A new comic book with a female rape survivor as its “super hero” has been launched to focus attention on the problem of sexual violence in India.
Priya’s Shakti, inspired by Hindu mythological tales, tells the story of Priya, a young woman and gang-rape survivor, and Goddess Parvati as they fight against gender crimes in India.
Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni, one of its creators, told the BBC the idea for the comic came to him in December 2012 as India erupted in protest against the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in Delhi.
“I was in Delhi at the time when the protests broke out and I was involved in some of them,” he says. “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.”
In India’s male-dominated society, it is not the rapist but the rape victim who is often treated with scepticism and has to face ridicule and social ostracism.
“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,” says Mr Devineni.
The comic reflects that harsh reality too – when Priya tells her parents about the rape, she’s blamed for it and banished from home.
Priya is representative of a generic Indian woman and her aspirations. “She is like every boy or girl who wants to live his or her dreams. But those dreams are quashed after her rape,” says Mr Devineni.
In the book, with some help from Shiva and Parvati – Hinduism’s most powerful divine couple – Priya manages to turn her tragedy into an opportunity.
In the end, she rides back into the town on the back of a tiger and vanquishes her adversaries.
Mr Devineni says he chose mythology to put his point across because Hinduism is India’s majority religion – more than 80% of the country’s 1.2 billion people are Hindus – and its myths and stories are woven into its cultural life.
He convinced street artists and Bollywood poster painters to create murals in the Mumbai area of Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum.
The paintings have “augmented reality features” which allow people to see special animation and movies pop out of the wall art when they scan it with their smart phones.
People anywhere in the world can download a free digital copy of the comic and printed copies in Hindi and English will be available at the Comic Con Mumbai later in December, Mr Devineni says.
“Our target audiences are children starting from 10-12 years to young adults. It’s a very critical age in their lives and it’s an attempt to start a conversation with them.”
In India, where one rape is reported every 16 minutes, the 2012 Delhi gang rape is seen as a game-changer – the brutality of the six men led to days of protests and forced the government to introduce tougher anti-rape laws, including the death penalty for particularly severe sex crimes.
Commentators say tougher laws can only partly solve the problem. What is really needed is to create awareness and change social attitudes.
Mr Devineni says that is what his project attempts to do.
Urvashi Butalia, head of feminist publisher Zubaan Books, says its success or failure will depend “a lot on the story” and also “on how many people it reaches”.
She says anything that creates a conversation helps.
“Many of the changes in the world have come from ideas. And it’s an interesting idea – you don’t get too many female superheroes,” she says.
Jasmeen Patheja is the founder of Blank Noise Project which is running a campaign called “I never asked for it” – it meaning rape or sexual assault.
The project creates public installations and an online gallery of garments survivors were wearing when they were sexually abused as part of a campaign on “rejecting and arresting blame”.
The biggest change, she says, will be “when people understand that there is no excuse to justify sexual violence, the garments women wear, what time they go out or the place they go to”.
“Graphic novels, comics, story books, films – all have immense potential to help,” she says.