Well, India is in the news again for the wrong reasons! Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka (meaning “sensation”) magazine has been accused of the rape of one of his employees. Tejpal and Tehelka rose to become upholders of India’s moral conscience through investigative journalism in the early 2000s. Their exposé of various issues led to the downfall of powerful officials in the government and other sectors, gaining support from the NGO sector – the other sector that is the vanguard of India’s moral and liberal crusades.
The woman accusing Tejpal of “rape” rhetorically asks if she is ready to see herself as a rape victim, as law has classified the act committed on her as rape. Even if the law has that prerogative, she laments that victims are denied the right to decide how they want to be labeled. She is of course correct; the underprivileged, the discriminated, the minority and almost certainly the victim is never given that right.
Labeling has the intended and unintended effect of imposing vulnerability, effectively disempowering the “victim,” leaving them with no choice but to respond. No response leads to assumption of acceptance. If they do act (lawfully and without turning violent), they are described as a leader, a strong and courageous/brave person and often one of principled character as victimhood imposes moral superiority. An individual violated might need our support but there is a thin line between support and the imposition of our crisis-handling approach on them.
What if the “victim” does not want the label of strong – experiences weakness, is reduced to tears frequently, wants to just curl up and has no courage to face the world (at least for a while)? They cannot but be strong because they risk disappointing everyone who has made them into a symbol of courage and resistance. They have to go with the flow. Sure, many of them may turn into natural leaders – ones who lead by example, impact other people’s lives and in turn give courage to many. However, I would argue that it is still their actions that are courageous or strong or morally superior. By labeling them instead of qualifying their actions, we are imposing on them the label of “hero-victims.” And, not all victims are fortunate to become “hero-victims.” Most remain obscured in both their experiences and in their courageous responses.
What if a victim, like the journalist in India, said, “I am afraid for myself, scared of the world, drown sometimes in self-pity and feel completely alone in fighting for justice for myself.” How would all those people standing on the streets protesting for justice for her, in all the din they create and all the labels they use as placards, hear or see her?
It is time to stop the labeling and imposing expectations on “hero-victims.” Instead, let the “victim” lead and let us follow them in their fight for justice. In the meantime, without having a “hero-victim,” let’s continue to crusade against all forms of violence against women. That would be true justice for her, the human being.