Voyeuristic narratives of ‘bad’ women: What the media gets wrong in depicting women on death row

Sensationalism and gendered views invisibilise the many ways these women were failed by a patriarchal, feudal society.

Voyeuristic narratives of ‘bad’ women: What the media gets wrong in depicting women on death row
Gobindh VB
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Shabnam has been on death row for over a decade now. And throughout this decade, she has captured the Indian media’s imagination like few other death row prisoners have.

Shabnam and her partner Saleem were sentenced to death in 2010 for the murder of seven members of Shabnam’s family. Over the years, all aspects of Shabnam’s life have become a public spectacle: from the “saga” of Shabnam and Saleem’s “bloody and murderous love” to her pregnancy and the birth of her son. As recently as March 2021, a mainstream news media channel reported on an incarcerated Saleem writing couplets in the memory of Shabnam, deemed his “Anarkali”.

The media’s collective fascination with women on death row is, however, not restricted to Shabnam. It is a noticeable trend that any crime that involves a woman who is sentenced to death ends up being reported with the woman as the centrepiece. The role of male accomplices recedes to the background and the woman becomes the object of both the public’s fascination and its ire.

Neha, who was convicted by the trial court and sentenced to death in 2013, along with two male accomplices, for the robbery and murder of three women, has often been referred to as a kaatil haseena in the media. She was turned into a femme fatale and the mastermind behind the Indore murders; while Kiran, sentenced to death in 2014, was turned into gurumata pining for salvation by conducting human sacrifices with her husband.

The relentlessness of the media’s fascination with women on death row is not just a byproduct of the “exceptionalism” of violent female criminality. It is an instantiation of the gendered discourse on what it means to be a “woman”: a “lifegiver”, a “caregiver”, “naturally merciful”, or the “embodiment of the cherished values of our society”. Of course, no matter that this was declared by the all-male benches that decided the appeals against their death sentences filed by Shabnam and Sonam (who was sentenced to death in 2014 for murdering her family along with her boyfriend).

So, when a woman commits a murder, she is judged not just for failing at being a law-abiding citizen but for failing to be a “woman” in a man’s world.

This “double deviance” has haunted many of the women death row prisoners that we studied. For instance, Shabnam was widely shamed for allegedly killing her young nephew despite being two months pregnant at the time – an argument that even found favour with the Supreme Court. Similarly, the media reported remarks made by the public prosecutor who argued the case against Renuka and Seema – convicted in 2001 for kidnapping and murdering children – that their crime was “heinous because Renuka forgot that she was also a mother of a boy”.

This obsession with the “non-conformism” of the women on death row may be explained in the light of the media’s role as an instrument of social control, as well as by understanding that the media is also a business enterprise.

As for the latter, this kind of reportage feeds the public’s appetite for scandal, making such stories obviously lucrative, explaining why they are recycled for years after the crime.

And as for the media’s role as a tool of social control, it can be said that making examples out of these errant women, who are then boxed into neat categories such as “bad” or “mad”, serves the goal of developing social consensus regarding the boundary between moral and immoral, further entrenching gendered constructions of women’s role in society. The dramatic rhetoric and the shrewd framing of the so-called scandalous “story” behind the crime seek to sensationalise the incident, create moral panic, and arouse emotions that culminate in widespread public support for the death penalty for the women involved.

This is often achieved in the media through a technique called “framing”. The media “frames” issues in one way or the other, thereby defining how the public reacts to an incident. For example, making the female more visible in reportage over the male accomplice is a way to manipulate the reaction to a crime, by implying that the woman bears greater responsibility than the man.

Originally developed in the context of photography and cinematography, “framing” can convey subtle messages. Its use in fictionalised crime dramas is of particular interest.

The Crime Patrol episode depicting the Indore triple murders has a scene that opens with the camera zooming in on Neha, who was convicted for the murders along with two men, as she opens a can of beer and drinks from it. Similarly, the poster for a movie fictionalising the crimes of KD Kempamma (popularly named “Cyanide Mallika” after her modus operandi which allegedly involved poisoning her victims with cyanide and robbing them) shows her on-screen counterpart casually smoking a cigarette beside a corpse.

The use of such imagery – of female criminals engaging in activities that are typically unfeminine – is meant to manipulate viewers’ emotions and create subconscious associations between female criminality and nonconformity with gendered notions of womanhood.

Such an invocation of archetypes of nonconformist and unfeminine behaviour inevitably exaggerates, caricatures and even constructs out of thin air the lives that female criminals ostensibly live, diminishing their actual lived experiences. Incapable of being thought of as mothers or caregivers, they now become one-word labels: temptresses, deviants, deranged, deceitful, ambitious. Such labelling is motivated by the need to make sense of the “other”, as society craves the satisfaction of believing that normal women and criminal women are categories within which there is no overlap.

The media thus represents female deviance and conformity as polarised extremes, with nothing in the middle.

Madness, hysteria and delusions also come to easy rescue for those who cannot reconcile violence with womanhood within the bounds of normalcy. A popular news channel recently reported that two psychologists – who hadn’t, of course, actually examined Shabnam – were of the opinion that she was innately violent, or suffering from a dissociative personality disorder, or simply brainwashed by Salim.

A similar impulse to box and categorise women was reflected in Posham Pa – a liberally fictionalised depiction of the crimes for which Seema Gavit and Renuka Shinde are on death row. The movie’s final twist hinged on essentialising one as “mad” and the other as “bad”. In these cases, mental illness is shown through a combination of tropes of general ‘madness” – hallucinations, hair-pulling, slapping oneself, delusions, a performed lack of empathy or remorse, constant agitation – instead of a researched portrayal of a single or multiple mental disorders.

The sin of female ambition also comes with an association with potential disaster. KD Kempamma has been depicted in the media as a woman whose ambition drove her to desire an opulent lifestyle. Multiple reports claimed her story is one of “a simple woman who was so incredibly aspirational that nothing could stand in the way of her dreams, not even human lives”. Crime Patrol’s fictionalised depiction of the story of Neha, who is convicted alongside two men, makes an artform out of combining this apprehension of female ambition with the media’s fascination with the woman as a “temptress”. Despite the fact that no court has made any such finding, it’s the character representing Neha that is shown as the criminal mastermind, whose ambition did not just ruin the victims’ lives but also tempted and cajoled good men into a life of crime.

Tales of women as temptresses devolve very quickly into voyeuristic narratives of their sexual deviance and promiscuity. After all, if women fail to be virtuous Madonnas, they must be whores. Neha, who was pursuing an undergraduate degree in commerce while working as a sales and insurance executive to fund her education, was called a “call girl”, and reports claimed that her ambition for riches drove her to “certain jobs only done in private”.

The narrative tying female criminality to deviant sexuality also reflects the way the media portrays convicts like Shabnam or Kanku Koli (convicted, along with her alleged lover, of murdering her daughter when her daughter threatened to expose their ‘illicit’ relationship) to be driven by “lust”. This obsessive focus on these women’s sexual deviance also tends to morph into depictions that sexualise, objectify and perhaps even fetishise them.

The crimes for which KD Kempamma was convicted were the subject of a Kannada movie called, predictably, Cyanide Mallika, and the trailer for the movie relied heavily on objectifying and sexualising the murderer, leaning into the femme fatale archetype. This is particularly absurd, because Kempamma’s crimes involved her pretending to be a devotee at temples and her victims were primarily women.

The “Dandupalya gang”, convicted in 2010 of robbery, rape and murder of a woman, have been the subject of movies that had posters with highly sexualised imagery of the violent punishments inflicted on Lakshmi, one of the members of the so-called gang, by male police officers as just desserts for her crimes.

As the male gaze sexualises and preys on these images of women on death row, the women themselves are vilified and shamed for their purported sexual deviance. This report of Sonam’s crimes starts with outlining her three sins: to “fall in love with the boy next door”; to “continue their illicit, outlawed relationship after her family had warned her off”; and, finally, “to believe that an act of violence – an extraordinary, calculated night of mass murder – would allow her and her lover to be together”.

Another report quoted a villager as saying that Sonam and her lover should be publicly executed. Again, not because of the alleged murders, but because social norms did not permit their “illicit” relationship.

A stark example of these double standards, and the burden of double deviance borne by women, is the case of Pushpa, convicted with her boyfriend for conspiring with him to murder her husband. Pushpa was sentenced to death in 2016, though her death sentence has since then been commuted on appeal. The 2016 trial court judgement called Pushpa “shameless”. While giving reasons for the death sentence, the judge noted that husbands of her town will fear that “such lady of such character can also trap them in this flesh business”.

In contrast, her co-convict was sentenced to life imprisonment as the court was sympathetic to the fact that his age and unmarried status must have pushed him to agree to the crime for the satisfaction of his lust for sex.

As such, Pushpa became the promiscuous temptress who lured an unsuspecting man into killing her husband. Ultimately, the judge found that Pushpa did not deserve to live; not just because she was convicted of killing her husband but because of her sexual deviance and the risk it posed to Haryana’s conservative society.

The media depictions of these women – Madonna, mad, vamp, temptress, whore – miss the layers of complexities that add up to make a full personhood with a unique life and a unique context.

To paint Shabnam and Sonam as failed daughters, or to paint Pushpa as a failed wife, is to invisibilise the ways a patriarchal, feudal society failed them. It is to forget the context of deprivation of autonomy and sometimes even abuse that a lot of these women come from. The trial court records in Pushpa’s case indicate that she was physically abused by her husband when he found out about her affair and that she had also tried to break off the affair but could not when the co-accused threatened to kill himself. Her choices and her decisions were severely constrained by the men in her life – a circumstance the trope of “temptress” simply cannot capture.

Similarly, in blaming Sonam and Shabnam for failing as daughters, the media wipes out the oppressive marriage customs that restricted their autonomy. It becomes easy to forget the ghost of honour killings that may have haunted Sonam, and that Sonam’s family had prohibited her from pursuing her education upon finding out about her relationship with her co-accused.

Neha’s depiction as an ambitious femme fatale robs her of the fullness of her personhood. Project 39A’s mitigation investigations – an important component of our death penalty litigation work, involving the collection and presentation of information about an accused’s life, personality and other circumstances relevant for individualised sentencing as per Bachan Singh v State of Punjab – are revelatory in this regard. Project 39A’s investigation on Neha found that Neha was highly motivated to make a better life for herself, working multiple jobs even as she became the first person in her family to pursue university education, despite having chosen to drop out of school when she was around 16 years old to take care of her mother.

Our mitigation investigation also showed that Kiran, who was convicted along with her husband for alleged human sacrifice, is not the gurumata or witch that others decided she was. She was a wife and mother who wanted to protect her children from the uncertainty of life and save a marriage she had been in since she was 14-15 years old and which was becoming increasingly strained and abusive.

The sensationalism of female violent criminality and the inability of the male gaze to construct women as more than just tropes does great injustice to these women and the often punishing circumstances they lived and continue to live in. The archetypes deny female criminals the right to be complex and layered human beings with personalities that are too rich, too contradictory, too human, to fit a box.

Adrija Ghosh and Hrishika Jain are Consultants (Research) at Project 39A, National Law University Delhi. Project 39A examines practices and policies in the criminal justice system, as well as other allied issues such legal aid, torture, DNA forensics, mental health in prisons, and the death penalty.

Also Read :
The case against death penalty
Death penalty report: On death row, they die many deaths
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