Forget Marvel & DC, This Comic Book About India’s Rape Problem Is Elevating Social Conscience

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We’ve all seen the horrific news stories and watched with shock and shame about the unfolding and seemingly increasing rape problem in India. The most recent wave of news attention happened at the end of 2012 when a young woman was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi, and protests erupted all over India calling for greater legislation and punishment for this heinous crime. Since then there has been a major rise in the number of sexual and violent gender-based crimes reported from India in the international media which could be seen as the start of much-needed change to the world’s second most populous country.

And while we continue to be encouraged by the number of viral stories of women finding the courage to stand up to attackers, speak up for their rights and putting the misogynistic and patriarchal attitudes in their place when confronted with them, you may be shocked to hear that India isn’t the country with the biggest rape problem in the world. The USA is.

According to More magazine, in India, a country of over 1.2 billion people, 24,206 rapes were reported in 2011.  The same year in the United States, a nation of 300 million, 83,425 rapes were reported. In the United States, every 6.2 minutes a woman is raped.

But that’s not to discount the massive rape problem in India. According to the country’s National Crime Record Bureau, crimes against women have increased by 7.1 percent since 2010. The number of rapes reported has also risen.  Nearly one in three rape victims in India is under the age of 18.  One in 10 are under 14. Every 20 minutes in India, a woman is raped.

Along with the bigger focus on this issue in India has come an increase of programs, campaigns, innovative safety apps and government initiatives to protect and empower women, as well as hopefully prevent future crimes and educate the majority of the traditional patriarchal Indian society on why gender-based crimes should not be tolerated.

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Just recently we have seen the news of Delhi’s transport corporation hiring its very first female bus driver, 30 year old Saritha Vankadarath. It is part of the government’s plan to tackle sexual harassment on buses, which seems to be so prevalant in a city of 17 million, also known as the fourth most dangerous city of women when it comes to traveling on public transport. Saritha sees herself as a pioneer for women throughout India with her new job.

“I want to say: if a woman wants to do something, she can do. Men and women are equal and they should always be equal in every sphere of life. Women have the capacity, strength and the power to do anything. You just need to be brave.”

One area that has yet to tackle this issue in a major way is entertainment. Bollywood is arguably one of the most powerful vehicles of communication in Indian and South Asian culture with its massive popularity. And while there have been some huge stars speaking out about gender equality, it needs to be much much louder. Often people don’t want to listen to politics or experts tell them how to live their lives. But a celebrity or entertainment medium can infiltrate and influence like no other industry.

So when we heard about the ground-breaking new comic book series that sheds light on the cultural issues surrounding rape through the eyes of a fictional character, we were immediately excited to learn more.

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Priya’s Shakti follows the story of Priya, a human woman and ardent devotee of the Goddess Parvati who has experienced a brutal rape and the social stigma and isolation resulting from it. The Goddess Parvati is horrified to learn about the sexual violence that women on Earth face on a daily basis and is determined to change this disturbing reality. Inspired by the Goddess, Priya breaks her silence. She sings a message of women’s empowerment that enraptures thousands and moves them to take action against gender violence around the world, according to the website.

Real life stories of women who have face harassment, violence and rape have been interwoven into the comic books but their real names changed in order to protect their identities.

One of the comic book’s creators Ram Devineni, an Indian-American filmmaker, told the BBC the idea stemmed from the horrific news of the girl who was raped on a Delhi bus in December 2012.

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“I was in Delhi at the time when the protests broke out and I was involved in some of them. I was talking to a police officer when he said something that I found very surprising. He said ‘no good girl walks alone at night.’ That’s where the idea began. I realised that rape and sexual violence in India was a cultural issue, and that it was backed by patriarchy, misogyny and people’s perceptions,” he said.

The attitude of that police officer is not an isolated one. When a recent documentary called ‘India’s Daughter’ showing an interview with one of the Delhi rapists was released, their was a huge outcry over his shocking comments that he believes it was the girl’s fault for being raped and that he feels no remorse for his actions.

It’s this pervasive and misogynistic attitude that enabled Ram Devineni to use his talents to shed light in a different way.

“I spoke to some gang-rape survivors and they said they were discouraged by their families and communities to seek justice, they were also threatened by the rapists and their families. Even the police didn’t take them seriously,” he said.

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In the comic book story, we see the young woman go and tell her family of her sexual assault, only to be turned away for causing shame. When she tells the police, they did not believe her.

In the end Priya gets some divine intervention from Shiva and Parvati, considered the most powerful couple in the godly realm, and rides back into town on a tiger to get revenge on her adversaries. The comic book is available for free digital download from the website and its translated into English, Hindi and Marathi, but will eventually be available in more languages.

Ram says the decision to use mythological Hindu gods and goddesses was key, because 80% of the country’s 1.2 billion population are Hindi, and the aspects of the religion are often weaved into everyday life.

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The target audience is boys aged 10-12 as they creators want to influence a generation of young men to value women as equals, rather than continue to carry down dangerous patriarchal attitudes from generation to generation. The comics will be showcased as physical copies at Comic Con Mumbai in December but the series is already gaining a huge following around the world, including from some celebrities.

Indian-American actress Mindy Kaling is a fan of Priya’s Shakti after meeting the creators at the Cannes Film Festival recently, and we have no doubt its popularity will continue to rise.

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Aside from using the popular medium of comic books to engage the younger generation of Indian men and women to know right from wrong when it comes to the treatment of women, Priay’s Shakti also offers a workshop curriculum that anyone can download from their website and use it as well as the comic book to discuss important social issues.

They have successfully held two so far, one in New York and one in Mumbai and each attendee had the chance to then create their own comic strip based on the issues discussed during the workshops. The fact that this is intended to be used as powerful tool for social change as well as entertainment sets a new standard.

It is encouraging to see the many and creative ways gender-based violence is being dealt with in India. Sometimes laws, regulations, news stories and even documentaries aren’t enough. Engaging everyday young minds to be shaped in a positive way using the very mediums they are drawn to the most in life is often more effective than any piece of legislation.

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Take a look at some videos below to get an idea of what Priya’s Shakti is all about, and check out the interview with creator Ram Devineni on BBC talking about the reason he wanted to create this important comic book:

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