Shame on Sunitha Krishnan: 5 reasons why sharing the Whatsapp rape video is wrong

Move over traditional media, police and the justice system. There's a new route to getting justice for rape victims in India; it's called social media. Share a gangrape video and hope that the do-gooders in society will help nab the accused. Just make sure you've blurred out the victim's face and body and that's good enough to make it alright.

Except that it's not. Circulating a video clip of a rape is certainly not legal and it hardly serves the cause it claims to promote. For starters, let me say that Hyderabad-based activist Sunitha Krishnan's Shame the Rapist campaign is based on a very sound premise. After all, why should rape survivors be ashamed when it is their attackers who should be named and blamed.

But Krishnan's strategy of 'shaming the rapist' reads like a plot from a C-grade Bollywood movie, and with all the insensitivity that analogy implies. There is no doubting her intention, but the method leaves a lot to be desired.

Krishnan, a rape survivor herself, heads Prajwala which is an anti-trafficking organisation based out of Hyderabad. Last week, she found two videos, believed to be six months old, which showed two women being gangraped, while the assaulters (six men) nicely smiled on camera and recorded the act. (Note: I've not watched the video and definitely don't plan to do so.)

So what did Krishnan do with the video? She completely blurred out the victim's face and body, highlighted the men's face in it and then released the video on YouTube asking viewers to help identify and nab the rapists. Many might see Krishnan's act as a great service, argue that thanks to her we now know who the rapists are.

Sounds good except that closer consideration reveals huge holes in that defense.

One,  the video was already doing the rounds on WhatsApp. So what that means is that many in India had watched, shared and forwarded unedited images of the assault and in all probability enjoyed watching it. They also knew who the alleged rapists are but chose to do nothing about it. Giving it is YouTube push hardly guarantees results. Worse, it may well give the video a wider audience who will watch it for all the wrong reasons.

 Shame on Sunitha Krishnan: 5 reasons why sharing the Whatsapp rape video is wrong

Representational image. Reuters

Two, just like ISIS' grotesque killing videos, the gangrape video was made precisely to humiliate the victim, and revel in the power of the attackers. How does it help the victim to promote the circulation of such a video?

For any rape survivor, the assault is one of the most traumatising event in their life and very often they are left to pick up the pieces all alone. The Indian state rarely provides any counselling or even medical help to victims, especially those who come from the lower strata of society. So imagine the horror when you know that your rape video is being shared on WhatsApp, on YouTube, on social media. It's like being gangraped all over again.

Worse, it is being done in your name this time around.

Three, Krishnan did not bother to get the consent of any of the victims. And in using their most traumatic experience to her own ends -- however noble -- she too is denying the victims their right to their bodies, to make their own life choices. Sharing such a video does exactly what the assaulters had hoped to do: rob the victim of whatever little agency she has left.

Krishnan's act ignores the complicated reasons as to why many victims across the world might not speak out against the assault, even years after it has taken place. Given that most victims are made to feel ashamed about the assault and might not even get support from their family, the realisation that the world has watched their rape is unlikely to give them courage, and may instead leave them feeling more vulnerable and powerless than ever.

Four, this is pure and simple sensationalism. As my colleague Piyasree Dasgupta argued in an earlier piece, it would have been better to just share screenshots of the men's face rather than put out the video of the rape. As she wrote that " between titillation and responsibility, India chooses the former with alarming frequency."  Most reporting around sexual assault ends up focusing on the most gruesome details of the act. Even in the Delhi gangrape case, the use of an iron rod was constantly harped on by the media, as though being gangraped was not newsworthy enough. And surely Krishnan chose to use the videos -- not just screen shots of the faces of the rapists which would have done the job -- precisely because of the 'impact' they would have on the audience.

The problem with sensationalism is that it emboldens the wrongdoer and strikes fear in future victims -- much like an ISIS video. The Uber driver who raped the MNC executive threatened to assault her with a rod if she fought back. So will these videos -- made from the perspective of the rapists and for their enjoyment -- deter would-be rapists or will they titillate and incite them to make their own?

Five, a rape video is not like the N-word. Reappropriation is a popular tactic among race and feminist activists; turn something negative on its head and make it your own. But rape videos and photos cannot be simple 'transformed' by the swish of a feminist wand. They exist precisely to intimidate and shame the victims.

In the Mumbai gangrape case, the rapists had taken photos of the photojournalist and threatened to release them on social media if she complained to the cops. Earlier we had reported how in Uttar Pradesh a minor girl from Etawah killed herself after five men, who sexually assaulted her, threatened to release the video of the act. In Guwahati, 11 men molested a woman on the road, as a television crew calmly shot the video. While the TV channel later tried to project itself as a saviour of the women, what it showed was that men have zero fears about assaulting women in public view because it is always the victims who will bear the burden of shame.

That Krishnan wants to change this paradigm is heartening, and should be supported. But aiding and abeting in the humiliation of victims -- without their consent -- is exactly the wrong way to do it. Political strategies are counter-productive when they ignore the flawed world in which they operate. But unfortunately, it is the victims who will pay the price of Krishnan's wilful refusal to face reality.

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Updated Date: Feb 08, 2015 11:04:54 IST