. In a society that celebrates and implements, at times with devastating efficiency, a culture of passivity and supplication for its women, the idea of a woman retaliating against violence — physical or emotional — or wanting to survive a sexual assault contains a sense of spectacle and novelty. But the patriarchal order was quick to understand that any instance of individual resistance has to be discouraged from the pulpit. Thus a self-proclaimed godman was quick to pronounce that the victim would have managed to save her ‘honour’ had she grovelled at the feet of her assailants, pleading for mercy.
Even more troubling than the godman is a State and the media that are unwilling to consider that the young woman may have been frightened in her hour of peril. The politics of canonization is such that it ends up stripping symbols — women and men — of the vestiges of human emotion. Is this why statesmen, journalists, and citizens are left equally incredulous by Irom Sharmila’s quiet assertion that she would like to live, and even experience love, in spite of her transformation into a symbol of defiance in the face of State oppression? In the public imagination, Nirbhaya, too, has to be sustained as an emblem of courage because citizens cannot be permitted to imagine the cold fear she may have experienced. Because an admission of fear, in this instance, would provide irrefutable evidence of not just women’s vulnerability in public spaces but also of the State’s culpability because of its repeated failures to protect them.
Given the privileges that are extended to the likes of Kerry and his Indian brethren, it is understandable that while making sympathetic noises about the anguish of victims’ families, they can, at the same time, remain far removed from the sense of fear that assails ordinary women as they go about their daily lives in every corner of the country.
But the thousands who picketed the streets after the assault and the visionary judge and his two colleagues who drafted a report on revising safety standards for women did share this sense of universal fear. For them, the unnamed woman will remain a symbol of inspiration not because she was fearless but because she has forced citizens to confront their own fears.