Here's how to depict gender violence sensitively. Indian media, take a cue

Feminism in India has crowdsourced empowering depictions of women who have experienced abuse. They are available for the media to use instead of their generally triggering imagery.

ByAnusuya Som
Here's how to depict gender violence sensitively. Indian media, take a cue
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In 2020, we still live in a society where it is often the rape survivor who is shamed rather than the culprit. Wait, why did I just use the word “survivor” and not “victim”? Because “survivor” has a more empowering connotation. Understanding such nuance is partly how we confront the brutality that is visited upon women. This is also why it’s incumbent upon mass media to use sensitive imagery and language when depicting rape or molestation.

Sadly, the Indian media usually doesn’t do sensitivity. Often, as Newslaundry has detailed previously, they use stock images that depict a woman cowering and hiding her face, conveying shame, vulnerability and helplessness. In most depictions, the perpetrator is either a menacingly overbearing presence, or completely absent. The pictures reinforcing social prejudices that compel the woman to bear shame and guilt for the crime. Moreover, such depictions can be a trigger for those who have faced abuse, forcing them to relieve the horror in their minds.

Then there are depictions of a woman cowering in a scene filled with blood and weapons. They instill fear in the minds of not just women but also their family members. One consequence is that women start getting constant instructions from their family members about how to keep safe. Don’t stay out late, they are told, wear a particular type of clothing, the list is endless.

To address this problem, Japleen Parischa and Asmita Ghosh of Feminism in India, described as a “digital intersectional feminist platform”, have crowdsourced unique yet empowering depictions of women who have experienced abuse.

Credits: Marva M/iStaunch

The initiative is part of the “GBV Media Campaign”, launched last July to address, as the name suggests, the media’s insensitive reporting on gender-based violence, particularly the kind of language and imagery used to depict it.

The idea, Parischa says, was to create a bank of pictures the media could use instead of “the conventional depiction of survivors that are not only problematic but add up to the existing prejudices about these women”.

The Feminism in India’s call was heeded by 26 artists who together sent in twice as many images. From this collection, they selected 10 images, depicting survivors of various kinds of gender violence such as rape, acid attack, and molestation. The images, made available for public use on Friday, are empowering at first sight, showing women fighting back against the crime, coming out strong, and battling for justice.

Credits: Srishti Sharma/iStaunch

Whether the mainstream media would avail of this resource remains to be seen. They haven’t responded encouragingly to the toolkit on reporting gender-based violence produced under the GVB Media Campaign last year, Parischa complains. “The sad reality is that we didn’t receive any response from mainstream media houses like the Times of India, Hindustan Times even though we tried to reach out to them,” she says. “But Newslaundry let us present the media toolkit at the Media Rumble last year.” In 2015, Newslaundry published an article on this subject as well.

They have, however, received encouraging response from media students, she adds. They have presented the toolkit in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

Credits: Arpita Biswas/iStaunch

Parischa says it’s time for the Press Council of India to set standards for reporting on gender violence. “The media often reveal the name of the survivor which is not only unethical but also illegal under Section 228A,” she points out, adding the decision to reveal the identity of the survivor should be left to her or her family.

Ghosh rues that our society “puts the onus of shame on the survivor and not on the culprit”. This works to prevent women from coming out and telling their stories.

Speaking about how the Indian media should cover gender violence, she argues they must be sensitive to the survivor and her family, and mindful of the language and imagery they use. Ghosh notes that TV channels frequently describe a culprit as “roadside Romeo”, romanticising him and trivialising the crime. “Sex scandal” is another word she finds “highly problematic” as a description of rape, or extortion. It sensationalises the offence and implies an equivalence between the survivor and the culprit, she explains.

She adds, “The way GBV is reported by the media is entertainment, masala. It is as if they just want to sell the story. Shows like Sansani or Delhi Petrol reduce the seriousness and severity of the matter.”

Credits: Marva M/iStaunch

Specifically about the imagery used by the media to depict sexual violence, Ghosh says it’s often “extremely triggering”. The media seem to forget there could be people in their audience who might have experienced such abuse and the imagery could lead to them relieving the trauma. “It is very sensationalist as well. Everybody can imagine how rape or sexual violence occurs, you do not need to see a graphic reference. There are other ways to show this,” she adds. “In fact, we can then move the focus on how to fight rather than resist sexual violence.”

Pictures from iStaunch.

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