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From Rolling Stone to Shia LaBeouf, it’s clear America still doesn’t know how to talk about rape. This failure of language — which every dubious article and dismissive comment reveals — reflects a failure of culture. As a recent op-ed in the Guardian by journalist Megan Carpentier revealed, in the United States only 40 assaults out of 100 are ever reported to the police; only 10 result in arrests; and only four lead to a felony conviction. But how can we change the culture?
For one answer, look to India, where the superhero of a new comic book is not the genre’s typical muscleman but a female rape survivor. Priya’s Shakti follows its young heroine from a peaceful childhood, when she dreams of being a schoolteacher, to her darker adolescence, when an acquaintance rapes her. It seeks to change the attitude toward rape and rape victims in India by reaching the next generation.
“Our target audiences are children starting from 10–12 years to young adults,” Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni, one of the creators, told the BBC. “It’s a very critical age in their lives and it’s an attempt to start a conversation with them.”
Devineni said he first developed the idea for the comic book in 2012 after a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped and murdered on a Delhi bus. During a subsequent sexual violence protest, a police officer told him that “no good girl walks alone at night.”
“I realized that rape and sexual violence in India was a cultural issue,” he said, “and that it was backed by patriarchy, misogyny and people’s perceptions.”
Priya’s Shakti draws on Hindu mythology to make its point, as 80% of India’s 1.2 billion people are Hindu. After Priya is raped, she is ostracized by her family and forced to live in the jungle. She prays to the Hindu goddess Parvati for help. The deity takes pity on the girl and possesses her, giving her the courage to confront both her community and her attacker.
“I spoke to some gang-rape survivors and they said they were discouraged by their families and communities to seek justice, they were also threatened by the rapists and their families. Even the police didn’t take them seriously,” Deveineni said.
When Priya’s confrontation comes to nothing, the goddess reveals herself to the terrified rapist. Meanwhile, Lord Shiva (Parvati’s lover) sees what has happened and sorrowfully decides to end humanity. A “war of the worlds”-esque battle ensues, which Shiva refuses to stop unless mankind changes. Fast forward a little, and the comic closes with Priya mounting a tiger — symbolic of fear — and riding triumphantly back to her village.
The comic’s creators also partered with several street artists and Bollywood poster painters to install murals featuring the super-heroine in Dharavi, a massive slum in Mumbai that is Asia’s largest. When scanned by a smartphone, the paintings come to life, allowing passersby to learn more about Priya’s story. In the end, Priya’s Shakti underscores an often-ignored point that, whether in India or the United States, culture can’t change until hearts and perceptions do.