Delhi, India - The two-finger test, practiced by doctors to verify the claims of rape victims in India, was not exactly the way to go in the case of Delhi’s infamous gang-rape. It was not necessary for a doctor to further humiliate a victim by inserting his fingers into her vagina to assess rape, as the protocol requires. The rotten iron rod inserted into the victim destroyed many of her vital organs, and doctors were not to assess penetration but whether she could survive the gangrene that had settled in her intestines.
The brutal sexual attack of a 23 year-old paramedic student on a moving bus in the night of December 16 provoked a cultural tsunami across India. Her death two weeks later made it louder and ever-lasting. The crime brought widespread outcry because it was extremely gruesome, because police inaction indirectly permitted it, because it happened in plain sight.
Public reactions came in many forms, showing a breakthrough in collective consciousness. Mobilisations denounced a culture that justifies rape and blames victims, placing the onus of women’s safety on society. Women poured into the streets with banners saying "don’t tell us how to dress, tell your sons not to rape", while others exposed their own survival stories in the media, shedding light on the extent of sexual violence across Indian society. Men joined in, protesting alongside women in the streets and publicly discussing their own responsibilities in changing gender inequalities, undermining patriarchy and proving that violence against women is a shared societal concern.
There has been public resentment regarding the government’s passive mishandling of the case, concealing the health of the victim, clashing with protesters, and making sexist comments. Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the right-wing RSS group, found no better response than blaming the crime on westernisation (“such crimes hardly take place in Bharat, but they frequently occur in India”), while others suggested that women would be safe if they stayed home or that their dressing invited such attacks.
The press has done much denouncing of the inefficiency and gender-bias of the police, with abundant data confirming widespread institutional impunity for sexual crimes. The start of trials against the attackers has fuelled public debates on punishment, and whether the violators should be hanged, chemically castrated, or given a life sentence.
Across India, women and men are calling for an end to violence against women, discussing the insecurity for women in Delhi (which led to a female-only taxi service) or the macho retaliation against women who invariably top the rankings in college education. Echoing the One Billion Rising Campaign, a tide of Indian voices is rising with unprecedented momentum against patriarchal structures.
In the midst of all this momentum, there is an issue that deserves greater attention. The crime that killed the victim was much more than gang-rape. There was rape, there was aggravated sexual assault, but there was also much more. I don’t mean it merely in terms of the type of sadistic violence taking place, but of the hatred and dehumanisation implied in it. She was not only raped, with the invasion of privacy and loss of dignity it entails. She was tortured. Mutilated.
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As her organs failed her on a hospital bed, doctors tried to remove her intestines to save her life. Her schoolmate, who survived the attack, said he could not even start telling the atrocious brutality that took place on the bus that night.
Should such a crime be labelled under the generic wording of rape? Yes, by all means, there was rape involved. Yet defining such attack as a gang-rape is misleading in the same way it was misleading to define Hitler’s murder of Jewish peoples as a common massacre. It was no doubt part of it, but individual crimes were part of something much larger and systematic.
There is something beyond corporal violence taking place in such crimes. There is something symbolic embedded in the violence of the Delhi attack, a violence directed at killing what the individual represents. There is a message to be sent through the sexual mutilation of a woman’s body, something more systematic taking place than the homicide of an individual woman.
Politics of adequate naming
There are certain crimes for which words fail us. In 1917, when the Turkish state systematically killed its Armenian population, the US ambassador referred to the massacres as “a crime without a name”. In 1940, when Hitler started a systematic extermination of millions of Jewish people (quoting the impunity of the Turkish killing of Armenians decades prior) there was still no name to describe such crime.
One option when words fall short is to invent new ones. Until the 1940s, there was no such thing as genocide. There was the practice of it, of course, but not the concept of it.
Raphael Lemkin coined the word to mean "killing (-cide) of a race (genos-)", as part of his attempt to tell the world what Auschwitz was really about. Before the word was invented, the crime of genocide did not exist. Without this word, we would not have conceptualised concentration camps as an industrialisation of death geared at the extermination of the Jewish people, homosexuals, and gypsies. Without this word, the United Nations would not have signed the International Convention on the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Without this word, today’s global legal system would be poorer and more precarious. And we would not be able to differentiate between the massacres in the Rwanda of 1994 and those committed by the drug war in contemporary Mexico.
In his poem Two Loves, back in the 1890s, Bosie Douglas referred to same-sex love as "the love that dare not speak its name". The refusal of Victorian England to come to terms with homosexuality is rooted in the same sort of societal inability to speak about it. We cannot face what we cannot name. The gradual recognition and acceptance of same-sex relationships went hand in hand with the development of language that allowed people to talk about it.
Society needs linguistic innovation to adapt and evolve.
In Central America, it was necessary to coin the term femicide to bring public attention to the extreme gender violence that kills women in atrocious ways and with total impunity simply for being women. The term stresses that such crimes are gender-specific, as is the institutional impunity that silently perpetuates them.
Words enable conceptualisation. Conceptualising permits political debate, which in turn permits policy-making. Words foster mobilisation and the invention of new legal rights, as proven in the case of genocide, gay rights, and femicide.
In Delhi’s atrocious crime, it is not only the victim who has been nameless.
It would be our loss if the current momentum fails to generate political change beyond India. It is an opportunity to seek legal improvements on the global stage, as Professor Naila Kabeer suggests, to refine our understanding of violence against women, to find adequate words that lead to better international law.
Justice does not come solely in the form of enforcing severe punishment on perpetrators of violence against women. Justice also comes in the form of a collective effort to look at violence in the eyes, calling it by its name. To bring justice to Nirbhaya, “without fear” as some of the press started naming the anonymous victim, we must identify who killed her as much as what killed her. To find adequate responses to such crime, we must be able to adequately name it. And if the crime has no name, it is our responsibility to invent one.
Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.