Survivors Find New Ways to Reclaim their Narratives in the Media While Maintaining Anonymity

August 31, 2016
By Meghana Kulkarni

“I say this in front of you all that her name was Jyoti Singh.”

Last December, Asha Singh named her daughter as the Delhi rape victim who had since been known as “Nirbhaya” or “One Without Fear.” Speaking on the third anniversary of the brutal attack, she condemned the release of her daughter’s youngest assailant, who was 17 when he committed the crime.  Serving just three years in a correctional facility, the maximum sentence for a juvenile, his discharge sparked protests across New Delhi.

Although Singh’s death prompted legal reform, including fast-track courts for sexual violence cases, many considered the release of her assailant a failure of the Indian justice system. On this day, Singh chose to name her daughter and defy the Indian law, which prohibits the identification of rape victims.

“There is no need for us to feel any shame,“ Singh said. “It is the perpetrators of heinous crimes who must feel ashamed of themselves.”

These words pinpoint a phenomenon unique to the crime of sexual violence: Survivors, rather than perpetrators, are blamed and shamed for offenses committed against them. Fearing judgment and prejudice, many survivors choose not to seek medical services or justice through the legal system. Only 2 percent of Indian women who experience gender-based violence report it, according to Demographic and Health Survey data, and many even hesitate to confide in friends and family.

Selfie Journalism Offers a Solution

Yusuf Omar, a mobile editor at the Hindustan Times, recently challenged the belief that survivors must suffer in silence and provided a creative workaround for India’s law. Using Snapchat filters to mask their faces, Omar asked women to recount their traumas. Simultaneously filming and storytelling, Omar’s subjects felt free to speak openly and without fear.

“Using Snapchat’s face-mapping technology, these young women were empowered to choose their own filters and connect more with their audience,” Omar said. “I walked away when they were speaking to the camera, which created a more intimate experience.”

Through “selfie journalism,”  Omar’s project – which has been viewed over 178,000 times – offered survivors a forum to describe abuse from family members, harassment on the street or intimate partner violence in their own homes – expanding the narrative of sexual violence in India beyond gang rape and stranger assault. Omar also noted that this medium allows subjects to show their eyes and recognize themselves.

“Rather than silhouetting or blurring their faces, they were able to choose how they wanted to be represented as sexual abuse survivors,” he told Safe.

Challenging Victim Blaming in the Media

Historically, survivors have had little control over how the media covers their stories. Articles published on rape frequently insinuate survivors were at fault by mentioning their drinking habits, clothing or sexual history. To further excuse perpetrators’ actions, media will present facts unrelated to the case, such as the defendant’s accomplishments and awards. After experiencing a loss of power and violation during the assault itself, these reports can re-traumatize survivors and perpetuate rape myths and misconceptions.

Most recently in the U.S., a young woman known as the “anonymous Stanford survivor” discovered an article outlining the graphic details of her assault, which occurred while she was unconscious behind a dumpster. The article included a statement from her assailant saying he thought she “liked it” because she was rubbing his back.  At the end of the article, the perpetrator’s record swim times were listed.

The perpetrator, Brock Turner,  faced a maximum punishment of 14 years in state prison. Fearful of the “severe impact” a longer sentence would have on Turner, the judge opted for a lighter sentence of three accounts of sexual assault and six months in county jail and probation.

In response, the Stanford survivor published a powerful open letter on Buzzfeed. She addressed Turner directly as she detailed the trauma of her rape kit, re-traumatization in court and the suffocating effect his actions had on her life.

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today,” she wrote.

The U.S. government heard her voice loud and clear. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, called the letter a “bible on what happens to sexual assault victims.” Congress read her letter in solidarity on the House floor, and Vice President Joe Biden wrote a letter of support commending her bravery.

As civil society continues to embrace survivors, media outlets have the choice to either shame or support those who come forward with their stories and ensure victims do not carry the burden of societal stigma. By amplifying the voices of survivors in unique and creative ways, we will foster a sustainable place within our culture for survivors to be valued, believed and heard – anonymous or otherwise.