No Nation for Women: Journalist Priyanka Dubey on her searing reportage on rape in India

Journalist Priyanka Dubey spent six years travelling across India to document cases of rape and sexual assault. Her reportage, compiled in a book, presents a stark picture of the problem, and looks at the path ahead.

Joanna Lobo February 28, 2019 09:25:07 IST
No Nation for Women: Journalist Priyanka Dubey on her searing reportage on rape in India
  • Acknowledging rape as an urgent crisis is the first step towards rectifying the problem, says journalist Priyanka Dubey

  • Dubey spent six years travelling across India, documenting cases of rape and sexual violence.

  • Her findings have been compiled in a recently published book called No Nation For Women

In India, sexual abuse is so rampant that it seems almost normalised. The public is desensitised; the press gives these stories a column or two, or clubs them together. Many cases simply aren't spoken about. The majority of the reportage on the issue is clinical, devoid of any emotion.

Journalist Priyanka Dubey's recently published book, No Nation for Women — Reportage on Rape from India, the World’s Largest Democracy (Simon & Schuster India), is a difficult one to read. It documents stories of sexual violence against women, each more horrific than the other. Each of the 13 chapters in Dubey's book addresses different types of crimes — the violence against denotified tribes, caste-based, "corrective rapes" in Bundelkhand, rape within the police force.

Dubey spent six years travelling across India, meeting with survivors, their families and the law. In her book, she also details the aftermath of assault — the court cases and legal battles, the estrangement of families, the heavy price of speaking up, and the depth of loss. Though the cases may seem dated, the stories, the way each incident was handled, and the ongoing fight for justice, are familiar and still relevant.

The writing is raw, bare-boned; this is longform journalism contained within a book.

In an interview with Firstpost, Dubey spoke of her journalistic process, the role of the media in reporting rape, and the effect working on the book has had on her life.

Tell us about your reporting process. How did you choose the stories that ultimately went into the book?

I never made any conscious attempt to pursue any particular theme around gender violence for this book. Instead, I only followed stories that made me curious as a reporter and moved me enough to go out and find out more.

The [news] gathering was overwhelming for me to handle alone. I had to leave out a few important chapters for the sake of keeping the length of the book non-intimidating. I mostly refrained from recording videos as it makes people uncomfortable — especially women talking about gender violence. Audio tapes were better for documentation. I clicked hundreds of pictures for my own writing reference. Then there were heaps of legal papers and charge-sheets to read. At times, the material would look intimidating and unending to me. I would look at the amount of [material] and feel as if I am drowning. It was only after going through the notes a couple of times that I was able to identify the distinct threads that make the book's chapter-list today.

No Nation for Women Journalist Priyanka Dubey on her searing reportage on rape in India

(L) Priyanka Dubey. Photo courtesy Sukruti Anah Staneley. (R) No Nation For Women cover

You did most of your reportage travelling solo through some of the most remote villages in the country. How did you prepare?

I did lots of homework, readings and research at my end before leaving for reporting trips. We cannot completely ‘remove’ the risk factor on tough reporting projects but we can minimise it by doing adequate homework. The solid network that one earns after years of on-ground work, is any reporter’s biggest strength. Likewise, more than anything else, my own rapport with people on ground helped me most. My local contacts helped me in overcoming language barriers.

In the book, you mention being harassed on a train. Safety must have been a priority. What was it like reporting as a journalist and a woman?

I had no special strategy in my mind but I did keep a few important, routine points in mind. For example, the drivers I travelled with always came via a trusted network or on recommendation. I made a conscious attempt to travel only during daylight. Taking calculated risks, reading up on the geography, having printouts of Google maps, keeping a low profile and having a plan B always helps. If in two minds, I preferred either sticking to the local contacts or going back. Because you can always return to a story with more preparation if you are alive!

Through six years of reportage and writing, I would assume the stories of the women you’ve met and spoken to would affect you. How did you tackle moments when everything felt overwhelming?

It’s not possible to detach oneself while working on a book like this. I also believe that one cannot ‘completely recover’, so to speak, after being deeply immersed in the conversation around gender violence for so long. The reporting and then the writing of this book was a soul bruising experience for me and I had no option but to hold myself together through the years of its making. I kept slipping in and out of depression and felt as if I was circling a ball of darkness. Long walks with old friends and reading works by my favourite authors were my refuge during this time.

On Firstpost — #Spotlight tracks incidents of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment in the Indian news media industry as they emerge in the #MeToo conversation

Was there any point in this whole process where you wanted to step back?

I did not want to give up, but I felt like taking a break many times. I would feel choked up working back to back on the book chapters and then freelancing in between to sustain myself. Also, the content was too dark to live with for so many years.

There is a fair amount of talk about the lack of outrage in the Delhi-centric media. Is this something that people think — that media stories could get them justice/that the media isn’t doing enough?

Primarily, people's outrage is targeted at the insensitive behaviour of the media towards victims of gender violence. The disproportionately provocative questioning often ends up coming across as being exploitative of the victims/survivors, rather than as raising a voice against injustice. I feel people respond positively to the media if one treats them as whole, equal human beings rather than just thrusting them into the binaries of victim or survivor.

How do you see your book helping these women? Is it about bringing these stories to light or about helping them find justice?

In this increasingly complex world, journalism and nonfiction writing has greater significance than ever. The first important role that a book like No Nation for Women plays is to attempt documentation of a multi-layered and multi-dimensional problem while keeping all possible nuances intact. Documentation helps in increasing understanding, which in turn pushes for acknowledgement.

Acknowledging rape as an urgent crisis is the first step towards rectifying the problem.

Slowly changing public opinion and contributing to the fight for justice are the long-term goals, and nonfiction books are making change possible.

Justice or the lack of it seems to overpower every story. How much blame can we put on the system: police, courts, governments, etc into his fight for victims to get justice?

What is the biggest learning you’ve taken away from this experience?

Of course, the battles of bad policing, slack investigation, power politics etc. are very much here but my biggest learning is that society’s mindset needs to be changed. We must get done with the victim-blaming and victim-shaming attitude, only then is any kind of long-term change possible. Let’s start by acknowledging the demons of patriarchy.

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