May 08, 2015: A woman hiding her face. A woman cowering in a corner as the shadow of a man looms over her. A woman shielding herself as a hand reaches out to grab her.
These are the typical images that are used by news media, both print and television, for stories pertaining to rape and molestation. The recent cases of the molestation and death of a 13-year-old girl, and the alleged gang rape of a woman, both in Moga, Punjab, are no different.
Tweets about the incident were accompanied by similar images – a woman cowering away from a man, face hidden in her hands.
While these images may be thought-provoking and engineered to appeal to people’s sentiments, they also do something else. Such images end up putting the burden of shame and stigma on the woman who is raped instead of the man who commits the crime.
In a country where rape is still largely believed to be the woman’s fault, images like these cement the mentality that the onus of shame is on the woman. Not just that, they reinforce a warped gender power dynamic and the idea that a woman must, in some way, feel guilty.
Needless to say, the continuing focus on shame deter many women from reporting incidents of rape and molestation. Apart from that, images that use blood and gore to underscore the brutality of rape seek to instil fear. Would it not be better if instead the visuals instilled a sense of safety in women readers and an assurance that the law is with them. How about images of the culprit being taken away by the police, or a man handcuffed, behind bars, accompanying reports on rape? Or imagery that puts the onus of guilt and shame on the man.
Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, agrees that images that show a woman as the victim send out a wrong message. These show a woman as a brutalised prey, rather than a survivor. According to her, media organisations, by using these images try to enact a story. “It’s not just print and broadcast media, even posters should not depict a woman as a victim.” She adds that news stories should not include graphic details of how a rape happened.
“These images are used because of a law of habit and there is generally no resistance to their use. Media schools teach the importance of using visual imagery in a story but not the ethics of it.”
Krishnan feels that the news media should use images of protest, rather than those showing women as damsels in distress.
Feminist writer Nivedita Menon feels that the use of such images reinforce the mythical power of masculinity, as well as the idea that women should live with a pervasive sense of fear and shame, whether or not they have actually been raped.
She says that the fear of potential rape is meant to make women police themselves effectively.
Vrinda Grover, lawyer and women’s rights activist, asserts that images where the shadow of a man looms over a woman don’t convey stigma, but fear. “The threat of sexual violence is in the mind of every woman and such images communicate this threat.”
On why images show women covering their face, she feels it is owing to the concern about revealing her identity. “A victim doesn’t want to be identified, not because she is ashamed, but because we haven’t created an environment that is very accepting.”
Grover adds that there are scores of women across the country who are challenging the fear of sexual violence, and that is what needs to be captured in the imagery.
Freelance designer Kamini Singh says these images depict the end of a life, which is not the case. She adds that through these images, the media highlights the incident, without looking at a solution. Singh feels that the media should be more responsible with the kind of images used.
Freelance graphic designer Bena Sareen questions why the images portray a sense of melodrama. She says often the perpetrator is known to the victim and it happens in a familiar environment, in normal circumstances. Cases of rape and molestation do not always occur in a dark alley.
She adds that it makes sense to show real pictures, a woman in full flesh and blood, and in normal circumstances. Sareen says not just the media, but everyone should come face to face with the reality of rape.
All media uses visuals effectively as they should. Imagery goes a long way in shaping popular culture and changing or reinforcing gender and social relationships and roles. While no one may have stopped and considered what the established imagery is communicating in cases of rape and molestation so far, that is no reason one can’t do so now.