A woman is raped in India every 20 minutes, which means that, since the latest headline crime broke, a further 216 women (at least) have been assaulted. Almost one in three of these victims will be below the age of 18. It's upsetting reading. But in a country where women are effectively seen as second-class citizens, where they're encouraged to swap their fertility for fridges and TVs, the absence of human compassion that surrounds these mentally and physically destructive crimes isn't surprising.
Priya's Shakti, a new, freely distributed comic book about a young girl who is raped and then tries to change the world with the help of the gods, aims to shift all that. How, you ask? By giving India a female super-hero named Priya who goes around stirring up social revolution on the back of a fucking tiger, of course.
In India, its long been known that comics can be utilised as a tool for social change, with its dual mechanism of words and images making it a strong contender for the most accessible medium out there. Don't understand why Shiva is pissed at the male species? Just look at what that horrible cockhead is doing to that woman, for crying out loud. It's simple, powerful and effective, like getting up for a piss in the middle of a sleepless night.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. The creators – Ram Devineni, Lina Srivastava and Dan Goldman, among others – understand that a comic book has to be entertaining, even if it's really about inspiring women to rise up and blokes to keep it in their pants. There are scenes of lesser (male) gods panicking when Shiva declares that all men are forbidden from procreating. There's even a moment where Shiva cowers before a gigantic, fuck-off Parvati in all her multi-armed splendour. This is patriarchy flipped like a pancake.
I spoke with Ram Devineni about how he hopes Priya's Shakti will help change attitudes in a society that has become so stained with misery.
VICE: Priya has been described as a superhero. But is she really super? I mean, she's not flying or shooting lasers from her eyes.
Ram Devineni: Priya is definitely a superhero, but not in the typical sense. She's not super because of her special powers, but because she is empowered. That's why, in the end, she conquers the tiger.
So, she's a normal woman who appears super because she stands out from all those who are being screwed by the system?
And the tiger represents her power?
That's her Shakti, which is the female embodiment of empowerment. She rides it around bringing the social movement with her.
Where did this idea originally spring from?
Two years ago in December, when Jyoti Singh Pandey was gang raped on a bus in Munirka, in South Delhi. I was there at the time and went to the protests, trying to figure out what had happened. It was a total shock to everyone. I spoke to a police officer to find out what he thought about what had happened. He said – and I remember this clearly – "No good girl walks home alone at night."
I was shocked. It was so indicative. It implied that even the cops thought she deserved it, or even provoked the rape. It was awful.
Damn. So this a prevalent thought, ingrained in the structures of society?
Yeah. So, Priya's Shakti has augmented reality in built (which you can access via the Blippar app) which you can scan. Scan the page where Priya is being hassled in the market, and you get access to videos of actual people I've interviewed in Delhi talking about their opinions about who is at fault. A lot of the guys blame the woman. How she dresses, how she's provocative... The women, well, they don't know what to blame.
Can you give me an example of one?
The videos are all animated. You know it's illegal to show the face of a rape survivor in India?
Yes. For protection – of both the victim and the society. They can't even look at the issue in the face.
There's this one story where a girl is walking to her grandmother's and gets bundled into a car by a bunch of boys, who then sedated and raped her. All the while, they recorded it, to use as blackmail. That's just the start of this girl's ordeal. Her isolation, her shame. It's all really awful. Women raped in India... They're told it's their fault.
But that surely isn't what everyone thinks?
Absolutely not. One of the amazing things about the Delhi protests was that it showed there were millions of people out there who'd just had enough. And let's not forget: rape is a global issue, a worldwide issue.
Of course. In 2013, apparently a rape was reported in the United States every six minutes. But that can't be your target demographic. Who is your audience?Our main audience is teenagers in India, from 12 to, like, mid twenties. They really gravitate to this – we spent a year test running it. They see the comic and the augmented reality and they're like, "holy shit." Then they get talking about the ideas.
My only concern about this comic is how you get this from me, in London, to someone in India who doesn't own an iPad or a smartphone. How does it work on the street?
We did market research and designed it to be popular. It's going to be translated into many languages – even regional ones. It'll be available in print, online, whatever. We're partnering with NGOs in India and Mozilla, so we can get it into schools and community centres. Spoken word is a powerful tool, as are pictures.
We've got artists to create murals in Mumbai, for example, and we're going to make more throughout the country. We did workshops in the Dharavi slums in Mumbai – the biggest in Asia – where kids created their own comics based on sexual violence issues, and now we've integrated some of those into the comic.
You know it's illegal to show the face of a rape survivor in India?
What about when you come up against government and the caste system?
It's going to be tricky. But the cool thing about the murals is you're taking the image of Priya and the tiger and putting it onto the street. Normally, you'd see pictures of a goddess – not a human woman. It gets people talking. You can take a photo via augmented reality and get your face into the mural with Priya, alongside the words #IStandWithPriya.
And is this still a sensitive issue – to openly support and empathise with rape survivors?
Absolutely. There's so much social shame attached to this. We want people to say they've had enough. It's certainly a new thing, this movement. But it's not going away.
Why did you choose Hindu mythology as a base for the story?
It's not only the most popular religion in India but, as I see it, it's also about conquering your fears. In the 80s comics that I grew up reading, regular people would call on the gods for help, so I thought what we needed was a new story with that motif. We need to call on the gods to cure our sexual violence problem, but it's humanity who needs to be the catalyst of change. That's why Priya calls on Parvati at the beginning, but it's Priya who actually alters the world.
What does Priya mean, by the way?
Priya means love, but now it also means supporting rape survivors.
Thanks, Ram. Good Luck.
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