Just another post about the Abused Goddesses Campaign

The Abused Goddesses Campaign is creating waves ,  raising hackles (best exemplified by recent posts from Nisha Susan, Brinda Bose and Sayantani Dasgupta). Created by an advertising agency, Taproot, the campaign uses the images of (models dressed as) popular and much-loved Indian goddesses bearing the most telling signs of mortality – pain and hurt – and urges the viewer to consider that the only kind of woman free from the threat of violence is the divine kind and possibly not even them.

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The conversation this campaign has generated is polarised; on the one hand you have Buzzfeed breathlessly declaring it ‘powerful’ and many agree; the viral sharing of the images on Twitter and Facebook are one indication of this. On the other, smaller, side, you have  people raising questions like:

– Why Hindu Goddesses? Not everyone in India relates to these images. We shouldn’t be using these images in a diverse and multicultural country

– Why must we be likened to goddesses in order to earn our rights as humans?

– Why these goddesses, we already have the image of the terrifying and terrible Kali who is violent and invincible.

– Hinduism has been interpreted to have practices and rituals that discriminate against women (this of course greatly upsets the Hindu Right and a champion, an academic, comes to the defense of Hinduism and the Right)

As you know, I’m the questioning kind, so you know where I sit. I’m writing this post in order to raise something that hasn’t so far in all the deconstruction: the visual itself. The Delhi Gang Rape has revealed some things about middle class, social media-enabled Indian: we’re data-illiterate, and don’t understand how government works and laws get made. I’m going to add another one: we are visually illiterate and don’t know how to read the visual. In particular, in this context, I don’t think the critics of this campaign have approached it as a visual campaign. This is the subject of this post.

Tactical Tech, where I work (there’s the disclaimer/plug) is going to officially launch our newest publication, Visualising Information for Advocacy which is all about how the visual works in advocacy, on October 1st, 2013.  The Abused Goddesses Campaign is a good example of what we would refer to as a ‘Get the Idea’ sort of campaign – one that uses strong and provocative imagery to inspire extreme emotions such as shock, suprise and anger or humour and laughter. These sorts of campaigns typically feature captivating and arresting images, very little data or nuance. As we say:

“If badly conceived or executed, it can alienate or insult an audience. But when it works, the effect of such a campaign can be significant: it can spread quickly across media, be talked about and rapidly bring attention to an issue. These kinds of images pass on tiny packets of information about the issue, referring only obliquely to what people commonly think of as evidence, rather than presenting it directly. As provocations, such images mostly work as routes leading into a wider campaign where further information about the issue can be found. They are often designed to appeal to people who have not yet been exposed to the issue or who don’t have a clear position.”

In this respect, I think the Abused Goddesses campaign works very well. I think it has got a lot of people’s attention because the creators of the campaign have very smartly chosen a provocative set of symbols to work with. In the print at the bottom of the poster (really have to zoom in online to see it) the designers say they intend to send out a strong message and I think they have. Whether I agree with the use of particular symbols is another matter, and I’m not the person tasked with creating an arresting campaign. This isn’t to challenge what people like Nisha and Brinda are saying – I think their deconstructions and critiques are much-needed and we only need to continue to challenge our readings and use of the visual. I think their analyses focus on the politics of representation rather than the deployment of the visual in advertising. There is a difference. Personally, I think that in a plural society we only need more kinds of visuals – annoying, bad ones and really great ones – and more conversations about why they work or don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharing the Urban by Gautam Bhan

“Sexual violence then becomes one particular expression of a broader structure of violence, amplified by other entitlements of class, wealth, institutional authority, religion, caste, ability, sexuality and gender. In such a context, our understanding of and responses to sexual violence must broaden. The lack of safety for women on a city bus must not be separated from the devaluing of public transport in general—the insufficient number of buses at night being one sign of poor investment in the most commonly used means of mobility in the city. We must also remember that the idea of being “unsafe” takes different forms across our different identities and bodies.” Gautam Bhan on new perspectives on rape.

New writing

I’m asking friends, peers and others to contribute new writing. Some themes include:

Shadowboxing: the struggle with language

How to write about violence / writing about violence

The minotaur in the maze : looking inside the law

The feminists go swimming: notes on living politics

On masculinities.

Watch this space! And let me know if you’d like to write.

 

Writings about the city

In the early weeks and months of 2013, Delhi, the city and what it means to inhabit it, rather than the rape itself, was the subject of some writing online. Here are two of them.

One of the first, by Prayaag Akbar (who tweets here) attempts to dispel the myth of Delhi as the Rape Capital. And there was another sort of reclaiming of the city by @Koinon3a called Freedom in Three Acts.

However, the go-to guy on all things Delhi really is Gautam Bhan; here he is writing about another upheaval in Dilli, the 2010 Commonwealth Games. I link to this piece because Gautam’s passion is about all about imagining a new Delhi and his work about making this a reality.

Let me know if there are other articles about Delhi that you’ve liked.

 

 

Counting change

numbers of small car sales, and profiles of buyers

numbers of new private taxi companies in the city and data about their customer profiles

numbers of mapping projects for women to record where they experienced violence

pepper spray sales

numbers of people on different streets across Delhi who can remember the police emergency helpline number

numbers of people on different streets across Delhi who have emergency helpline numbers on their phones

streets in Delhi that were never well-lit are now well-lit

streets in Delhi that were never well-lit are still not well-lit

streets in Delhi women feel unsafe walking down alone

numbers of people on different streets across Delhi who know the sections of the Indian Penal Code dealing with violence against women

a comparison of the numbers of new non government, corporate and civil society schemes and projects called ‘Nirbhaya’

numbers of reported cases of crimes against women

the everyday lives of people who work in the crimes against women cells in Delhi police stations, and chowkidars and security personnel

the number of new gates built in residential colonies in Delhi

un-gated colonies in Delhi that now have gates.

 

Going global

Facebook tells me an old acquaintance, an actress, is in London as part of the cast of Nirbhaya, a play written by South African playwright, Yael Farber, about the Delhi gang-rape and other stories of sexual violence. A common friend leaves a comment on the post about the performance, something like: “I have witnessed and recorded testimonies of survivors of war and conflict but never have I been so shaken by the stories in Nirbhaya.” I think: Nirbhaya is ready for dramatization for Edinburgh and London but when are we going to deal with Delhi?

Two weeks ago I was in Cochin and overheard a man talking to his daughter about which one of the NIFT centres she had been accepted by to consider: Jaipur, Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta – yes. Delhi – no, not now, not after everything that has happened. “We are not that comfortable sending our daughter to Delhi.”

A friend has just returned from six weeks in Delhi. I ask her what it feels like up there. She replies – “you can cut the protectionism with a knife. People who have never really bothered before will now ask you how you are going to get home. People are ready to call you a cab.”

 

Near and unlost

Reachable, near and unlost amid the losses, this one thing remained: language. This thing, language, remained unlost, yes, in spite of everything. But it had to go through its own loss of answers, had to go through terrifying muteness, had to go through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing talk. It went through and gave no words for that which happened; yet it went through this happening. Went through and was able to come back to light “enriched” by it all. (Paul Celan, from a speech he gave in Bremen; found here )

 

Elsewhere

Berlin, March 11, 2013

Today I’m sitting down to put down some thoughts and writing that have brewed for the past few months.

I was here in Berlin last December when news of the gang-rape of a young woman came in. I returned to Bangalore on the 22nd and for the next twelve days was glued to the internet. (I don’t have a television). I sat at my dining table reading, listening, talking and thinking about how I started my career 17 years before . I didn’t know at the time that this was the start of my career – I just thought it was an internship at ‘violence intervention centre’ called Sakshi.

I was lightheaded from the awareness that all kinds of everyday people were talking about rape, and with great enthusiasm, at dinner parties, in their living rooms: my parents, their friends, my friends’ parents. There was the horror of the brutality of the incident: speech trailed off after the mention of ‘iron rods’, everyone silently doing a mapping that was too awful to say aloud.

There was the routine head-shaking about North Indian male culture; I could feel myself cringing at the measuring of the general against the particular. There was always that aunty who said that’s why I sent my daughter to Bombay to study.

There was the spectacle of the protests unfolding on television screens, and the even more spectacular bumbling of the government. There was the bland, trite parsing of intricate social and cultural dynamics on TV news shows and everyone who watched these shows believed they had something more grave, incisive or apt say.

Personally, I didn’t know what to make of what was going on or how to engage with it. Was it real? Far away from the epicentre it was hard to tell. Was this just a mob gone mad? The mob appeared to me the most conservative of all; the ones who believed only capital punishment could equal the death of honour through rape. Frankly, I couldn’t believe that rape had galvanised so much of Delhi across gender and class lines. The noise of change rattling around waiting to amount to something.

 

About

A lot has been said about, and since, the rape and consequent death of a woman in Delhi, India in December 2012.

The incident sparked protests, hashtags, inquiries, welfare schemes, even names of trains in memoriam. I believe it is responsible for generating online conversations about gender based violence in India, and further afield.  It has inspired many to break the silence, speak out, fight for rights, stake a claim, reclaim, reiterate […. regurgitate…]

Yet amidst the speaking out some things have gone silent. There is a perception that women need more protection, not freedom; there are calls for support, not agency; there is chest-beating, but what of the almost – daily struggle with language and power?  When the event ceases to be in the news cycle or an on/offline spectacle, then what?

This is a collection of writing at the penumbra of a particular incident: uncertainties, speculations, questions, unexpected perspectives; it is about the other silences, the ones that have gone back into their closets.  This is a collection of fiction and non-fiction writing -published elsewhere, and new – that maps the cities that have existed in our blindspots: the one inhabited by the female domestic worker who endures public transport because her livelihood depends on it, or the working class, migrant chowkidar who mans the gated colony from outside it; the localities of savagely persistent inequities across caste and class; the pernicious everyday-ness of sexism, the slow-motion implosion of urban infrastructure; the brokenness of the law and it’s enforcement.  These are hard and dispiriting things to engage with. But rather this then the televisual and digital explosion of noise around incidents.

One day someone read something I wrote about Delhi in the weeks after the rape and suggested I talk to X publisher about putting together a book. X publisher is very well known and busy so I forgive her for not responding to my emails. I couldn’t wait; this is my knocking from inside the walls.  I’m very grateful to those who have knocked along with me.