This superhero takes on violence against women in India

Credit: Priya's Shakti

The fight against sexual violence in India has a new ally – a comic book superhero.  Priya, a gang-rape survivor, teams up with the Goddess Parvati to put an end to gender-based crimes in India. The aim is to reach the young generation of Indians and prevent attacks against women, like the gang-rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi in 2012.

That event, and the attention that it garnered throughout India and around the world, sparked the idea for Ram Devineni to co-create the comic book Priya’s Shakti. Specifically it was a conversation with a police officer during one of the protests against the attack that convinced Devineni he needed to do something. When asked what happened to the girl, the officer replied, “no good girl walks home at night.”

“I knew than that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem,” said Devineni, an Indian-American filmmaker, in an interview with Humanosphere. “A cultural shift had to happen especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.”

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A group of men on a private bus, including the bus driver, attacked a young woman who was traveling with a friend in December 2012. The men raped and beat her. She died nearly two weeks later from the injuries. News of the attack caused outrage across the country and public protests against the attack and violence against women in the country. Devineni wanted to make a film about the incident, but he realized that was not going to work.

“Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. After interviewing many people, I felt I could not tell a ‘narrative’ story,” he said. “I am not a journalist, so my interest is telling narrative nonfiction stories. Also, the issue was too ‘hot’ and too emotional at that time, and felt if a documentary were to be made, it would have to happen much later.”

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The best way to accomplish the goal of telling stories and responding quickly turned out to be a comic book. The story employs Hindu mythological stories to take on the issues of “patriarchy, misogyny and indifference through love, creativity and solidarity,” as the website says. Devineni says he was struck by how many stories involved mortals invoking gods to help them during difficult times. He created Priya as a character who invokes the Goddess Paravati after suffering an attack and having nowhere else to turn.

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“I wanted to create a new Indian ‘superhero’ – Priya, who is a rape survivor and through the power of persuasion she is able to motivate people to change,” he explained.

While Priya is a superhero in the comic book tradition, she is more of a role model. Stories involve her addressing what Devineni calls “deep-rooted” problems, but it is her resilience that stands out. The hope is that the stories create a level of empathy for victims of rape and gender-based violence, and to empower victims to seek out avenues for justice.

Using comics to tell stories is not the usual medium for a filmmaker. It was the Amar Chitra Katha comics, the most popular comic book in India, that made a major impression on Devineni. He said that he read them as a child and it is where he learned about Hindu myths.

“They’ve entered the collective consciousness of contemporary Indian culture,” he said of the comics.

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What is notable is the fact that they are so widely read by young people decades after the first in the series was released. That and the rising popularity of comic book characters in movie theaters have helped increase the number of Indians who see and read stories based on comics. Putting what is familiar and well-liked to work allows the stories to reach a lot of people – and important – the right people.

Since its release in early December, there have been 1.2 million visitors to the comic website and nearly 200,000 downloads of the free story. Printed copies of the comic, in Hindi and English, were made available to the attendees of Mumbai Film and Comic Convention in late December. The early success is promising to the team and its hopes are high that it can help spark change in India. It starts with young people.

“Nearly half the population is under 25 years old; and they are the main audience for our comic book. Although our goal is to eventually reach wider audiences, we have chosen to initially focus on a huge demographic that we believe will be very receptive to both the message and the format of the comic,” said Devineni.

Next up for the group is to get the comic into schools. They are partnering with the group Apne Aap, who have a lot of experience with gender-based violence in India, to reach more students in their schools and through murals (seen above). All is done with the hope that change can be made so attacks like what happened in Delhi do not occur again.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.