When you watch the harrowing, even jaw-dropping, film India’s Daughter, which premieres Monday on Independent Lens [check local listings], the case of the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh will stay with you long afterwards. Anti-rape activists in the film and those spurred on by similar cases hope to create a lasting impression, inspiring discussion and activism on the grassroots level throughout not just India but the world. The New York Times wrote, “for all of its horrors, the movie has a positive message, too: Out of tragedy — and this case is just one of many — can come galvanizing change.”
The following is an overview of some key activists combatting sexual assault, gender inequality, and rape culture in India and beyond.
Rape Culture on the Defensive in India
For the rape culture to change in India, men need to be a part of it as well. From a piece on CNN, “Keeping chivalry alive in India: Men respond to rape crisis,” we see how some prominent men are attempting to become part of the solution:
“Every time I look into the mirror, I want to see a man whose mother, sister, wife and daughter are proud to call their own,” says renowned Bollywood actor and director Farhan Akhtar on the website of his movement formed in March called MARD — Men Against Rape and Discrimination.
Distributing plastic moustaches — a symbol of masculinity — at the cricket ground of Eden Gardens in Kolkata in April, Farhan is using his influence to encourage men to become “real MARDs” — also meaning “men” in the national language of Hindi.
He is setting out a plan of action with Magic Bus — an established NGO in India — that uses sport to engage children from poorer communities, teaching values such as the importance of education, health and gender equality.
Colleen Curry’s piece for VICE, “How India Is Fixing its Rape Culture and Why There’s Still a Long Way to Go,” pivots from Jyoti Singh’s story to look at ways the country with the second largest population in the world (over 1.2 billion) has responded in the subsequent few years.
“There’s a conversation about rape in India that you’d not been hearing very loudly before,” Michael Kugleman, a senior scholar in Asian studies at the Wilson Center, told VICE News. “People are more likely to come forward now and report rapes when they happen. They see that it is starting to get attention and it is starting to be condemned.”
But two years later, activists and scholars say there has been only moderate progress to change the longstanding social mores that lead to rape in India. Grassroots activists and organizations have, however, made persistent attempts to educate women and make some changes to India’s sexual assault laws.
An innovative new way of addressing gender-based violence is using the comic book medium to tell the story of a superhero fighting the stigma of rape in India:
The brainchild of Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni, Priya’s Shakti is an imaginative reaction to an alarming apathy among the authorities and public toward the issue of rape. Devineni witnessed this disconnect first-hand while participating in the protests that followed the 2012 brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student from Delhi.
Horrified, Devineni was moved to devise a comic book whose alternative storyline would defy India’s overarching misogynistic and patriarchal views and help redefine attitudes and beliefs toward sexual violence against women. He worked with the poet Vikas K. Menon and artist Dan Goldman on a simple concept: combining potent Indian mythology with the accessibility of popular culture to connect with readers and promote social change.
Priya, a devotee of Parvati, the Hindu goddess of fertility, is raped and rejected by her family and neighbors. The goddess learns of her suffering and is appalled by the abuse women face on earth. She empowers Priya through Shakti — a manifestation of divine feminine energy. Parvati’s husband, the great Hindu god Shiva, loses faith in mankind and condemns it to infertility for its crimes.
Learn more about Priya’s Shakti or read the whole book right here:
Safety and Infrastructure
Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder inspired India to take a deeper look at its infrastructure. Singh and her friend had to take a private transport bus, aboard which the crime occurred, after an evening at the movies. This is an example of how a frequent lack of safety in populated (as well as rural) areas is a hugely important issue. From a Guardian story on how to make India safer for women:
The report [Invisible Women, by academics Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan] argues that India’s infrastructure needs to be transformed to give women an equal and safer place in cities. They write that the Delhi rape “was facilitated in part by the lack of adequate public transport, which meant that [the victim] was traveling in a private bus.” The women point out that transport, lighting, toilets and other public facilities are designed with an “invariably male” user in mind. As a result, women’s toilets “are dark and unfriendly” and often close at 9pm, “sending the clear message that women are not expected to – and not supposed to – be out in public at night.” This means women “have to learn extreme bladder control and to negotiate dark streets and unfriendly parks.”
New cases have taken the spotlight in India, and with it their own set of outrage. Two stories recently shocked the world, in which children aged five and two-and-a-half were raped by young men. As with these other brutal stories, the cases inspired mass protests, but the question remains, is enough being done to prevent these acts of violence against women and children? If it’s systemic, if it runs deep, will change happen fast enough?
Perhaps hope can be found in people like Sunitha Krishnan, the (as the New York Times put it) “woman who turned the tables on rapists in India,” with a bold — some would say brazen — idea of a”Shame the Rapists” campaign, involving posting on the internet footage of men raping women. She blurred the faces of the victims, putting the act itself, and the perpetrators, front and center. Krishnan faced a backlash, to dangerous levels, after she launched her campaign, including having her car vandalized by unknown assailants near a bus stop.
Every single day, for more than six months, a loose network of Indians watched scenes of women being raped by gangs of men. The videos were of low quality: grainy, shaky, shot by an excited hand trying to hold a cellphone steady. Forwarded and shared over and over again until they appeared on the evening news, the images answered a question that had been hanging in the air since 2012, when a brutal rape in New Delhi made global headlines: What does unimaginable horror look like?
Sunitha Krishnan, activist, rape survivor, and a petit woman of gargantuan strength, knows that brand of horror well. “Ten seconds into the video, I was overcome. I had to stop as I needed to throw up,” she told news channels the night she released edited versions of the clips that had been discovered and sent to her by an acquaintance. The existence of such evidence should not have come as a surprise. In India, rapists emboldened by a culture of victim-blame frequently threaten their victims into silence by photographing or recording the crimes.
It is only recently that this narrative has begun to change, a shift that Krishnan describes as “mild but extraordinary.” In 2013, a woman raped by four men and a juvenile was warned not to tell anyone about the crime, unless she wanted humiliating photographs of herself plastered all over social media. The woman, a journalist on assignment, left the scene, called her editor and went straight to the police station to lodge a report.
For all the strides Krishnan helped the government make, after years of fighting various institutions, she wonders if she’s made enough of an impact.
“It’s hard sometimes. It can make you question everything,” she said, falling quiet for a moment. “But it takes a minute in my shelter to give me energy for one year. If you look into the eyes of a child who has been sold, raped and beaten, and you still find love, how can you stay angry with the world?”
Get a deeper look at the work Krishnan’s been doing with her TED Talk, which you can watch below, The Fight Against Sex Slavery.
Anti-Rape Culture Activism across the Globe and in the United States
In South Africa, protestors staged a “die-in” where they pretended to be dead en masse to protest rape and murder. The rape and murder of a young woman in Turkey spawned protests not just on the ground but on Twitter from Turkish women in the campaign #sendeanlat, which means “tell your story.”
— OutForBeyond (@OutForBeyond) February 15, 2015
— Hande AYDIN (@hande_aydin) February 15, 2015
In the United States, the movement against rape culture burgeoned in the 1960s and ‘70s in conjunction with the rise of second-wave feminism, and just as there was a backlash against it then, there’s a backlash against anti-rape activism now. While we in America may express shock and outrage at these stories out of India, the truth is we have our own ongoing rape crisis here at home. The distressing revelations about Bill Cosby’s decades of alleged rape are only the more prominent tip of the iceberg.
Rolling Stone featured an author who attempts to address this in a new book in which she looks at how rape culture can be changed: America Has a Rape Problem – and Kate Harding Wants to Fix It:
In an author’s note at the beginning of Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – and What We Can Do About It, Kate Harding acknowledges that she had no idea how culturally relevant her book would end up being when she conceived of it in 2012. At the time, “[n]ews of the Steubenville, Ohio, gang rape case was picking up steam, and the memory of Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s ‘legitimate rape’ gaffe was fresh in all our minds,” she writes. Three years later, to her delight, “Americans are still talking seriously about rape and rape culture,” with the mounting allegations against Bill Cosby, California’s “yes means yes” bill and other stories relating to sexual assault regularly making headlines.
That’s the good news. The more sobering news is that America continues to have a major rape problem, as Harding details in her smart, concise – and sometimes even funny – book on the subject.
Among many other things in this frank and illuminating interview, Harding defines what she means by “rape culture:”
It’s a culture where we always identify with the person who’s accused of rape instead of identifying with the victim. When someone reports a rape, we immediately start investigating that person – the presumption is that the person is probably lying – before we even think to investigate the person being accused. (I’m using the term “investigate” colloquially here, although certainly there are problems with the police as well.) Immediately the suspicion falls on the person who reported the rape.
It’s a culture where we believe a lot of rape myths, such as, “She was asking for it.” If you’re drinking, if you’re in a certain part of town, if you’re wearing a certain outfit, people are going to say outright that you deserved to be raped.
The aggregate of all this is that it gives rapists the social license to operate, to use a phrase from Thomas MacAulay Millar, who was a main contributor to the Yes Means Yes blog and contributed to the book [Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape] as well. The social license to operate means that a rapist in this culture looks at the incredibly small number of rapists who actually go to prison for rape, and looks at the way we respond to people who report rapes, and notes that he has a pretty good chance of getting away with it.
Another recent book criticizes the mainstream media’s lack of coverage of activism against rape culture, SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism & Media:
Dr. Mendes explained: “Although the mainstream media covered SlutWalk, it was limited in comparison to that found in the feminist blogosphere. For example, whereas the news frequently included statements indicating that SlutWalk challenged ‘rape culture’ they rarely explained what rape culture was, how it was perpetuated or how the movement was actually challenging it.
“On the other hand, the feminist blogs had the space, freedom and lack of traditional journalistic constraints which allowed them to go into these issues in more depth.”
The ‘SlutWalk’ movement started in Toronto in February 2011, when a police officer told local students they should ‘avoid dressing like sluts’ to prevent being raped.
Social outrage exploded into demonstrations across over 40 countries, including the UK and United States, as a way of challenging attitudes towards rape and the ways victims are often blamed.
As a very recent example of using social media as a tool for fighting back and for educating, the always outspoken comedienne Margaret Cho started a #12DaysOfRage conversation on Twitter in which she shared her rape experience and encouraged women (and men) to discuss theirs without shame.
— Margaret Cho (@margaretcho) November 11, 2015
With new media at their disposal, more anti-rape activists are finding that they have the strength in numbers they’ve previously been unable to activate. In India, Turkey, Europe, and the United States, there are more and more means to organize, to inform, and to — perhaps most importantly of all — have their voices heard. There’s a long way to go in changing deeply rooted rape culture, but as the people featured in this post can attest, all change starts with a small step. As Mother Teresa once said, “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”