As a woman and an independent Indian journalist, a writer and a poet, I have regularly engaged with gender-based violence throughout my career. Recently, I decided I wanted to write more on the subject — particularly to better understand why men commit sexual violence and why women are not encouraged to report it. My research for this work required me to click on rape-related news more often than the average news consumer.
The outcome was distressing. I found that story after story included images of survivors of sexual violence that were gory and denigrating. They often depicted survivors in shredded clothes, fear-stricken eyes, and arms outstretched in appeal.
These images not only forced readers who are also survivors to relive their own trauma, but also depicted survivors as hapless objects carrying the shame that should be attached to their violators. This depiction also caused the subjects of the photos to potentially face a double victimization through the stigma that society imposes on rape survivors. As someone who has faced sexual harassment and child abuse, I certainly did not wish to be depicted this way.
What’s more, images of the alleged perpetrators of this violence were rarely featured. If illustrated at all, perpetrators were usually presented as hands gagging a woman’s mouth or a huge figure hulking in the shadows. While guilt squarely belongs with the oppressor, these images depicted powerless women cowering in shame. If sex is about power, then these images only served to maintain the status quo of men having power over women. They robbed women of their dignity, agency, and identities by presenting them as nothing more than victims — as prey to male predators.
In January this year, I grew tired of seeing these images and doing nothing about it, so I launched a petition on Change.org that explained why this subject was of concern not only to me, and all sexual violence survivors, but to anyone who respects women and believes in gender equality. Specifically, the petition asked Network 18, a media house in India, not to use disrespectful images of women in their reporting on sexual violence. I chose Network 18 because I believed it would be more effective to start with a specific news group rather than condemn all of them at once. What’s more, Network 18 is a mainstream news group that has a large presence across various platforms in more than one language — all of which could be positively impacted if my petition saw success.
In February, I co-organized a Twitter chat with the human rights organization Breakthrough India in which journalists, activists, and other people participated and discussed how insensitive gender reporting discourages and disrespects survivors.
All of these efforts allowed me to have a conversation with the media about gender-sensitive reporting that was related to the petition but that also ultimately went beyond it. I wrote to media groups in India and other countries requesting that they do simple things like make a statement on social media supporting the petition if they agreed with the cause. Sometimes this worked: For example, one Hindi magazine contacted me to let me know that even though they are a feminist publication, my work helped them realize that they too need to be more careful with their language when reporting on cases of gendered violence.
Almost two months after I first published it, the petition had gotten 47,000 signatures, but I still hadn’t heard anything from Network 18. Then, on March 14, I received a response from the executive editor of CNN News Network 18, pledging that the outlet would remove all debilitating images of women from their database and use more neutral substitutes. He also committed to training their staff in gender-sensitive reporting.
This victory was ultimately just a small step toward changing how the media depicts survivors of sexual assault. All media houses, not just Network 18, need to take these steps — and stick to them in the long term.
Survivors often trust reporters to write about their stories in the hopes of achieving justice; the press can cover cases in which the police refused to help, and therefore shut them out of other forms of justice. Sometimes these reports have real power to put pressure on the police to act. But these benefits are often negated when the reporting involved isn’t sensitive to the survivor’s needs. Journalism has the power to hold a space of compassion and dignity for the trauma that survivors are denied elsewhere; we must make sure that it does.
Women across region, class and age have always expressed a serious concern for their physical safety. Take the capital city of Delhi, for instance: It has regularly faced indictment for failing to provide safety to its women residents; a 2012 survey by the UN and the International Center for Research on Women showed that 95% of women felt unsafe in Delhi, and 51% of men interviewed there admitted to having sexually harassed women in public places.
Therefore, in an effort to examine the access – the lack thereof, and the challenges therein — to public spaces by women in the city, The Pocket Company launched Genderventions (directed by Niranjani Iyer), a theater project, of which I was a part. Through a series of street performances in different areas of Delhi, we set out to assess how comfortable and confident Delhi’s women felt outside their homes, and what men viewed as harassment, its causes and the possible solutions.
Here’s how the project rolled out and what we found.
It started with a workshop, during which women members of the Genderventions team re-enacted scenes of harassment, the ludicrous suggestions — like “do not go anywhere alone” – that they and women at large are routinely given by society as solutions to women’s safety, and possible ways of resistance against these expectations.
For example, thinking about how women deal with the lack of public toilets, a high-stress scene, led to a skit in which one woman acted out peeing, while two covered her, and another stood guard.
As one of the activities in the workshop, women from the Genderventions team went to a park on a winter night. When men huddled around a bonfire saw them, the men asked why the women were out at night. Upon explaining that they were trying to reclaim public spaces at night, the men seemed to realize that the spaces they take for granted are daily battlefields for women.
During the workshop, too, women spent time learning the expected postures of a male body. This led to an exercise in which the Genderventions women occupied public spaces while assuming postures commonly associated with men. I participated in this, visiting a Delhi tea stall – the only woman there. I remember sitting with my feet up, or standing in the middle of the road with arms behind my head, while bystanders stared with a mixture of shock, awe, or, if they were women, of amusement and admiration.
In the same exercise, Gendervention’s male members tried to walk and carry their bodies like women. We took this exercise to the male members of the audience and gave them instructions usually given to girls about how to sit, stand, walk, laugh — be graceful; don’t be too fast; don’t walk so slowly that you seem dull; smile, don’t look morose; don’t laugh loudly; don’t put your chest out. This sought to help the men watching understand the undue pressure upon women’s bodies to simultaneously embody the obligation to be nice, and the fear of coming across as too nice. The men’s awkwardness was clear; they said they did not feel “natural” or at ease, and did not like being constantly instructed.
We found this to be effective experience-sharing, where the audience could empathize through having lived the same experience, albeit temporarily.
The project was taken to different areas, markets and street corners of Delhi and depicted the scenes of harassment developed in the workshop, and asked the audience to describe what they perceived. If they said the woman was being harassed, we asked why they thought so. They described how the woman was squirming and inching close to the corner of her bus seat, or scowling in anger if the man’s hand touched her knees.
We also depicted a scene in which a female actor started alone on stage, then male actors joined her. It allowed the audience to observe a woman’s body in a space free of men, and then observe how discomfort in her body started building up as more and more men’s eyes turned to stare at her. This was to shed light on how staring can constitute harassment for a woman.
Ultimately, men easily outnumbered women in the audience, because as an unwritten rule, women are not supposed to loiter and watch street performances. At one point, we even had to pause the performance and intervene because a young girl was not able to watch our play due to being constantly jostled by men. The only exception was when we performed in a team member’s residential area; there, women formed the larger piece of the audience pie because she had personally invited the women.
After our shows, women in the audience spoke of how the only place where they felt comfortable in their bodies was the bathroom.
When it comes to providing security to women, the focus of the government is still on CCTV cameras, SOS apps and helpline numbers, whose aim is either to help women stay safe or to provide mechanisms to report if they are harassed. It is still far away from proactively creating spaces that are welcoming for women, and encouraging women’s right to risk. It is still a time where irritated cops ask women to avoid trouble and go home when these women come together for their night walks to reclaim the streets.
Sometimes we do not believe in solutions or alternatives until we see them; art can help with the visualization. The performances and interactions we engaged in show that, despite laws, men’s take on harassment came a lot from what they, and not the women, “believed” should be defined as harassment. Victim-blaming is still rampant.
In our “ideal city” exercise, we asked men and women to describe a city that is equally accessible and comfortable for men and women. When our female actor gave an example by sitting on an imagined bus seat, with closed eyes and a relaxed body, taking up enough space for herself, some protested that it was not the correct or proper way to sit.
Once, a member of the audience said a harassed woman on the bus should stand up on her seat and call attention to the harasser. After a team member carried out the suggestion and enacted that scene, I realized I had never considered the possibility — but after I had seen it “in action,” I felt I was ready to literally stand my ground the next time somebody tried to attack me. Ironically, but not unexpectedly, I had to confront a harasser on public transport even as I was on my way to one of these performances.
Delhi is home to women from diverse backgrounds. Some come seeking education and employment. Others have lived there all their lives. Both look to the capital with the hope that it would provide them with opportunities they do not have access to elsewhere. These women deserve better. They deserve more interventions by the state and its citizenry, more gender-ventions that change attitudes and actually prevent crimes against them, so they can equally and fearlessly claim every inch of the mega-city.
Media reports about sexual violence may be geared towards raising awareness and justice but the images themselves sometimes end up doing damage instead because they reinforce the stereotype of women as “easy prey”, in turn encouraging rape culture. One powerful way to make society view such women as “survivors” and not “victims” is to change the way the media depicts them. I used to be an activist in the past. After I joined journalism, I have tried to steer clear of activism in order to ensure that as a journalist my work carries minimum bias and that when it does, I make it known. With this mindset, sometimes when things within the media community bother me, I feel perplexed about where to draw the line between carrying on with my job of being a reporter and speaking about issues that affect me as a member of this community.
Insensitive reporting done in the case of incidents of sexual violence had bothered me for a long time. I used to get especially upset by ghastly drawings that were supposed to represent the survivors, where the women seemed to have been robbed not only of their clothes but their dignity. Instead of creating awareness, some of these images actually seemed to titillate. There came a point when I felt that taking up this issue was important because it is necessary to look inwards. My intention was not to fight or blame anyone else but to take responsibility for the profession I was part of. Gender sensitive reporting was not something I only wanted others to do but also wanted to do better myself.
But how could I do something about it? Would anyone read or respond if I sent letters to media houses? Should I write articles on it? Would my attempt be seen as an effort towards censorship? I finally decided to bell the cat with a Change.org petition, ‘Set an example by not using disrespectful images of women in sexual violence reporting’. Even then I had to decide who I should address. I thought about the Press Council of India but wondered whether, even if the petition was heard and an advisory issued, it would be effective. I finally decided to write to a particular media house in order to start out small, and I chose Network 18 because it was a major mainstream outlet and its decision could possibly also have an impact on others.
“A scared figure crouching in a corner, a large hand covering a mouth trying to muffle a scream, outstretched arms pleading for help, tattered clothes . . .We have all seen these images that accompany media reports of sexual violence against women. As a woman who has survived sexual harassment like so many others in India and around the world, I have felt insulted looking at these images. I don’t want to be depicted this way,” I said in my petition.
After having sent off the petition, I started garnering people’s support for it. We had online and offline discussions among friends, colleagues, journalists and NGOs over how such images further objectified women, and thereby actually encouraged and did not prevent assault. I read more on the subject to learn how I, while I was at it, could do better reporting on sexual violence as a print and digital journalist.
When The Assam Tribune invited me to write a short piece on the subject and I shared the article online, it resonated with a lot of people. Germany based Hostwriter, a media platform for cross-border collaborations, also sent in their support for the demand. Whenever I was invited to speak about my campaign or about gender related concerns in general, I got another chance to request people to sign the petition if they agreed with the demand. If I went for media trainings and workshops, I would solicit the suggestions of others.
I had also been sharing a Hindi translation of the petition in order to reach the maximum number of potential supporters. I was trying to stay prepared for questions around alternatives to current images. Personally, I thought the images of people, especially women, protesting sexual violence, which have already been used by many, could be a powerful example. Such images were not about helplessness but about rage that challenged the oppression. These pictures showed that women are “doers,” not always the “done upon-s.”
The sample images that Breakthrough, an organisation working to end violence against women, had put together for their Redraw Misogyny campaign a few years ago also changed the narrative. Women were illustrated in a realistic way and more space was given to the representational images of harassers who were clearly portrayed as the wrongdoers.
Some journalists told me they had earlier raised the issue in their newsrooms but not much attention was paid to it. I, too, did not know if Network 18 had even read my petition. There had been no acknowledgement, no “we will look into it,” and so, in my mind, I started feeling that I might have to keep up the campaign for years, and then I might as well try to effect a change in other spaces.
I was least prepared to get an affirmative response from CNN News 18 even before the petition had completed two months of existence. In their response, they promised to clear their database of the older stock images and instead use more neutral visuals. They further added, “We have also let all our reporters, members of our editorial and production teams know how to use images while reporting on sexual violence.” It was a better and quicker response that I had expected and I felt immensely grateful to the 47,000 people who had stood behind the petition with their signatures. Frankly, I had not imagined that so many people would care about the issue.
The fact that not only the media house but so many people responded to this call for change showed that while individual journalists may not have the decision making power that rests with editors or media group owners, when backed by the readers of their reports, they too could play a small part in changing the narrative. As the petitioner, I have been trying to follow up on Network 18’s promise so that I could write to them if I found them using images that could still be problematic.
Sometimes, when I share these images with other survivors, there are differences of opinion around certain visuals. All this taught me that there is a lot of work to be done in the area of gender sensitive reporting, and especially on the images used with reports on sexual violence. One way to move forward is to keep our ear to the ground and find out how viewers and survivors respond to the same set of images. We could take these images to young boys and men to find out what role the images play in forming perceptions around sexual assault, women and gender equality. There is a long way to go, and I am glad that small beginnings are being made. First published inNetwork of Women in Media, India, 23 May 2019.
a journalist, a writer, a poet or as someone invested in gender
issues, if I am invited to speak publicly, there is often a pattern
to the sequence of events that unfold. There are aspects of
internalised conditioning that I have to work against to publicly be
as full and true a version of myself as I want to be.
I am the only woman on what would otherwise have been a manel, I
wonder if I have been invited for the sake of tokenism. A grassroots
activist organisation called me for their programme once on short
notice saying they are all men and that they need “some woman” on
stage. At times like these, I sit down with myself to believe that
maybe it is some effort, however small, made by the organisers to be
diverse. I have to remind myself that what I am going to share comes
from the work I have done, however limited, and from my lived
experiences. And that since sharing this has resonated with people in
the past and encouraged others to speak up, it is important that I
continue to do so regardless of the organiser’s agenda in inviting
me. In fact recently I came across an excellent tweet where the woman
is aghast at being invited as a gender diversity showpiece. Then she
remembers how men have been getting so many invites for ever simply
by virtue of being men. This calms her, and me, down.
these public occasions, I remind myself of my school days when I
spoke too fast because I was, as so many women are, afraid of taking
too much time or space. This was despite encouragement by teachers
who had read my articles in the local paper and had thus asked me to
speak in the morning assembly. But in writing I could quietly put my
thoughts out there and withdraw; in speaking I had to convince myself
and a full school playground that my words were worthy of their time.
My friends in the audience used to gently tell me that I seemed
hurried, and that they would have liked to hear more from me. When I
recall this today while being on stage, I slow down and learn to use
the time allotted to me, even as I marvel at how most men around me
leisurely exceed the time limit. I remember an exceptional case, a
poetry event when I used up all my time while the men finished
sharing their works in a shorter duration. I look at these instances,
or occasions of taking a couple of additional minutes, with a mixture
of guilt and embarrassment at having got “carried away”, and
exhilaration at having finally claimed my time and space.
I am off the stage and if people I do not know come to compliment me
on my words, I am reminded of all the times my confidence was
labelled as arrogance. I try extra hard to prove to them that I do
not think too much of myself. I labour to appear
as polite and humble as I feel. From the point of qualifying or
rejecting others’ compliments to realising that it is disrespectful
both to them and to myself, I have now reached the stage of biting my
tongue and saying a tight thank you, and then worrying about whether
I would have struck the other person as being too cold.
it is a man praising
me I listen with bated breath hoping he won't ask for my number
(unless for a clear, work related purpose). If he doesn’t, I am
relieved. If he does, I give it because I do not want to be rude.
Later I am angry with myself for buying into the notion that my
concern about not being harassed (arising from experience) is less
important than a man’s feelings.
next time it happens I say no, and offer my email instead. The man
notes down my digital address and gives me his phone so I can punch
in my number, as if he never heard my no. Ironically, my talk at the
event where I was the only woman on the panel was on listening to
women’s stories rather than imposing our stories on them. The man’s
dogged pursuit of my number while ignoring my own consent makes me
feel like once again someone is trying to force me to link my Aaadhar
number with every shred of my identity. As I wonder if I would have
to get a Supreme Court order to make his volatile effervescence
subside, my friend approaches me and subtly fixes my sari palla
slipping off my shoulders. I am suddenly aware of all the people, all
the men around. I am now too tired to think and don’t want to get
into an argument so I end up feeding my number. I return home
frustrated with myself again for having caved in, for not having
stood up tall enough, long enough for myself while I had aimed to do
that for other women in my speech. I get some semblance of a closure
only when he calls me up later and asks to meet and “just chat
about stuff”, and I respond with a terse no and hang up and block
am a feminist, I am 33, I am called to speak on issues concerning
women, I am perceived as bold and outspoken by many. Yet I struggle
to occupy space, to take time, to say no without explaining or
apologising, to make people believe in my humility. The most taxing
part of my feminism is not fighting others but resisting my own
conditioning. Through poems I write, plays I act in, reporting I do
and books (like The
Courage to be Disliked)
I read, I am constantly schooling myself that I can be who I want to
be, that I do not have to be who I am supposed to be according to
while meninists would like to believe that our claws are pointed at
them, the truth is we are more engrossed in a nail biting battle to
peel away our own conditioning. For the longest time, this truth used
to piss me off. Eventually, as promised, it has started setting me
free because this phenomenon reiterates that patriarchy is not a
monster coming at us whose head needs some slaying. It is a
claustrophobia inducing tent that covers all of us, getting hotter
with global warming, one that needs to be deflated from within. And
if I ever get on pins and needles facing it again, I want to prick it
right in the gut and say, “Yes, I have a number and no, I won’t
give it to you,” and walk away and without stressing about whether
my gait would be seen as haughty.