A comic book hero with a real-life agenda
India’s women face very real challenges but, says Kieran Yates, they are taking inspiration from a fantasy figure fighting for her rights and identity.
Priya’s Shakti is not what you might expect from a female superhero comic. Here, in glorious technicolor, you are confronted with the dark and light realities of the female experience in modern India. These are grim tales of sexual violence and acid attacks against women and a goddess righting wrongs.
The free-to-download comic book series, launched in 2014, has made global headlines, and is recognised by UN Women as a Gender Equality Champion through bringing together women’s rights, protest and ancestral memory. Its stories are rooted in contemporary India; the first comic, Priya’s Shakti, tackles sexual violence, while the second, Priya’s Mirror, sees the heroine joining forces with acid attack survivors to take on the demon King Ahankar.
Vivid pages are filled with tales designed to make you feel uncomfortable, uplifted and educated. The story takes on a life of its own off the page, too. Priya and her tiger feature on murals across cities and villages. Augmented reality events and exhibitions, at which fans can use smartphones to add a layer of graphics to a real-world view, help unlock a number of interactive story elements.
For Mumbai-based co-writer Paromita Vohra, who works alongside artist Dan Goldman, co-producer Shubhra Prakash and co-creator Ram Devineni, Priya’s Shakti is rooted in the real-world experiences of many women in India.
Vohra cites the horrific gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012, which made global headlines, but says that wasn’t the start. “It is important to remember that this is a long and ongoing conversation that is not only linked to the case of Pandey. The Indian feminist movement goes back to the 1800s and has affected many laws and social movements that have radically impacted women's empowerment – Priya’s Shakti is part of this. One of the important things that has happened with this conversation in the last few years is a stronger focus on sexual violence, molestation and harassment.”
The story of Priya, a girl who is raped, is difficult reading, and doesn’t shy away from what Vohra calls “toxic masculinity”. However, Vohra says, the comics are not simply about wreaking revenge. “Priya’s moving to break the cycle of violence, so our focus is not so much on revenge and justice as much as love and change. She wants to move away from the violence of patriarchy to the loving possibilities of a more equal world.”
Devineni stresses that men must be engaged in any discussions around gender violence, too.
He recalls being at the protests against patriarchal attitudes to women in Delhi following the Pandey case.“There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers – both women and men.
I knew then that the problem of sexual violence was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem.
“At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened. The officer’s response was that ‘no good girl walks home at night’, implying that she probably deserved it, or provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem.”
And as someone who grew up reading the hugely popular Indian comic series Amar Chitra Katha, with their tales of gods and historical figures, as well as Batman and Superman, Devineni believes that comics and graphic novels are a powerful way of engaging young people of both sexes. “With Priya’s Shakti we draw on icons and imagery familiar to everyone in India but in a fresh and original way,” he says.
Priya’s Shakti is also connecting with young people through workshops and outreach programmes with schools. One after-school programme, delivered across schools in Delhi, gives the comic book to teenagers to stimulate discussions around gender, patriarchy and violence. Priya’s Shakti has already struck a nerve with millennials, too. On social media the hashtags #IStandWithPriya and #TheLastMask have proved popular, prompting conversations about acid attacks and promoting female solidarity.
Priya’s Shakti is an emblem of female power that knowingly plays to the Indian consciousness. It is no coincidence that Priya sits on a tiger in the same way that the warrior goddess Durga does. While words like rape and assault continue to feel like taboos, Priya as a female superhero deftly reworks attitudes towards women. The idea is simple and effective – if Priya can reclaim her power sat upon her tiger, then perhaps so can we.
VSO India seeks to help women in the country find jobs to increase their financial and personal freedom through its Aaghaaz project. In partnership with telecoms company Bharti Infratel, the Aaghaaz (meaning “new beginning”) project has supported 1,000 Indian women from slum areas, 70% of whom have since found employment.
To mark Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017, VSO volunteers in Rajasthan were busy spreading myth-busting information about periods, with the help of the graphic comic Nimrit’s Story: