The Power of Persuasion: India's New Super Hero Is A Tiger-Riding, Rabble-Rousing Rape Survivor
India's savage 2012 gang rape on a Delhi bus of a 23-year-old student who later died caused international outrage and a tightening of Indian anti-rape laws, including the death penalty for particularly egregious crimes. But societal change comes hard in an infamously unsafe country where a rape is still reported every 16 minutes - and where a new film in which one of the perpetrators blithely blames the victim for being out that night is causing furor, yet little surprise. Enter Priya's Shakti, a new comic book starring a rape survivor turned tiger-riding superhero whose creators hope will help shape not just legal, but cultural change.
The brutal rape of medical student Jyoti Singh two years ago led to days of protests, passage of new sexual violence laws, and the eventual arrest of five suspects all later convicted and sentenced to death. Four are appealing, including bus driver Mukesh Singh. The focus of the current uproar about the case, Singh was interviewed on Death Row for "India's Daughter," a new documentary by award-winning British filmmaker Leslee Udwin in which Singh shows what Udwin calls "not a second" of remorse, arguing that "a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy" and "a decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night." The film reportedly, brutally lays bare India's persistent misogyny and repression; one reviewer deemed it "marrow-chilling" with sections that "verged on the unwatchable." It is scheduled to be shown Sunday in India and elsewhere for International Women's Day, but was just banned by the government, which called Singh's remarks "highly derogatory and an affront to the dignity of women." They're also an accurate reflection of what hundreds of millions of Indian men believe, note many critics; they include Udwin, who calls the ban "arbitrary censorship" that serves no useful social purpose.
Educating young people to reject that entrenched victim-blaming culture was a key goal of Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni when he came up with the idea of "Priya's Shakti." In Delhi during the 2012 protests, he remembers talking to a police officer whose response to the gang rape was, "No good girl walks alone at night." Suddenly made aware that rape was as much a cultural as legal problem and inspired by the millions of people protesting, Devineni spent months travelling around the country talking to people, including rape survivors, about sexual violence. Wanting to reach and educate teenagers, he created a graphic novel featuring Priya, a young woman ostracized by her family and village after she is raped. She takes refuge in the jungle, where she is stalked by and tames a tiger she then rides all over India, creating a movement to fight sexual violence. She is helped by Parvati, a Hindu goddess who grants her the special powers of fearlessness and persuasiveness. Devineni deliberately incorporated Hindu myths and figures, as deeply woven into India's cultural life as its misogyny.
Devineni is currently working with the non-profit Apne Aap Women Worldwide on an Indiegogo campaign to get copies of the comic book into schools across India. He's also recruited street artists and Bollywood poster painters to create murals in the Mumbai slum area of Dharavi, where kids with smart phones can even scan the art to produce special animation and other "augmented reality features." Free digital and printed copies of the comic are also available in Hindi and English. Priya is “not a superhero in the comic book tradition," notes Devineni. "A superhero can do anything to change the world. Superman or Wonder Woman can stop a comet from exploding on the planet. Everyone who reads (comics) suspends disbelief. And that's sort of the power in Priya. Her power is the power of persuasion and the power of an idea - that she can transform the world."