Friday, February 20, 2015

The Mediatized Realities of Crime Against Women

Image (c) Nalanda Tambe
On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old girl in New Delhi was gang-raped and brutally attacked on board a bus. A friend who accompanied her was treated with horrific violence as well. Within hours of reports that showed up on India’s media outlets, the fury among the masses rose. And soon, there were cries of solidarity for the girl herself, and angry cries denouncing the brutal men who raped and harmed her, and the security sector in the country for allowing this to happen.

The media, interestingly, had quite a role to play. While it could have been a tremendous powerhouse of educative value, it seemed to have missed the opportunity – although it did reform itself.

Nalanda Tambe, a journalist and activist for gender issues, was moved by the entire episode. Her intrigue at the media’s approach to the case took her deeper into the dynamics of media and gender issues in the context of gender based violence. The end result is a book, titled Mediatized Realities of Crime Against Women: Case of Delhi Gang Rape. Against a backdrop of event-centric and sensationalised reactions as opposed to well thought out responses, Nalanda’s book is an eye opener for the world of communication and new age media in reporting, addressing and dealing with Gender based Violence.

Excerpts of her interview with The Red Elephant Foundation follow:
I have a Masters’ degree in Media – and I have been curious about the portrayal of gender in the media, particularly women. I have observed the rather stereotypical way of portraying gender and women. Having been born and brought up in Vadodra, in Gujarat, I grew up in what is considered a rather safe city for women – the crime rate is quite minimal. I wanted to study about gender from a media perspective. I see how women are portrayed in the media, in films and in mainstream literature – for instance, you wouldn’t find too many heroine centric films in Bollywood. The lone exception to that was Kahaani, among a handful of others that I can name off the top of my head. I always wanted to see why women were being portrayed as objects, and what the mentality or rationale underlying it was all about.

The objectification of women in films, songs and literature is actually a form of violence against women. Women’s bodies are packaged and tossed across the screen to the audiences for mass consumption, and in some ways, I find that it is a way to cover up the obvious lack of qualitative content in a film. The use of women in these so-called “item numbers” in films is really just an absolute sham – a violation of the quintessence of the dignity of women. If you look at advertisements, you will see a similar phenomenon – adding to which is the fact that a lot of advertisements portray women as the ones taking care of their families. Is it too much to ask to portray men in the same light? A quick survey of reality will tell you pretty much the truth on this front – there are many, many men who take care of their families.

These are the very things that reflect the undercurrents that motivate ours, and by extension, the media’s responses to gender based violence. There is a clear Supreme Court directive that mandates non-disclosure of the name of the survivor or victim of rape. To that effect, I have always wondered what business anyone has to give a survivor or victim an alternative name. What was achieved in using the monikers of Nirbhaya and Amanat? We live in a patriarchal society, and these kinds of things feed into the patriarchy. Rapes have happened since then – and the coverage has been dreadfully limited. No one spoke of the Mumbai incident involving a photo journalist. No one spoke of the Kolkata incident. Recently, the Rohtak incident was ignored too. What gives, really? Is it that the brutality deserves to be addressed and taken to task only if it happens in Delhi? In the Rohtak incident, the girl had a mental illness and was found killed after a brutal gang-rape – the things that were recovered from inside her, the kind of violence she was put through – I cannot even begin to tell you about the brutality. I believe that we need to change – and this change can come if and only if every case is reported.

There are two main things that came up in the Delhi incident, as being the core elements that created a furore – that there was tremendous brutality involved in the case, , and that the incident happened in Delhi. Reporting sexual violence and rape comes with many challenges. The media in India is heavily event-centric. Brutality gets attention only if it is in the nation’s capital – the media doesn’t talk about it as much as it should in any other city aside of Delhi. On social media, people seem to demand coverage. Recently, a campaign was made against the inertia of the media on the Rohtak incident – asking the pertinent question of why only incidents in Delhi were covered. The media has a long way to go in helping make changes in the mindset of people. Through my research, though, I discovered that there is a tremendous difference between the English dailies and the vernacular press – given that the latter and their portrayal of such stories needs a lot of improvement. On occasion, I have seen some vernacular papers actually having all but named the victim – disclosing her work, her qualifications, her location and her father’s name – this isn’t any less than disclosing her identity, because all of these elements, even if not as spot on as the name, create room for the identification of the victim.

Another major drawback in the way the media functions in these cases is the attention it gives to the past or the lifestyle choices of a victim. Saying things to the effect of that don’t matter to anyone – a girl is being raped on a moving bus, now what have you to show for it? What action have you taken for her? How can we be sure that our lives are safe? These are the things I want to know. It is important for the media to balance its reports in a manner that it gives these crimes the right attention so as to make the masses vigilant. During the recent Haryana rape incident, the media in the country was too busy worrying about Kejriwal and KiranBedi – which is certainly no less importance, but the case should have been given importance, too.

The media has a very important role as an educator. It has to help shape public opinion in a logical, sensible and progressive manner. The presence of so much content that is inappropriate for children in media and cinema is alarming – today’s parents don’t have time for their children, and the ease of access to technology tends to allow children to watch things that are inappropriate for them. In consequence, many children wind up imitating what they see – imbibing the wrong things and projecting them as conduct. Parents need to be vigilant and cognisant of what their children are up to. Before telling your daughter to come home early, or before preventing her from doing something, take a moment to find out where your son is and what he is doing. Bringing up children with equality as the foremost goal and target is very important.

It is very important to empower our women – to recriminalize a victim is wrong, and the current sensationalist media’s approach does just that. There needs to be tremendous emphasis on delivering information. The media can choose to portray information in any way that it wants – but it has to report on only fact, fact and FACT alone.  The media did play an educative role during the Delhi gang-rape incident. Therefore, we need the media to function in this kind of a role in every case of violence against women. It may not make a difference if such cases are merely reported - but it certainly does when such cases influence positive changes in society.

To buy a copy of Nalanda's book, click here