Names are more than just words; they are identities

Media law and patriarchy Why Jishas real name is more powerful than any pseudonym Students holding a protest in New Delhi on Friday over the brutal rape and murder of a law student in Kerala. PTI Photo
Blog Justice For Jisha Saturday, May 07, 2016 - 17:36

Since her assault, rape and murder ten days ago, Jisha’s ordeal has created a massive uproar in Kerala. With social media users outraging over the lack of action, rallies and protests increasing the pressure on the authorities and political bigwigs compelled to weigh in on the issue – the case has snowballed immensely in every aspect.  

However, it has so happened that despite the massive mobilization in Kerala, there are some who are contesting the incessant flashing of her name on television screens and other publications.

To the effect of the law, the objection is undisputable. According to Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, publicly naming a rape victim is a punishable offence, unless written consent is obtained from the victim or in the event of her passing, by her kin. It is being asked by many therefore, that when Jyoti Singh was given ‘privacy’ and ‘respect’ behind the moniker ‘Nirbhaya’ in 2012, why the same courtesy is not being extended to Jisha.

There is a significant difference however, in how Jyoti’s and Jisha’s cases played out. The latter’s was initially believed to be a murder and assault case where the law to withhold identity does not apply. Signs of rape were ascertained later and by then her name had been used so widely that even the Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy had put up a post with her picture on May 3.

However, let’s take a democratic liberty to dissect the basis on which the said law is made. Ours is a patriarchal society where the refrain of rape being worse than death is way too common. The law internalizes this ideology, aiming to “protect” women whose “virginal purity” is “violated” from being socially ostracized and marginalized.

As a woman, I do not agree to the reasoning behind the law which still assumes my dignity as a fragile little thing at the mercy of the society. If I am violated then why must I have to hide? Are we not reiterating the regressive attitude of the society my enforcing the law blindly?

However, despite all feminist arguments I may present, I must concede that the fabric of the society will not change overnight. The ostracism is real, and all women may not be equipped to stand up to it. Therefore, by the virtue of being a law, it must be utilitarian, that is, one that works for the greatest good of the greatest number.

But when the shame is absent, when the ostracism is being subsumed sympathy and support for the victim, like in the case of Jisha, must we take a moral high-ground and ask that her name not be used?

"My daughter's name was Jyoti Singh and I am not ashamed to name her. Those who commit heinous crimes like rape, their heads should hang in shame, not the victims or their families. You should take her name too."

These were the words of Asha, Jyoti Singh’s mother, on December 16, 2015. Herein lies the power of a name – if ‘Nirbhaya’ mobilized people to the agony that she and countless other women go through every day, ‘Jyoti Singh’ humanized her.

Why must a superficial, martyr-like name be used for anyone who goes through something so terrifying, evil and harrowing? Isn’t fear but a natural human emotion?

Similarly, Jisha’s name humanized her in a country where crimes against women are reported every two minutes. Using Jisha’s name therefore, ultimately challenges the idea that the one on the receiving end of this heinous act must continue to stay in the sidelines. It turns the problem of plenty on its head, where within so many reports, cases and tiny 200-word columns, voices and identities are anyway lost, with or without the law shielding them.

Her name is rebuilding the discourse around law, gender, rape and caste politics in Kerala. And to that end, ‘Jisha’, a five-letter word, may have given everyone with resonating causes more strength than a generic blurb within the ambit of law ever would.

Names are much more than just words. ‘Jisha’ has become a symbol of her unfulfilled ambition, the burden of her gender and of the difficulties she and her family were facing due to the accident of birth. It is her name that has struck conversations, started debates, lit fires within people to take to the streets and compelled the political will to address issues that lie within the intersections of her identity.

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