Our panel was a queer one in all the wonderful senses of that word. At trainings with lower court judges on sexual violence laws in the Saket District Courts in Delhi, the five of us would find ourselves next to each other every few months. On a dais surrounded by that distinctly sarkari flower arrangement, first sat Suzette, a survivor of a brutal rape in a moving car in Park Street in Kolkata. Then in line: a survivor of an acid attack; a representative of a sex workers union; a well known hijra activist and I, speaking as a gay man. We were usually on the third day, right after lunch, when we would face nearly a hundred slightly sleepy judges from the region. They had been updated on new sexual violence laws, gone through a case exercise on how to apply them, been given a CD, a folder, the requisite handouts. The boxes were ticked. Technically, they were up to date. Ours was a different job: to animate, if such a thing is possible, a sense of empathy in the judges, to shift even slightly the way they thought of the rainbow of dubious morality that we represented.
Justice, especially in cases of sexual difference or sexual violence, is rarely as much about revenge or punishment as about dignity. Queer lives seek dignity. In our own eyes first where the unwritten laws are the harshest and we are our own judges, and then in others. All of us on that panel were queer for the judges. We belied the norms of good sexual behaviour. We were all marked in some way or the other by our distance from the norm. We told our stories as political biographies embodying this distance, acknowledging it, naming it, risking being trapped by it. This was also, however, why we made them shuffle uneasily in their seats. We looked the part but we refused to play our assigned roles. We were not apologetic, uncertain, or ashamed. We were often funny. We were often angry. We were often ourselves. Sitting in the audience, you’d think we had an unspoken plan. The trick was to embrace our difference, but strategically. To admit being vulnerable but never defeated. To evoke empathy but not pity. To push back, gently but firmly. To make the judges feel that they had to be worthy of our respect, and not the other way around. We knew how — we rehearsed a version of this everyday, every ordinary day.
The first time we spoke one after the other, we found ourselves echoing one sentiment: judgments come later, punishments came later. First, there was every second of our interactions with our innermost selves, our families, our friends, the law, the police, the courtroom, the judge. It was there we were tried and hanged long before the gravel struck. It was there we demanded not just justice but dignity. Above all, Suzette used to say, we want you to look us in the eye. She would fume: “maybe they’ll see something of themselves.”
Much has been written about her since her recent death. She waived her right to anonymity. She returned to Park Street. She took on Mamta Bannerjee. She fought to reach the ultimate definition of being a survivor: to be unaltered, to remain herself, to remain ordinary when the world demanded she not be so that the rules of sexual violence would not be undone. She refused, as so many have written recently in odes to her, to play the victim. Let us make no mistake: she paid a price for this — legally, in the public gaze, in the vicious comments that appear even now below her obituaries, in holding onto her own sense of self. Her daughter wrote a wonderful tribute to a woman with twenty-one tattoos and yet more scars. I remember her tattoos, sitting beside her on the judges table, as she spoke about the interrogations she was put through, the remarks of judges and court officers, the fear at seeing the army of defendants and lawyers standing next to her in the courtroom as she stood alone, the memory of being stripped for a medical exam in a room with large windows and no curtains that looked directly into the building across the street. I watched her pause, her lunch-time laughter quietened, as she remembered and re-told her story, looking straight at her audience: “it is not just what you do, it is how you do it. Justice begins when I complain, not when I win my case.”
The best tribute to her seems to wonder in her wake: is she part of a different register of voice at least among an admittedly particular section of urban women who face sexual violence or live non-normative lives? In the accusations that have come more recently against a sitting Supreme Court judge, a well known news editor, a senior professor at a central university, and now a Nobel Laureate, there seems to be a palpable difference. The seeds of this were perhaps visible at the protests that filled Delhi that December. Beyond the clamour for punishment, hanging and vengeance were a different set of voices and bodies. Women — young and old — who refused the trade-off between freedom and safety, who refused shame and judgment as they spoke about their everyday struggles against sexual violence and for sexual freedom, who fought to keep sexuality and sexual violence ordinary and not just about tales of spectacular violence and rape. These voices are less fearful, less concealed, less altered. Their narratives have shifted and fewer traces of victimhood remain. These are voices that believe, in their own hearts, that they have the right to have rights, that they need not offer their dignity to have a hope to achieve justice. After the gang rape of a young journalist in Shakti Mills in Mumbai, the survivor said something, much like Suzette often would, that was extraordinary in how ordinary it should be. She said she didn’t struggle after a point against her attackers because she thought it would better her chances of emerging alive. Life over honour. A simple, obvious calculus undone in a patriarchy where the two are rarely equal in our own minds, let alone in the minds of those who seek to impose honour repeatedly, violently on the bodies of women, even when purportedly speaking in their defence.
When Suzette waived her right to anonymity in 2013, she rook further this chorus of women in returning the quest for justice in a broken system to its core demand of dignity, not vengeance. To remember her then is to continue to refuse the reduction of addressing sexual violence to adequate and appropriate punishment. It is what why, she told me, she came back to the judges trainings again and again: to bring dignity to the process, not the outcome. “The end will either take care of itself, or it will matter less. I care about how I get there. Every time I tell the story it breaks me, every time I tell the story it helps me put myself back together again.
Suzette didn’t want heroism. She wanted solidarity. She fought to create structures that would make it ordinary for women who suffered violence to speak without fear of judgment, with tattoos and scars intact. She wanted to make heroism ordinary. It is in the stories of women that continue to fight and the ones that will come and take us further still that her legacy lies. A legacy not just for survivors of rape but for anyone who was sought to find and hold onto themselves, to their dignity, to the lives and sexualities they want to dream, inhabit and live. She used to call herself a “mad, free woman,” laughing as she said it. I remember most of all the sense of freedom in her madness. I drew so much from it without even realising until I sat to write these words. It was everything that I had imagined queer politics to be – all of us, together, laughing at the norms that judged us as we weakened them, broke them, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
At the Saket District Court and in many other district courts in Delhi today, survivors of sexual violence have a special courtroom. It has no proscenium – the judges sit at the same level as the woman, on sofas instead of officious, regal thrones. The accused and their lawyers sit behind a one way glass screen, their numbers no longer intimidating, unable to see the survivor. Entrances and exits are separate, safer. In this courtroom, Suzette would never have to see her alleged rapists, not have to stand and re-tell her story in front of their mocking gaze. She would always smile when the judges were told about this new courtroom. Here, she would say, perhaps things will be different. It’s in our hands now to prove her right.
This piece originally appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly.