The horrific abduction and alleged rape of one of Malayalam cinema's most beloved stars has shocked the Kerala film industry as well as the state.
Given the burgeoning number of cases of violence against women, the incident isn't rare or unique. However, the survivor in this instance is a woman who is in a position of considerable privilege which many of us assume is enough insulation.
The surprise comes from the tearing down of this facade of safety and the anxiety that this breeds in our minds - if even she can be subjected to this, what about the rest of us?
Many of the survivor's colleagues have spoken up about the incident and assured her of their support. This is a heartening response although the industry is yet to provide an explanation for why criminals with records like the accused, Pulsar Sunil, were employed in the first place.
Within hours of the incident taking place, the media had reported the story along with the victim's name. At that point, the details of the case were not fully known and the charges were considered to be abduction and molestation and not Section 376 (rape) as it was later revealed. Following this, most media houses retracted the name of the victim and her photographs although some continued with sensationalist and unethical reporting.
If they hadn't, it would have been a violation of Section 228A of the IPC which punishes those who reveal a victim's identity. Questions have also been raised on why the incident is being called as 'rape'. The case has been filed under Section 376 of the IPC, which deals with rape. And there is a need for everyone to read and understand which acts constitute rape - it is not only penetrative sex any more.
While it's true that the actor has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, considering she's the victim and not the perpetrator of the crime, laws like this exist because of how sexual violence is perceived in society and the subsequent harassment and shaming that the victim is subjected to.
It isn't the law itself which is regressive - it is a necessity in a highly patriarchal society where rape culture and victim blaming are the norm. Many survivors of sexual violence find it difficult to get accommodation, jobs, and are even thrown out of the educational institutions in which they were studying.
The finger pointing never stops and they are never allowed to move on from their past even if they wish to. Remember Suzette Jordan? Tired of being called the 'Park Street victim', she chose to reveal her identity. The humiliation that she faced (she was once thrown out of a restaurant for being that woman) is the reason why sexual crimes are so grossly under-reported, bolstering the confidence of men like Pulsar Sunil that a victim would never come forward to acknowledge what had happened.
Closer home, we have the infamous Suryanelli case in which the victim was 16 at the time of the incident but has not been allowed to shed the "tainted woman" tag since 1996
There have been many bold survivors of sexual violence, like the survivor of the Mumbai Shakti Mills case, the Delhi Uber case, and the Tarun Tejpal case, who have chosen to withhold their name from the media but have gone on to fight their battles within the tedious tentacles of the legal system.
They prefer relative anonymity not because they are ashamed of what has happened to them but because at some point, they'd like a return to normalcy and ordinary life, to be a person again and not always a survivor who has to swim against the tide. And let's remember that not all victims are equally privileged - for many, fighting might not be an option at all.
Among the liberal sections of society that considers itself more progressive than the rest, there is a tendency to turn survivors into "heroes". This was never more evident than in the Nirbhaya case when emotions ran high in the country and the victim was called terms like "martyr" (as if she'd signed up for the brutality) and was turned into a campaign chief against rape even as she lay battling for her life.
By turning victims and survivors into "heroes" and "crusaders" we appropriate their story and weigh them down with the responsibility that rightfully belongs to us as a society. At a time when the individual has just experienced a physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatic incident. We assume that they don't want anything to be forgotten and that they will applaud us for turning them into beacons.
We don't pause for a minute to ask what is it that they want and how they define their own courage or bravery to themselves. Considering it is they who have to lead the rest of their lives, after we've lost interest in the issue and have stopped outraging, their consent to be turned into "icons" is vital and must not be taken for granted.
In the case of the Malayalam actor, the identity of the victim was outed and considering she's a celebrity, it might seem farcical to withhold her name after it was splashed around everywhere. But let's not forget in our hurry to show solidarity that ultimately, it is she who should decide how she wants to fight this battle.
She may choose to come back to cinema (assuming the industry will have enough of a backbone to give her an opportunity) or she might decide she's had enough of being under the public glare. She may decide to speak about it in interviews or she may decide that she never wants to. She may choose to fight for other victims by lending her name to the cause or she may block this incident out entirely from her life. None of these decision is ours to make and neither do her choices dictate how much of a "hero" she is.
The survivor has enough to fight. Let's acknowledge that and give her what she needs: the time and space to heal.