Indian Women Are Using Comics to Fight Against Harassment

In a new anthology, illustrators push back against sexism with humor and wit.

(Photo: Ad Astra Comix)

Sep 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Last year, the Indian artist Kaveri Gopalakrishnan asked more than a dozen women of various ages and backgrounds the same question: What lines do you draw in public spaces? The inquiry was about how women experience gender-based harassment in a society rife with sexism, but Gopalakrishnan interpreted their answers literally, drawing a comic that shows women surrounded by dotted lines, with the lines representing personal boundaries.

The result is Basic Space, which depicts women taking defensive measures to protect themselves in everyday situations: for example, wearing safety pins around their wrists for potential use as weapons, standing guard like a soldier on public transit, or putting on a poker face at the local market. The comic is one of 14 featured in the anthology Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back!, which will be published in North America next month through Toronto-based Ad Astra Comix.

'Someday' by Samidha Gunjal. (Photo: Courtesy Ad Astra Comix)

The book grew out of a weeklong workshop held last year ago at the Goethe-Institut cultural center in New Delhi, at which 14 women were chosen to create a comic in response to gender discrimination. The workshop came two years after a 23-year-old Indian medical student was beaten and gang-raped aboard a New Delhi bus—a fatal attack that ignited protests in the country and horrified the world. The tragedy later inspired the Indian comic book Priya's Shakti, whose rape-survivor heroine challenges cultural attitudes and shows women and girls that sexual assault is not their fault.

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"Whether intentionally or not, I feel as though women from India are sort of portrayed [in mainstream media] as being somewhat passive and very characterized by the identity of being a victim," Ad Astra Comix publisher Nicole Marie Burton told TakePart. "I think what was so important for me personally reading these comics is that it showed not only the agency of Indian women but also the diversity of backgrounds and the diversity of style," she said of Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back!

'Basic Space' by Kaveri Gopalakrishnan. (Photo: Courtesy Ad Astra Comix)

The anthology was published in India last year by the small feminist press Zubaan Publishers, and Burton hopes the first North American version will give "a much needed dimension" to the voices and experiences of Indian women. Many of the comics transcend language barriers by using whimsical black-and-white graphics to illustrate weighty topics such as "eve teasing," the term used in India for catcalling.

The new edition—which surpassed its $6,000 crowdfunding goal on Kickstarter this week—will include a map to help readers locate the Indian cities that the comics make reference to. There's also a new introduction by New York City–based illustrator Soni Satpathy-Singh, who is known for critiquing her South Asian ancestry under the moniker Sketchy Desi.

"Looking at another country from the other side of the world can be a really intimidating thing for people," said Burton. "We want to make it as accessible as possible."