Violence, voices and visibility

Violence, voices and visibility

What are the ethical implications surrounding graphic depictions of sexual violence in the media?

Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange and is a Contributing Editor for Himal Southasian.

On the morning of a hot day at the end of May, the thick branches of a mango tree in dusty Katra Sadatganj village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh bore not luscious mangoes, but a macabre burden: the distended bodies of two adolescent girls.  Pictures floating on the internet show the bodies of two teenagers strung up on the tree, a crowd standing witness, unable to tear their eyes away from the horrific sight. Children gawk, women mourn, men bristle with anger. The two young cousins, aged 14 and 16, had been abducted in the evening when they had gone into a field to relieve themselves. Their families went to lodge a complaint soon after they realised the girls had not returned, but the police refused to search for the missing girls, even though an  eyewitness had seen them being dragged away, screaming. The next morning, the village woke up to the gruesome sight. It did not take long to conclude that the girls had been gang-raped and murdered. The culprits were also no secret. The villagers refused to take down the bodies in protest. Several hours later, only after one of the five accused had been arrested, did the families take the bodies down and allow themselves to mourn.

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The videos of the two girls are no longer easily accessible on the Internet. "Child sexual abuse imagery is illegal," Google reminds us. Yet other videos, of a seemingly 'copycat' killing in Uttar Pradesh a few weeks later, show flashbacks of the young girls, their faces clearly visible, as is the embroidery on their colourful kurtas. Some video archives on news websites also show the gruesome images, albeit with the faces blurred and bodies indistinguishable. The pixelation serves to sanitise the killing – if you can't see the faces, it can't be so bad. One website shows passport size photos of the two girls held carefully in the work-worn hand of one of the girls' father. They have names, they had aspirations. The mother of one of the girls tells the media that her daughter wanted to study, was keen to get a job.
The manner in which the bodies were strung up is reminiscent of the lynching of African-Americans in the late 19th century. What does this spectacle of violence serve to do? Lynching, or mob-inflicted punishment, was most infamously used before the American Civil War to discipline rebellious blacks and show them their place. In Badaun too, did the Mauryas – classified as an Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) – to which the girls belonged, also need to be shown their place? Could it be that by not 'just gang-raping' the girls, by not 'just murdering' their victims, but hanging them in full public view, the brazen crime by the powerful Yadavs of the village sends a strong message to Dalits and EBCs  to remain within the bounds of their caste? The spectacle departs from the earlier pattern of crimes against women reported in this belt of northern India: rape and mutilation of the genitals to confuse evidence gathering, disfiguring faces of victims with acid, and throwing corpses in remote ditches and nullahs. The regularity of the crimes is chilling. The police too, colluding with the perpetrators, provide a shield of impunity for men of dominant castes. The motive behind the brutal gang rapes and murders are not yet known, the ghastly spectacle of the hanging clouding a more nuanced analysis. But the hanging has also drawn the media to this hitherto unknown spot on the plains of the Ganga. Droves of journalists wielding cameras and microphones have descended on this eminently forgettable clutch of semi-pukka houses in search of the 'truth' behind the crimes. Does this media attention have the potential of bringing the families closer to justice?

Droves of journalists wielding cameras and microphones have descended on this eminently forgettable clutch of semi-pukka houses in search of the 'truth' behind the crimes.

Violence as spectacle
While the mutilation of the young physiotherapy student who was gang-raped on 16 December 2012 in Delhi was never a subject for the visual media, minutiae of the atrocities perpetrated on her body provided daily grist to the media mill. Gory details of the spread of infection, the organ failure and her brave struggle against all odds made for a heart-rending if grisly story, generating public empathy for the young girl. The sheer brutality of the attack, and her bruised body with entrails hanging out shocked even doctors, accustomed to the depths that human beings can sink to. As she clung to life, her battle against death was played out on millions of television screens, in voyeuristic excess. As her hold on life weakened, the protests grew stronger, and public anger was stoked by her death, and calls for castration and the death penalty for the perpetrators were duly stoked by television anchors. Ultimately, the outrage culminated in a major overhaul of the laws on sexual assault as well as policing procedures.
Hanging these two young girls from the tree represents clearly the performance of male and caste superiority. It was not enough to gang rape them or even kill them. It had to be an exhibition. Thanks to the electronic media, this public spectacle is no longer confined to the village, but gets national and even global attention. Is the media then doing its job of bringing facts into the public domain, or contributing to the reification of the dominant caste male supremacy? Is the continuous replay of the hanging bodies on television, in some way aestheticising a sordid episode that ought never to be repeated? And what does the 'aestheticisation' of violence say about the producers and consumers of these images?
On the one hand, over-exposure to violent images contributes to the viewer becoming inured and anaesthetised to the ghastly impact of violence, since there is only so much that can be absorbed. On the other hand, however, this objectification of death and sexual violence must give us pause to critically examine the manner in which the news media represents violence, with its sensationalised and stylised method of reporting on sexual crime and war. Such a theorisation on the aesthetics of violence must build upon an understanding of the appreciation and the very creation of 'beauty' in the context of art, literature or in modern times, film. In his book The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture, Joel Black, a professor of literature at University of Georgia, argues "if murder can be experienced aesthetically, the murderer can in turn be regarded as a kind of artist – a performance artist or anti-artist whose specialty is not creation but destruction". The human fascination for death, especially morbid death, has been the subject of much literary criticism, attempting to explain whether such a preoccupation with violence in art has a cathartic effect or engenders, quite literally, a taste for blood.  This question is more relevant to the mass media, simply because of its immense reach.

"I am tired of hiding my real identity. I am tired of this society's rules and regulations. I am tired of being made to feel ashamed. I am tired of feeling scared because I have been raped. Enough is enough!"

Equally relevant is the mass media's obsession with the female body which perhaps contributes to the distorted appeal of female body parts, both live and dead. American academic Maria Tatar's book Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany looks at the artistic representation of murders in pre-Hitler Germany and "the chilling motives behind representations that aestheticise violence, and that turn the mutilated female body into an object of fascination." Indeed, we must ask ourselves why images of the mutilated female corpse, whether fully visible or blurred, evoke obsessive enthrallment.
The repeated looping of acts of violence or their outcomes – such as the hanging bodies – tends to produce a numbing effect, a normalisation of the most bizarre forms of brutality. Does the dehumanisation – the lack of personal details, no face, no name, no personhood – also strengthen insensitivity?
A name and a face
Strictures against naming victims of sexual crimes, or identifying them in any way are in place in most countries, with some being more stringent than others. In India, disclosing the identity of victims of sexual crimes may invite a penalty of up to two years imprisonment and a fine. This stricture was largely followed by the media in India, even after the young student gang-raped on 16 December had died. While some publications revealed her name after her family expressed their desire to have the new law on sexual assault to be named after her, others continued to use sobriquets like 'Nirbhaya' (Braveheart) or 'Damini' (Lightening), which were conferred on the young woman soon after the media picked up the story.  There is still no clear or easy explanation why the public was immediately able to connect with the young faceless woman, the gang rape and her subsequent death triggering unprecedented street protests against violence against women. While Nirbhaya, a young, upwardly mobile professional caught the imagination of the public, 'the Badaun girls' is not as catchy. We do not hear phrases like 'stirred the conscience of the nation', which, incidentally, we are told had already been rudely shaken after the December 16 gang rape. Few logos adorn television screens, and there is a scant rush to launch campaigns to end violence against girls from poor and marginalised backgrounds. Examining the structural nature of caste violence, and understanding that such violence is part of the edifice of the caste system rather than caste only being an incidental factor, is rarely a job the largely upper-caste media in India takes on. It has been easier to critique the model of development, where poor sanitation and the absence of toilets in rural areas are posited as the cause of rape. Of course, rural sanitation is a serious issue, and, undoubtedly, open-air defecation renders women and girls more vulnerable to a host of diseases as well as sexual violence.  But it cannot be anybody's case that rapes of women from lower classes and castes will suddenly disappear once toilets are built in Katra Sadatganj. Indeed, focussing on a single contributory factor to vulnerability to violence tends to mask the cruel violence of caste and feudal systems that have social sanction.
Some survivors of rape, like Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan or Mukhtaran Mai in Pakistan, have not had the luxury of staying out of the public gaze or the media spotlight. Both survivors of extreme feudal and patriarchal violence have braved it out in the very communities that attacked them, with no recourse to anonymity. Ostracised by their communities, these women have fought lonely battles with the support of women's groups and a few family members. They have spoken out in opposition to violence against women, the culture of impunity and the inadequacy of state and societal response to punish the guilty and prevent such assaults in the future. Indeed, they have been the 'face' of campaigns against rape. More recently, Kolkata-based Suzette Jordan did not want to be referred to as the 'Park Street rape victim' any more, and has since spoken out about the gang rape she was subjected to in February 2012. "I am tired of hiding my real identity. I am tired of this society's rules and regulations. I am tired of being made to feel ashamed. I am tired of feeling scared because I have been raped. Enough is enough!" she told the BBC in June 2013. These voices are few, and this is not surprising given the immense stigma attached to victims and survivors of rape. Silence is often seen as an effective strategy, since speaking out has consequences that might sometimes be harder to handle.
Amplifying voices
According to a 2010 report by The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) that maps the representation of women and men in news media worldwide in five-year cycles, only 24 percent of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news are female. In contrast, more than three out of four of the people in the news are male. The figure has gone up from 17 percent in 1995, but still does not reflect a reality where about half the world's population is female.

A recent discovery of distorted 'facts' on the Wikipedia page about gang-rape survivor Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan was evidence of a systematic attempt to defame and undercut those speaking out against violence against women.

For stories reported on television, radio and newspapers, the percentage of those by female reporters remains at 37 percent, the same as in 2005. Not unexpectedly, stories by female reporters contain more female news subjects than stories by male reporters do. It is not surprising then, that a lack of equitable representation of women in the media workforce impacts on the portrayal of women in the media. The push for gender-sensitive journalism has been consistent for more than a couple of decades, and codes of ethics, gender-sensitive language, avoiding gender stereotypes, and giving attention to all sides of a story are accepted as part of mainstream professional journalism today. Violations of codes of ethics are considered not just anti-women but simply bad journalism. It should not require women reporters or editors to ensure that women's voices are taken note of and made part of everyday journalism.
With social media and public-sourced media such as Wikipedia, information and 'news' production is loosened, and in many cases they are more democratic than the corporate-driven or politically-motivated media. Yet, misogyny and a deliberate anti-women spin are not uncommon. A recent discovery of distorted 'facts' on the Wikipedia page about gang-rape survivor Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan was evidence of a systematic attempt to defame and undercut those speaking out against violence against women.
Despite 'Biogrphies of Living People' being the category of articles with the most stringent rules and policies on Wikipedia, 'vandal edits' sneaked into the text succeeded in presenting an extremely skewed picture of Bhanwari Devi and her struggle for justice. Says Rohini Lakshane, a long-time Wikipedian who chairs the Gender gap project at the Wikimedia Chapter (India):
The only way forward, says Lakshane, is to have enough gender-sensitive Wikipedia editors (of all genders) who will understand the kind of gender politics being played out.
Politics of outrage
What caused such media and public outrage following 16 December 2012? Was it merely shock at the sheer level of brutality? Could it simply have been the age and class background of the victim? Or was it a morbid fascination with the extent to which human beings can commit gruesome acts on one another? Perhaps answers to some of these questions might enable an understanding of why there was so much silence around a horrific gang rape and murder that took place in a small town called Khairlanji in Bhandara district of Maharashtra state in 2006. Four members of the Bhotmange family were hacked to death, the mother and daughter gang-raped, paraded naked and mutilated, sticks thrust up the 17-year-old daughter's genitals before she was murdered. It was not coincidental that the Bhotmanges belonged to a formerly untouchable caste, and the assailants were from the powerful Kunbi caste. Several theories for the rape and murders surfaced, from an extramarital affair to land disputes, to an out-and-out caste war, with the motive of keeping the Bhotmanges in their place.
Yet it took almost a month for news of this horrific incident to reach the national press. No coverage on television followed, no outrage as the case was sought to be covered up and post-mortem reports doctored to 'prove' there was no rape. While some of the accused were given death sentences, later commuted to life imprisonment, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange the sole surviving member of his family continues to fight for justice. Khairlanji has been a classic case of the erasure of deliberate and preplanned caste-related violence as well as sexual violence in the media. While the story of the Delhi gang-rape victim to climb out of the confines of a humdrum lower-middle-class existence has been lauded by the media, urging viewers and readers to identify with this young woman whose dreams were brutally cut short, 17-year-old Priyanka Bhotmange is not a household name for those aspiring to claw themselves out of poverty and survive the daily ignominy of disenfranchisement that continues to be the lot of Dalits in India today. Few ask why the horrific images of her bruised body have not served to jolt the public.
Do the images serve to galvanise a movement against rape or violence against women from poor and marginalised backgrounds? Can horrifying images objectifying the human body also have a transformative effect? The professional photographs of each stage of the lynching of Jesse Washington, a young African-American farmhand, in 1916, were printed and sold as postcards in Waco, the town in Texas that became infamous for the racially inspired mob 'justice' that ended in lynching. Yet, these photos, that were sold as souvenirs, also served to bring the shameful practice to the notice of the thinking public in America, jolting its conscience. The images of his charred body triggered the outrage that led to lynching being viewed as a form of unacceptable medieval justice, and a campaign to curb the practice followed. Can we hope, similarly, that the pictures of the young girls hanging from the mango tree might eventually have the same sobering effect, to see an end to violence against women and caste atrocities?
~Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. She is also Consulting Editor with Himal Southasian.
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