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Remembering Suzette Jordan

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The woman who cast off the tag of ‘Park Street victim’ died today—leaving behind a legacy of fortitude for others who choose to battle rapists
What is life like for a rape survivor, after she chooses to identify the crime and battle its perpetrators? Not quite what one anticipates in the case of Suzette Jordan, gang-raped one night in February, 2012 in Kolkata and thrown onto the street—for she picked herself up to speak up for herself and women like her all over the world, fighting the system, politicians who questioned why she was out at night and others who said she had manufactured the incident (Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee). What’s more, she put her name and her face to her campaign for justice. Forty-year-old Jordan’s death of meningoencephalitis was reported today, and has sparked a wave of remembrance for what she stood for.

Rape survivors didn’t have to remain behind the screen of a blurry image or invented name, Jordan showed, by throwing off that veil after a year—they didn’t have to explain why they were out at a nightclub, or why they liked to have fun. Speaking up in the local media and on platforms like the BBC, Jordan also worked at a helpline begun by activist Santasree Chaudhuri, Survivors for Victims of Social Injustice, after a long and frustrating search for employment; she was very visible, and this affected potential job placements. Importantly, Jordan also spoke up about the problems with the process of reporting a rape, police interaction being part of the most dreaded aspects of recording a rape; she called it a ‘re-rape’ in light of insensitive procedures like the crude ‘two-finger’ test, which was rejected only in May 2013.

“A public prosecutor is presenting my case and I have lots of help but I feel intimidated all the time,” said Jordan when we spoke in September 2013 (towards an article I was commissioned to write on the occasion of the sentencing of Nirbhaya’s rapists), seven months into her trial. “I don’t get jobs, apartments. People think, she’s got baggage.” We spoke late into the night; she was warm and vivacious even over the phone, her days were long and filled with the efforts of litigation, and it was understandably difficult for her to sleep at night. Afraid of retaliation on the part of the accused and aware that she was only too easy to find, she also realised that fighting for justice was the only choice she could have made. Lively, curly-haired and full of spirit, the single mother was an anomaly, but determined to fight nonetheless.

"She was blunt, brave and questioned injustice at every step. I laughed at her open love for red lipstick and dancing to eighties music, marvelled at her ability to rediscover faith in humanity, was speechless when she fearlessly spoke of why rape survivors needed a real voice and a face, and shared her fear when she said the rapists were counting on her to disappear for good,” says Vinita Shetty, the documentary producer who first introduced me to Jordan.

Shetty is a member of TFC (The Friday Convent), an all-woman women's empowerment group headquartered in Bangalore and founded by Saritha Hegde, which sent Jordan care packages with everything from motivational letters, makeup, music, books, games, clothes and money, she says; “When Suzette was in hospital a few days ago, TFC collected funds for her treatment.” She narrates how Jordan was flown down from Kolkata for a small party TFC held in her honor, mid-September 2013, and how she said she felt ''loved, healed, respected and not judged'', in her own words.

Jordan leaves behind two daughters, who are with her brother. She also leaves behind a group of activists and journalists who supported her and sustained her will to live—a great example of the positive impact of media interaction, at a time when the merits of Leslie Uddwin’s documentary India’s Daughters is being debated.

Friends quote her Facebook page header on Twitter, among other fond memories: “Maybe it’s not about the happy ending. Maybe it’s about the story.” The story of a woman who liked to dance, and who loved life. RIP Suzette.