EVERY WOMAN HAS A NAME. Some women gather names because of how they inscribe themselves into our memories, into history. The 23-year-old woman studying to be a physiotherapist who was raped by a gang of six men on a moving bus in Delhi on 16 December, and died 13 days later in a Singapore hospital from the gruesome injuries they inflicted on her, acquired many names in the course of her brief life. Perhaps the many names we gave her tell us more about our desire to participate in the unfolding of her fate than they do about her actual identity.
We may or may not now know her name, but to insist on remembering her brief but highly public anonymity enables us to see refracted in her the image of every woman who has been raped and assaulted in our time. It becomes possible for us to see, at the scene of this crime, a shadow of the AFSPA-darkened night in Kashmir or Manipur, a reminder of the rapes in Haryana and Chhattisgarh, in Naroda Patia, in Guwahati, or in Khairlanji. It becomes possible to see that bus as an Indian Army truck, or as a police lock-up, as a house targeted for burning in a Dalit or Muslim neighbourhood, or as any common marital bed in India. Her anonymity makes it possible for us to consider what it means to be an unknown citizen in the darkness, regardless of whether she is called Neelofar or Asiya Jan, Bilqis Patel, Mathura Bai, Bhanwari Devi, Meena Xalxo, Lakshmi Orang, Soni Sori, Surekha Bhotmange, Thangjam Manorama, or by any common name, like Jenny, Jamila, Jugni or Jyoti.
A woman who goes out into the night—to claim the night, to revel in its promise, thrill and comfort—has always been called names. Not all of these names are pejorative. In the Sanskrit canon, she is sometimes the Abhisarika, the wanderer, who goes to meet her lover by the riverbank, or in a forest, or in a garden. Inevitably, she is seen as a source of light. Her desire is a flame that lights up everything around her. In the folk songs of the Punjab, she can be a firefly, a restless, wandering jugni. And women, together, out on the streets, out to claim each hour, each watch of the night, can light up an entire forest of a city with their flickering, blazing fire.