As India Battles Rape Epidemic, This Superhero Joins the Fight

A new comic book features a rape survivor and a goddess who team up to spread awareness about sexual violence.

(Image: 'Priya's Shakti')

Feb 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Like millions of his countrymen, Indian American filmmaker Ram Devineni was horrified when a young woman was gang-raped and beaten to death in Delhi in 2012. But he wasn't spurred into action until after attending a protest against the assault. During his conversation with a police officer, the cop shrugged: “No good girl walks home at night.”

“I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem,” Devineni recently told Humanosphere. “A cultural shift had to happen, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.”

An excerpt from 'Priya's Shakti.'

That, Devineni figured, required getting a message to young people. And what better way to do that than with a comic book—especially when half the country's population is under the age of 25?

The result is Priya’s Shakti, a comic (available both digitally and in print) that tells the story of a young village woman who—like too many victims of sexual assault in India and elsewhere—finds herself blamed and ostracized for her own ordeal. Priya turns to the Hindu goddess Parvati for help (shakti is defined as a female principle of divine energy), sparking a battle among the gods between those who see the attack as proof that human beings are beyond redemption and those who would teach them the error of their ways. Ultimately, good prevails—and with Parvati’s help, Priya ends up riding a tiger back into her village, where she humiliates her attackers and recruits her family to help spread the word about the evils of mistreating women.

An excerpt from 'Priya's Shakti.'

“We made the story fun to read, even though it’s about rape, and challenging patriarchal views. It is perfectly designed for teenagers,” Devineni told The Guardian. “It can be read in 15 minutes, but the message takes you further and lasts.”

Devineni isn’t the first Indian activist to realize the potential of comic books to effect social change. Aditi Gupta had a similar idea with Menstrupedia, a comic book providing information about the touchy topics of puberty and menstruation, which many Indian girls are never properly educated about.

Devineni was inspired in part by the popular comic book versions of Hindu myths he’d read as a kid. He figured a similar format would appeal to a broad audience: More than 80 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are Hindus.

The digital version of Priya’s Shakti also contains “augmented reality” features: With the help of a popular app, Blippar, certain panels can activate micro-documentaries about real Indian rape survivors. Devineni also enlisted street artists and Bollywood poster painters to create murals in the Mumbai slum of Dharavi that contain codes people can scan with their phones to make animated clips appear. The project has also spawned a busy hashtag, #standwithpriya.

To date, the comic has reached an impressively wide audience: More than 1.2 million users have visited the comic book's website; more than 150,000 free digital copies of Priya's Shakti have been downloaded; and 3,000 print copies were distributed in December at the Mumbai Film and Comic Con. There are plans in the works to get copies into schools, and New York City's City Lore gallery will host an interactive exhibit featuring Priya's Shakti in the spring.