Battling sexual violence through comics

Ram Devineni was in the city on December 16, 2012, a date clearly etched on many minds due to the horrific gang rape that took place on the fateful day.

Over the next few days, he was actively involved in the protests that soon followed. “Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened, and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers — both women and men,” he recollects.

However at one such protest, his colleague and he struck up a conversation with a Delhi Police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus.

“Basically the officer’s response was that ‘no good girl walks home at night’, implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged,” he says.

Taking the incident as the starting point, Devineni, a filmmaker, conceptualised Priya’s Shakti, an augmented reality comic that narrates the story of Priya, whose character is influenced by Nirbhaya, December 16 gang rape victim. An ardent devotee of goddess Parvati, Priya experiences a brutal rape, followed by social stigma and isolation. The goddess is horrified to learn about the sexual violence that women on earth face, and is determined to change this disturbing reality. Inspired by the goddess, Priya breaks her silence. She sings a message of women’s empowerment that enraptures thousands and moves them to take action against gender-based violence around the world.

Readers can scan the comic book with augmented reality app – Blippar, and can view animation, real-life stories, and other interactive elements pop-out of the pages. The comic was released at the Mumbai Comic Con in December 2014.

The comic’s first chapter began soon after the incident. For about a year, Devineni travelled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. After talking with several rape survivors, he realised how difficult it was for them to seek justice, and how their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. He understood that their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers.

The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes, he says.

“What I noticed after talking with both rape survivors and acid attack survivors in
India is that societies’ reaction and stigmatisation of them intensified the problem and their recovery. How they were treated by their family, neighbours and society determined what they did next. Often they were treated like the villains and the blame was put on them. Our comic book focuses on this and tries to change people’s perceptions of these heroic women,” the 44-year-old explains.

The comic, which has been created along with artist Dan Goldman, has artwork inspired by mythology. On being asked the reason, Devineni says that in his opinion, the core essence of Hinduism is about conquering one’s fears. In the story, he continues, Priya confronts the tiger  that has been stalking her. She turns her fear, the tiger, in to her power — her shakti.

“Also, I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books and was hugely influenced by them. I think millions of children have read the series, and they’ve entered the collective consciousness of contemporary Indian culture. I first learned about Hindu mythology through this series. Comic books characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have become modern mythological icons, and other comics book stories such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus address important historical events. We are using existing constructs that are familiar to everyone in India, but presenting them in a fresh and original way,” he says.

After receiving a great response to the first comic, Devineni recently released Priya’s Mirror, in which, Priya joins forces with a group of acid attack survivors as they fight against the demon-king, Ahankar, and his tyrannical hold on them.

“The characters were influenced by acid attack survivors that I interviewed in India, New York City, and Colombia. I spoke with Sonia and Laxmi from Stop Acid Attacks in December 2015, and later with Monica Singh from the Mahendra Singh Foundation, and Natalia in Colombia with Servicios Fundación Natalia Ponce de Leon. They all helped to create the characters and the story,”
he says.

The New York City-based filmmaker shares that the originally only one comic book was planned, adding that now they will release five chapters before combining them into a book. “The book will be sold, but also a print run will be created for our NGO partner Apne Aap Women Worldwide to distribute to schools for free in India,” he says.

Next up, he says, is a chapter focused on sex trafficking; which “will continue Priya’s movement and adventures”.

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