Everyday sexism

What should the graphics for a news report on rape look like? #RedrawMisogyny has some ideas

Often, images depict the survivor cowering in the centre, as perpetrators lurk menacingly over her.

News reportage on sexual assault, especially rape, has increased noticeably in India since the rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012. Unfortunately, though, this coverage has not always come with increased sensitivity – several Indian news organisations still rely on a set of ghastly “stock images” to represent rape.

In July 2016, BBC reporter and former South Asia editor Joanna Jolly wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that the big four English language newspapers in India seemed to have greater room for reportage on rape since 2012, but their narratives were becoming less sympathetic. While this was most evident in the increased number of reports about “false rapes” (or cases of rape where the survivor retracted her case, before the court had reached a verdict), Jolly noted another problem:

“There could be better press regulation to prevent salacious and sensationalized coverage, greater sensitivity in reporting, the inclusion of non-PLU [people like us] cases, the appointment of specially-focused gender reporters and the reframing of rape from a lust crime to a political, economic, and social phenomena.”  

This February, Malayalam news channel Kairali TV was called out for their insensitive reportage on a case of sexual assault. Media platforms across the board have made similar mistakes when reporting on rape, their errors ranging from victim-blaming to divulging personal details about the survivor.

On April 16, photographers, graphic designers, artists, journalists and social workers came together in Delhi for a daylong workshop organised by non-profit Breakthrough.tv and Instagram, with support from the International Center for Journalists, to think about and possibly revise the visual representation of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and rape in mainstream media. The workshop, called #RedrawMisogyny, had a twin purpose: pinpoint what’s wrong with image-making around gendered and sexual violence currently, and present alternatives that, in the best-case scenario, could change the narrative around rape from victim-shaming to focusing on the perpetrator.

“Often, you will see the victim or survivor at the centre of the image, with the perpetrator in the shadows or a hand coming out of the corner of the picture towards the girl,” said graphic designer Shashwata Nova of Breakthrough.tv at the workshop.

Of course, an illustration or photograph made in this mould has the benefits of a cliche: the image is easily recognisable by readers as having something to do with gender-based violence. It’s also an easy go-to for copy editors who search stock photos and image banks, and may process dozens of articles a day in some cases.

“These images subtly build a narrative in your mind about the helplessness of the woman and the superiority of the man,” Nova added.

Turn the point-of-view around, however, and you draw attention to the perpetrator instead. This kind of imaging may have the benefit of being new – at least for a while – as well as turning unwanted attention away from the victim and focus it on to the perpetrator.

Created by designers at Breakthrough.
Created by designers at Breakthrough.

Trigger warnings

In May 2002, Wendy Larcombe, an associate professor at the Melbourne Law School, published an article titled The ‘Ideal’ Victim v Successful Rape Complainants: Not What You Might Expect, in the journal Feminist Legal Studies. The paper revealed biases around how a rape survivor is expected to behave and the weight appearances carry, even in a court of law to get a conviction.

“It is well established in feminist legal critique that female complainants are discredited if they fail to conform to an archaic stereotype of the genuine or ‘real’ rape victim,” Larcombe wrote. “This victim is not only morally and sexually virtuous she is also cautious, unprovocative, and consistent. Defence tactics for discrediting rape testimony involve exposing the complainant’s alleged failure to comply with the sexual and behavioural standards of the normative victim.”

Images that try to recreate the scene, or show a distraught woman whose world has seemingly fallen apart, or use colours like red and black that suggest blood and something sinister, can hold up the process of recovery. “Imagine what the rape survivor feels when she sees illustrations like these,” said Nova. “You are recreating the horror.”

So, the Breakthrough team suggested producing images that show a support structure for rape survivors: family, medical professionals and police, the justice system or support groups, or making images which focus on the victim’s life beyond the incident.

For graphic designer Bhanu Pratap, one takeaway from the workshop was the need to apply ideas of empathy, justice and agency to the image-making process. A second lesson, he said, was that you need to tag the images with proper keywords. “You can’t control the context [the images will be used in] indefinitely, but you can tag the images properly, lay out the context for which they were created,” he added.

The way forward

File images of protestors, especially the large numbers who poured out into the streets of Delhi in January 2013 to demand justice for the physiotherapy student, are still used sometimes with stories and columns about gendered violence. But there are also ways to make photos and illustrations for the specific context which are sensitive and to the point.

Among some of the interesting ideas which emerged from the workshop was making photos which show the role of the bystander, focus on support groups to highlight the process of recovery, and to build a bank of images which show up behaviours that are normalised, but should not be.

The workshop was designed to come up with broad guidelines for what an image about gendered violence should look like, and help designers, artists and writers to create images which avoid obvious traps like stripping the victim of agency, recreating the assault, perpetuating ideas around the helplessness of the victim or the shame and stigma that are often attached with rape.

At the end of two weeks, Breakthrough will again meet with the artists and designers, and ask them to share their work under the Creative Commons licence and with media houses.

Created by designers at Breakthrough.
Created by designers at Breakthrough.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.