Imaging India’s rape victims

By | January 15, 2018

On a balmy Sunday in April, a few dozen designers sat at a pub in South Delhi scrutinizing a projection screen. It showed an illustration of a woman in a torn violet shirt. A pair of bangles hung off her wrist. She cowered close to the floor, her head sunk between her hands. On the wall behind her, a man’s shadow loomed menacingly.

“She’s being shown as a weakling,” someone in the front row said. “We need to show her as a survivor.”

A few designers objected to the artfully ripped clothing, which had a cinematic quality, conjuring the image of a heroine roughed up, yet still glamorous. But there is no universal idiom for assault. “You could be in perfectly okay clothes and still be violated,” a young woman pointed out.

In India, press laws prevent media outlets from identifying victims of sexual violence, or using any photographs that might lead them to be identified. So news agencies rely on a set of stock images—including the one shown on the projection screen—to illustrate reports of assault, drawing from a tiny common-domain database. But these newsroom images, featuring a half-dozen variations on near-identical themes, reinforce harmful stereotypes surrounding sexual violence, skewing perceptions of accountability.

Women are depicted as helpless (though still potentially culpable) victims, huddled on the ground with their faces buried. Perpetrators lurk in spotlit doorways, dangerous, powerful, and unseen. The images reflect prevalent attitudes in India around assault that are mirrored in Indian popular culture, including film. A taboo around rape means that survivors are often stigmatized. In representations of violence, women are reduced to inert objects, attractive prey to be pursued and captured.

“Images are a very strong part of an article. They reinforce our own conditioning constantly,” says Priyanka Kher, head of communications at Breakthrough India, a human rights organization that uses media and pop culture as outreach tools.

It’s about planting a seed of doubt, questioning the narrative.”

This past spring, Breakthrough India saw an opportunity to reset the narrative by developing updated news illustrations and sharing them with media outlets. The group devised a social media campaign—#RedrawMisogyny—and enlisted designers and volunteers to develop an alternative bank of images. With its own database of stock imagery, the first part of which was released earlier this summer, Breakthrough is determined to counter regressive media tropes and portray sexual and gender-based violence in a more informed light.

“If every time you do a search for rape and find images that are politically correct, that goes a long way,” Kher says. “It’s about planting a seed of doubt, questioning the narrative.”

There were more than 34,000 reports of sexual assault in India in 2015, according to the most recent figures released by the National Crime Records Bureau. But since rape remains starkly underreported, actual numbers are hard to gauge (in the US, where rape is also underreported, a sexual assault occurs more or less every minute.) In Delhi—dubbed India’s “rape capital”—the rate of reported sexual assaults has risen since 2012, when a 23-year-old medical student was fatally gang raped aboard a moving bus, drawing mass coverage around the world. The so-called “Nirbhaya case”—named for the Hindi word for “fearless,” which the press used as a pseudonym for the victim—made violence against women front page news.

Two months before the Nirbhaya case, an article in The New York Times on Indian news reports of rape observed that “the emphasis still appears to be on the disgraced victim.” It pointed toward the enduring trope of the “shamed woman,” seen in illustrations of a woman with her head bowed, and continued: “Sometimes, this woman also happens to be somewhat scantily clad.”


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