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Are we so bereft of humanity that we can only sympathise with a survivor of a heinous crime like rape if we see it happen? Or are there uglier reasons for our watching and sharing the video of the Pollachi gang rape that’s doing the rounds?
“Seeing is believing.”
These were the three words pasted on the door to the office room of one of my friends. She works as a film editor and helps filmmakers produce a neat product with seamless cuts. I remember asking her about what this phrase meant to her. “Well, that’s how it is, isn’t it? Unless you see something for yourself, how do you know something is true?” I nodded. “But… that’s not always possible, is it?” I asked. “Chill. Let’s focus on work. When we’re confronted with the need to look at something when it’s not possible, we’ll talk.”
I was disturbed last afternoon, and these three words (and three more: “Pollachi. Gang. Rape.”) kept coming to mind. She wasn’t around for me to talk, so naturally, I turned to writing.
For the uninitiated, a video of a young woman being gang-raped has gone viral on social media after a Tamil periodical published it. The girl can reportedly be heard begging the men to leave her alone, among several other triggering and traumatic things that the video features. The police suggest that they had confiscated the mobile phones of the three accused men and have handed them over to forensics. It appears that the girl’s brother had asked these men to delete the pictures and videos of his sister – and found several other pictures and videos on the phone.
“Has gone viral on social media.”
Let that sink in.
Four years ago, a renowned activist shared a video that went viral on Whatsapp claiming that she was hoping to shame the rapist. Today, clearly, things aren’t different, at all.
Indian law prohibits the naming of a survivor of rape, and by natural extension, prohibits the public identification of a survivor of rape. Consequently, then, whatever be the motive, sharing videos of rape is simply illegal. The faces have been blurred out – but it doesn’t mean that the subjects in the video are absolutely unidentifiable. Six degrees of separation or less puts most people who are familiar with the survivor into the zone of awareness: and identifying them is not going to take much time for those who can identify both her voice and the blurred outline of her picture.
That a video was made in itself represents the calculated and cold-blooded approach to the crime: the men had every intent of using the video to shame, blackmail, and cause more harm to the survivor. By brazenly watching, sharing, and distributing the video, we’re equally complicit in taking their intention forward: whether we are openly willing to own up to why we watched the video or not. I choose to say we even though I neither watched it nor intend to because I am a part of a society that does, and by staying silent about it four years ago when I could have questioned it, I remained complicit.
The fact that a crime like rape can be filmed and the video evidence can be circulated at a feverish pace is definitely telling on how bereft of humanity we are. The crime itself is a horrible blot on humanity. Add to that the structural violence that is anything but victim friendly. Add a third layer of social stigmatization and constant triggering of survivor trauma without any semblance of psycho-social justice being made available within accessible reach. The last straw is the voyeuristic brazenness tied to filming the crime and sharing it without compunction. Every step in this process robs a survivor of her right to personal agency: the age-old strategy in the gender-based violence playbook.
If it has not struck you that this is horribly wrong and dangerous, stop to think about why a survivor does not speak up or tell her story even years after a crime has taken place. The #MeToo movement brought out the worst among humankind in response to survivor testimonies: why didn’t you speak up then, why didn’t you complain, why were you where you were, why didn’t you fight back, why did you dress like that, why did you drink… Added to these are the interrogatory questions levelled at a survivor for every last fact: a shameless pursuit after being the self-appointed judge, juror, and jailor.
In many of these instances, none of those who threw these questions at survivors paused to think about the treatment survivors face. No survivor asked for it, and no survivor needs to be shamed for what was done to them. However much we may claim to share videos of this nature in the hope of leading to the accused or of shaming the accused, videos of this sort put the survivor front and center and leave them vulnerable to revictimization – and in many instances, a sense of criminalization.
I engage with some of my trolls online through direct messages rather than on public timelines and threads, because most people remain defensive in public view and engage in one-to-one conversations off public threads. One troll repeatedly suggested that every #MeToo testimony had to be accompanied by “visual” proof.
After establishing that he was a man with some religious faith, I asked him a question that led him to stay quiet for hours on end: “You believe in a God you haven’t seen, you believe in this God’s powers and willingly submit to this God. What makes you think this God is absolutely true if you don’t have ‘visual’ proof?”
When you get to access a video of this sort, or find people sharing it, stop in your tracks, think, and act. Can you try preventing one more person from voyeuristically reducing a survivor’s trauma to an object of humiliation?
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