Suzette Jordan, the non-victim
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“My name is Suzette Jordan and I don’t want to be known any longer as the victim of Kolkata’s Park Street rape.” With that single sentence to the BBC in 2013, one woman took a step forward to shatter the taboos of honour and shame that singes rape survivors in India.
Jordan, who died at the age of 40 early on Friday morning of a combination of meningitis and encephalitis in a Kolkata hospital, lived life on her own terms. In February 2012, she had survived a brutal rape in a moving car following an evening at a nightclub at Kolkata’s Park Hotel. When I met her nearly a year later in the course of making a film for the production house Miditech on India’s fight against rape, she was still shaken when she recounted the crime—and its aftermath.
As four other men watched, a fifth, the rapist put a gun into her mouth and threatened to shoot her. When he was done, he simply threw her out of the moving car. Beaten and bruised she returned home where her elder daughter, then 15, helped her to wash and clean up.
Two days later she gathered the strength to go to the police station to lodge a complaint. “It’s a rape case,” hollered one police officer across the police station. Another asked: “You were raped in a moving car? What was the position?” she told me.
That humiliation was just the beginning. As news of the crime hit headlines, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee dismissed the rape as a fabricated story while Trinamool Congress MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar suggested that Jordan was a sex worker and the rape was the result of a dispute with a client.
The police officer, Damayanti Sen, who finally cracked the case leading to the arrest of three of the five accused—two remain absconding—was shunted from her post of joint commissioner of police in the crime division in Kolkata to deputy inspector general in charge of training at Barrackpore.
As a result of the personal hounding, Jordan, a single mother of two daughters now 18 and nearly 17, had to move house. Even as late as September last year, she was still being stigmatized when she said a restaurant had denied her entry because she was ‘that Park Street rape survivor’.
In court, her character, her behaviour and even her underwear were held up for examination. She sent me an SMS: “Today was my hearing, my cross, so feeling drained.” But never one to be down and out for long, she quickly perked up to add: “It went well is what my lawyer said.”
In many ways, Suzette Jordan made people uncomfortable because she refused to conform to the stereotype of a ‘rape victim’. She was feisty, not downcast or sad. There was no patina of tragedy around her. You could never use the word ‘victim’ with her because she simply refused to be one.
She used a horrific traumatic crime to emerge as a spokesperson of sorts for the larger issue of violence against women. Shaking her curls, articulate and focused she was on television channels and radio talk shows, always very clear that the ‘victim’ was never to blame. On her Facebook page, she shared posts by Aware, a non-profit, to spread awareness of human laws, rights and gender equality.
When I met Suzette Jordan again in Goa, she was laughing with a drink in her hand, refusing to let her fight or life’s circumstances mire her down. “I have done nothing wrong. Nobody is going to tell me how to lead my life.” Little did I know that that line would prove to be her epitaph.