In a post about the family of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the Indian woman who was gang raped and murdered in India, the New York Times refused to print her name. Here’s the publication’s explanation for why:
The daughter — whose name is being withheld because it is illegal to name a rape victim in India without permission from the victim or her next of kin — showed as a very young girl a love for school, her father remembered.
In covering this story, the U.S. media has widely referred to India’s “sexist culture.” So why in reporting this crime would The New York Times adhere to the laws of a sexist culture? Why would an American publication follow Indian law on how to report on rape? At what other time does a country’s laws dictate how its news is reported in The New York Times? If India’s law applied to political dissidents, would the New York Times refuse to print names?
Not only is this capitulation startling, but days earlier, Jyoti’s father, Badri Singh, told The Mirror that he wants the world to know his daughter’s name:
We want the world to know her real name,” says Badri Singh Pandey, an airport worker who had just returned home when a Delhi hospital called to say his 23-year-old daughter had been in an “accident.” “My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself. I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter.” Indian officials have refused to name her, and mainstream Indian media still refers to her as “Amanat,” or “treasure.”
Singh’s nameless daughter, “a treasure,” had an “accident.”
If a country cannot speak of rape, how can it stop it? And why is the U.S. news coverage of rape just as lopsided and distorted as India’s is?
Ten years ago, I was working in talk radio, when two teenagers, Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris were reported missing. Their pictures and identities were broadcast everywhere as a means of saving their lives. And it worked. Once the teens were rescued, they were discovered to be rape survivors, and TV stations began digitally obscuring their faces. Newspapers like the New York Times rushed to delete the names and photos of the girls from the next day’s paper. Some publications, like USA Today, had already gone to press, and printed the story with photos and names on the front page.
Newspapers and TV broadcasters explained the shift as a matter of courtesy. Most mainstream U.S. media observes a self-imposed policy, like India’s legal one, of withholding the names and faces of sexual assault victims. But in working so hard to mask these women who everyone knew, it was clear that the implication was that rape is so intimate and horrendous, they should not be seen. The media is promoting the belief that when sexual assault is involved, the victim is partly — or wholly — to blame, and should be hidden from view.
Soon after, Marris appeared on KABC, the local Los Angeles news station, to talk frankly, without embarrassment, about her ordeal. She revealed, among other details, the fact that she and Brooks had tried to escape by stabbing their abductor in the neck.
A few days later, Brooks and Marris both appeared on the “Today” show to tell the story of their capture and captivity, a gripping account in which they described being threatened with a loaded gun, smashing their abductor in the face with a whiskey bottle, and later watching him die.
When asked why they chose to talk about their experience, Brooks said that she wanted to do it, and came forward with the support of her parents, who braved some criticism about the decision. She and Marris, Brooks said, “want to get the message across to everybody to never give up on anything. If you ever give up, you’ve lost. Whatever obstacles you have, you’ve got to fight your way through it.”
THIRTY-TWO years ago, when I was 17 and living in Bombay, I was gang raped and nearly killed. Three years later, outraged at the silence and misconceptions around rape, I wrote a fiery essay under my own name describing my experience for an Indian women’s magazine. It created a stir in the women’s movement — and in my family — and then it quietly disappeared. Then, last week, I looked at my e-mail and there it was. As part of the outpouring of public rage after a young woman’s rape and death in Delhi, somebody posted the article online and it went viral. Since then, I have received a deluge of messages from people expressing their support.
It’s not exactly pleasant to be a symbol of rape. I’m not an expert, nor do I represent all victims of rape. All I can offer is that — unlike the young woman who died in December two weeks after being brutally gang raped, and so many others — my story didn’t end, and I can continue to tell it.
The media rushing to taking away women’s names or voices because they have been raped doesn’t protect them. Surely, no one can pretend that hiding Jyoti’s name serves her. So why do we keep we doing it?
In 2002, I wrote about Marin and Brooks for Salon in 2002 in “The ‘Shame’ of Rape.’ Parts of that post are reprinted here. You can read the original Salon piece here.