In India, women victimized by sexual violence and rape are typically stigmatized and socially ostracized, compounding their trauma. Unjustly shamed, everything from their morals to their conduct is called into question.
But what if the narrative were to change? A woman vanquishes her fears and dismisses the ridicule, speaking out as a survivor and becoming an inspiration to thousands of women in India who have faced the same ordeal — a modern-day female superhero.
This is the story of Priya, the protagonist of a first-of-its-kind Indian comic book created to target the country's gender-based sexual violence. 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.
"A police official suggested that the girl perpetrated the attack by walking home alone late at night," he recalled to VICE News.
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.
A divine war threatens the fate of the world until Priya embodies the spirit of women across time, captivating the public and redeeming humanity by imparting female equality across the land.
"In India, Hindu iconography is everywhere," Devineni said. He maintained the ancient philosophy of Goddess Parvati being the awakening light — both for Shiva, a male who empathizes with Priya, and for Priya to tap into her own strength and be a catalyst for female empowerment and change. "We subverted the usual image of Goddess Durga astride a tiger by placing our heroine, a mortal woman, on it."
Readers have downloaded Priya's Shakti more than 200,000 times since its worldwide release last December, and launched an accompanying social media campaign, #standwithpriya. The comic is credited with encouraging a debate about sexual assault in India, and Devineni has been honored as a gender equality champion by UN Women, an organization that champions women's rights, in observance of its impact.
"Last year, people across India endorsed sexual violence as a pivotal issue, ranking ending violence against women second in a survey asking them what matters most," Oisika Chakrabarti, senior communications and media specialist for UN Women, told VICE News. "There is an urgent need to invest heavily in the prevention and response to the pandemic of violence against women in India, as well as globally."
Now the comic's creators are determining how to develop an even bigger audience.
"The concern is that the book could speak to Hindus, but perhaps we also need other idioms to address those of minority religions who might not be comfortable with the 'divine is within us all' message," Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, told VICE News. "I think that perhaps that kind of message takes away somewhat from the central issue — that we should respect all humans as humans, not for divine essence, but for human essence."
Lina Srivastava, a strategist working with Devineni on the comic's social impact, told VICE News that they hope the ubiquity of the images in India and the empowerment narrative will help its message register with non-Hindus.
"We purposely avoided preaching Hinduism," Devineni noted. He's encouraged that only about 60 percent of the comic's readers are within India, with many others located in Europe and the Americas — a reach that suggests the possibility of a wider series.
"In future stories, Priya will travel to countries and address other social issues, but the focus will remain on gender-based violence," he said. "Forthcoming books will not always be structured around Hinduism."
An innovative aspect of Priya's Shakti's publicity is its use of augmented reality. Users who scan the comic book or one of its many promotional murals on the streets of Mumbai with the Blippar app can unlock animation, videos, interactive links, and comments in various vernacular languages. Though this new media factor has struck a chord with urban youth who have access to smartphones and tablets, and who can easily view the comic book online, managing outreach in India's rural areas has been a challenge.
"To address this very real problem, the comic book can work as a standalone printed book, where readers can appreciate and understand the story without the augmented reality elements," Devineni explained.
Engagement efforts are being tailored accordingly.
"We are in the process of negotiating with various state governments like Rajasthan, Bihar, and Delhi to incorporate the comic book into the curriculum of 10- to 12-year-olds in municipal and other government schools," Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-sex trafficking nonprofit that has partnered with the Priya's Shakti project, told VICE News. Gender sensitization should begin as early as possible, she added, noting that the effectiveness of the comic in fostering this can be closely tracked in an educational setting.
There are also attempts to get corporations like Vodafone to sponsor bulk purchases of the printed copies, which are more expensive than usual because of the glossy pages, and plans to translate the comic into Hindi and Marathi.
Advocates hope the comic's success will spur a broader literary campaign to combat the abuse of women.
"We need more stories that can address caste violence against women, violence by the police and army against women, as well as sexual violence inside marriage," said Krishnan. "Only then can it really serve as a dialogue with people at large."
Follow Purvi Thacker on Twitter: @purvi21