Thursday, 27 June 2019

How I got a major Indian media outlet to change the way they depict sexual violence

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 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.

But in addition to calling out bad media representation of sexual assault survivors, I wanted to put forth the best alternative way to cover the topic. I found out that Breakthrough had launched a workshop called #RedrawMisogyny to produce images that can be used in sexual assault-related media coverage, which focus on culprits of violence, not the victims of it. I also studied toolkits like the Chicago Taskforce Media Toolkit (Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence), and resources put together by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma to help reporters understand how to better report on the topic.

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.

First published in The F Bomb, Women's Media Center, 25 June 2019.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Street Theater Can Open Men’s Eyes to Women’s Harassment

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. 

First published in The Swaddle, 7 Jun 2019.
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