Unbreakable The Rana Ayyub Story
Marie Claire South Africa|November 2018

Her Past Life Faded Away. Memories of Herself Were Crushed Under the Weight of Daily Danger, Her Lifes Mission Distilled to Unearthing the Truth.

Emilie Gambade

She’s been SLUT-SHAMED, a subject of vitriolic hate, threatened with gang-rape, had her face digitally added to a porn video shared on social media, is regularly VICIOUSLY TROLLED AND ABUSED ON TWITTER, and has her every move and post scrutinised and attacked to the point that the united nations stepped in to demand that India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, ensures her safety. RANA AYYUB is a 35-year-old investigative journalist in the real India of today, and she is UNBREAKABLE

May 1983

The doctor walks towards a worried couple and, without much hesitation, gives his diagnosis: ‘Look, she’s not going to survive; why don’t you guys just wait here, it’s going to be a long journey if you go back home by train now.’ He is referring to their newborn, Rana (the name means ‘eye-catching’ in Arabic and is a royal name in India, mainly attributed to males). She barely weighs one kilo and has, as the doctor says, a very low chance of survival. It’s more practical for the parents to wait at the hospital where the baby will die peacefully than to head home with her.

But the newborn doesn’t die and, after two weeks, the young couple hops on the train and takes Rana back home. The journey was indeed long, but the doctor was wrong.

It wouldn’t be Rana’s last fight for survival: at age five, she contracts polio and her left hand and right leg stop moving (she would eventually recover). Four years later, the 1992 riots explode in what was then called Bombay, and violence and fear grip the city. To avoid abduction and rape, Rana and her sister move in with a neighbour and pretend to be Hindu girls (their family is secular Muslim). They are separated from their parents with no communication for more than a month.

‘Since that time, I’ve lived in a great deal of fear. We were often told “the men might abduct you; the men might do something to you” and that stayed with me. It stayed with me to such an extent that I feared all men. I went to a girls’ school, a girls’ college, and one day my principal called my mother and told her, “Your daughter can’t study because she’s so weak, she’s so scared, she won’t talk to anyone. She’s bright but she’s too shy.”’

Mastering her fears and overcoming her shyness, Rana becomes deeply interested in social and political issues. She joins a journalism school and produces her first movie in 2006, focusing on Muslim institutions.

‘Everyone thought we were doing something political, although we were just students from graduate school. They asked: “Who does reporting on terrorism in college?” It was my first project and it opened doors for me.’

She’s soon hired by a television channel where, on her first day, she is told ‘women don’t do political stuff’.

‘They told me, “You can [cover] lifestyle or maybe, if there’s a rape, you can also cover it because only women can really talk about rape.” I said that I had a great understanding of political issues, but they just repeated “women cannot do politics” and that was it.

‘In India, male journalists get their information by drinking alcohol with men; you buy them a drink or two and then get the stories. Women can’t do that; you can’t drink, you can’t sit with men while you’re drinking, so you can’t get those stories. But I had this burning desire to do investigations. I wanted to cover big stories that focused on criminal inquiries and on social justice.’

August 2018

Rana Ayyub, Indian journalist, writer and author of the self-published Gujarat Files – Anatomy of a Cover Up, is in South Africa to speak at Daily Maverick’s 2018 The Media Gathering. She shares her story with an audience of more than 1 000 people. When she is done, the crowd gives her a standing ovation. To Rana, this feels like a wall of comforting, protective sound around her. More than likely, she needs it.

For years, Rana has been shamed, insulted and alienated; she hasn’t had a job in more than six years, living only off the proceeds of her self-published book. She has feared for her life and lost friends – shot for their beliefs, morals or religion. Her best friend and confidante, a human rights lawyer, was shot dead when she was just 26 years old.

Life on the front lines of the defence of civil liberties can be brutal in India. Rana’s life is one of the best examples.

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