Visual language of rape in India

Neha Mann
14 min readMay 17, 2019

I grew up in Delhi, the national capital of India where 5 women are raped and 8 molested everyday. Over the years I have come to know these numbers are a small fraction of the total cases that go unreported. I know this because I haven’t reported all my personal experiences either which are undeniably punishable. Amidst this ‘commonplace’ status of sexual violence in India, there is also a highly irresponsible visual representation of the people involving such cases. This is something that always troubled me, but was first vocalised by Mira Malhotra, a senior designer who called this out on Instagram and shared the attempts at visual revival by a campaign to redraw misogyny. Building on that argument, I break down the different forms of representation used by different media and their visual implications that are potentially harming the narrative of sexual violence and how we visualize it.

Image 1. A newspaper from India with sexual assault news marked in red

Imagery in media is often a political tool for Indian journalists, activists and scholars engaging with the problem of violence against women, and as a supporting framework for media commentary for journalists and scholars globally. Yet, the lack of consideration when curating, designing or simply selecting these images is tremendously irresponsible.

To maintain the caliber of fast-paced news reporting, visuals become a secondary aspect of the content, often ending up misaligned with the factual content.

Such under-curated visual content can degrade a sensitive narrative through many connotations that may be effective through the visuals. Many journalists, readers and designers may be unaware of the potential implications of these representations.

Two common and potentially damaging reactions by readers are the tendencies to rely on and perpetuate stereotypes about sexual assaults (Burt, 1980) and to blame victims for the assault (Ryan, 1971).
This paper semiotically analyses various forms of traditional and alternative imagery that is used in journalism to report sexual violence. The analysis is categorized first by type of channel: Online news, print media or alternative mixed media. The channel defines the pace of the workflow, which further governs the decision-making time. And secondly by type of execution: illustrative, digital art or digital photography, which provides further insight into the meaning and sentiments evoked by the graphics.


Indian news consumption has been rapidly transitioning from print to digital broadcasting with 167 million households with individual televisions, 300 million mobile users and 323 million internet users in 2017 (Agarwal, 2018). Even with 1,05,443 registered newspapers/periodicals in circulation, the Indian population has shifted consumption of news to majorly rely on Online News for its minute-by-minute updates that serve the expectations of the highly informed Indian. That said, print journalism has become an indulgence of the highly educated population that waits on English newspapers to receive information. Within print media, the major hit has also been faced by English newspapers as they were the staple channels for the middle class educated Indian who has now transitioned to digital channels. Regional language newspapers are still sustaining, serving many regions of non-connectivity. (Bose, 2017)
As a consequence of this shift around the world as well, newspapers and other news operations are now adopting a ‘web-first’ approach to organizing their work flow (Armstrong & Gao, 2010). This means having reporters and editors prepare first for reporting and producing content and multimedia stories for the web, then writing a text story for the print edition. In a web-first approach, the main focus often is on breaking news and getting those stories on the web as fast as possible, on a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days- a-week news cycle.


1. Always-On Broadcasting of Digital Media

In the present age of hyperconnectivity, young Indians are relying on online sources for updates around the clock. The citizens follow every story on multiple channels like online news broadcasting, television, real-time social media updates, firsthand experience blogs and the newspapers the following morning. The broadcasting time for each medium is considerably varied, directly indicating its accuracy.

1.1. Illustrative Stock Imagery
The sensationalism intended by 24x7 broadcasting channels only allows a short turnaround time, resulting in the use of overused stock imagery, which
may or may not depict the gravity of the situation. Below are some examples of fast online media by news channels reporting the initial findings on rape cases.

Image 2–4. (l-r) Illustration stock images used in digital news media

The immediate similarity in the images is the color theory and digital illustrative style. The palette is composed of primary colors, black and white with warm accents of orange and red. While black and white are two extreme ends of the spectrum, when used together can be utilized as an ‘abstract, essential element’ to make the use of color more essential and abstract element and the warm colored hands are emphasizing violence caused by those hands. This causes the perception of depth of the woman being acted upon by the overpowering hands. Lust is depicted through the hands as a power that is controlling the situation. However, rape is a consequence of ‘pathological powerlessness’ (Staik, 2017) which is defined as a rejection of key emotions of vulnerability, such as empathy and emotional connection, which are critical to human growth …. understanding of self and other and the formation of mutually enriching relationships (Zembylas, 2013). So the powerful depiction of the perpetrator is misleading and even though it holds them accountable as the cause of the assault, it falsifies the power dynamic.

The second notable similarity in the images is the Roy Lichtenstein inspired comic strip style pop-art technique. The entire premise of his work and the artists that followed (Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns) was ‘pop-art through parody’. His work is distinguished as precise compositions that document while they parody, often in a euphemistic manner. This style is being used, perhaps ignorantly, in depicting victims of gendered violence, leading to the degradation of the entire narrative to follow. Even if not intended to mock, the style of illustration has historical associations of comical connotation that are subconsciously at play when a reading an article online.

The final dissection of the illustrative stock media is the content of the visual. None of the women depicted in the images are visibly Indian looking; in fact the only similarity among them is non-conformity. With the diverse demographics within the country, there is not ‘one visibly Indian woman’. But there are many symbols that are present and others that are absent, that speak volumes about the creator’s perspective and subconscious rape myth endorsement. The first is the abstract clothing on the women, even though barely visible, none of them are distinctly dressed in Indian attire. More so, they are dressed in particularly western clothes ‘without sleeves’. Citizen surveys and political opinions on a new rape case are often centered in victim-blaming based on her western attire or her bold choices of lifestyle like going out with male friends. Following is a quote from an anonymous citizen, ‘She must be covered and look respectable. That way, no man will try anything. A man will only have bad thoughts about a woman if she is showing a lot of flesh. Not otherwise.’ (Dhillon, 2017). These myths are involuntarily endorsed by a majority of illustrative stock imagery. The women are also stylized in a ‘non-homely’ manner with curly or flailing hair styled in western haircuts (bangs and fringes). While conformity to feminine constructs is not exclusive to India, but ‘the decent Indian woman has long and dark, preferably straight and layered hair’ (S. Roy, 2016). However, the woman (image 2) has kohl-lined almond-shaped eyes, which is a typically Indian depiction. Kohl is used to protect oneself from evil eye, possibly also implying vanity. The absent signs that can identifiably distinguish Indian women are the Bindi, the red dot at the center of the forehead, red color in the hair partition and a beaded necklace, all of which clearly depict the married status of a woman. These images and others from this category assume that no married women as assaulted.

1.2. Digital Art

Another widely used form of visuals is digital art, which could be a choreographed image, photo manipulation or artistic representation. The danger of these images is their one- dimensional take on the subject. The victim is always depicted hiding their face, either in a defeated posture or through coercion of a masculine figure.

Image 5–6. (l-r) Digital photos manipulated to depict sexual violence

Starting with the color manipulation in these images, the dark vignette with women floating in an abyss is an evidence of the biased intentions of their use to portray women as lost and shackled. In image 5, her head is lowered and in fact removed from the frame. There are two psychological explanations to lowering of the head. It can be a sign of submission, effectively saying ‘I dare not even look at you’ or it is a sign of exhaustion (Head body language, 2017). In either case, the focus and assumptions on the victims during assault or post-assault are intrusive and should not be the decision of a news agency rushing to report the case. This imagery is highly depictive of trauma, hence perpetuating the powerlessness and defeat one might be experiencing. Unfortunately, these are the most common images used around the world for quick reporting on the topic and are extremely problematic to the cause. The over-popularity of this image section can be summarized with a screenshot of Google Image search of the keyword ‘rape’ (image 7).

Image 7. Screenshot of Google Image search of the keyword ‘rape’

1.3. User-Generated Content

With victims first being active citizens, often the stories trigger past acquaintances to voice their opinions and perhaps even get involved in the sensationalism around the subject of someone they used to know. According to the Indian laws against naming rape victims, every case is given a pseudonym. One such case was of a woman who was brutally gang-raped in 2012 and has been since known as ‘Nirbhaya’ which means fearless. Recently, her parents questioned why they should hide her name when she did nothing wrong (Safi, 2017). But other cases have proven the potential risks of naming a victim.

Image 8. Blurred image of an 8 years old rape victim

Acquaintances seeking to get involved in the media coverage have recently damaged the sexual assault narrative further, by revealing personal photographs or stories through firsthand blog experiences, vlogs or social media posts. Although intended at re- humanizing the victim, these images have surfaced rather shameful and voyeuristic desires of the viewers. In 2015, the ‘Kathua case’ unfurled, as India grieved the death of 8-year-old girl(image 8) who was kidnapped, sedated, gang-raped and then brutally killed, porn websites saw a surge in searches linked to her name (K. S. Roy, 2018). To further contextualize this fact, Indians are among the most prolific consumers of internet pornography, accounting for 40% of the 14.2 billion visits on Pornhub (Saha, 2015). Her photograph went viral and eventually became a symbol of the nation’s plea for justice, which translated to a large number of people using her picture as their social media profile photo. In an attempt to not further perpetuate the damage, the image has been blurred in this paper.

Blog posts are usually not polished editorial products, and the focus is on frequent posting, especially on breaking news. The demands of individual blogging thus can clash with editing and fact-checking functions of news organizations.

2. Duly Fact-Checked Print Media

The ease of downloading a stock image with a few clicks is highly likely to be a dangerous choice for true and appropriate representation of both the victim and the perpetrator, reducing overall information credibility. On the other hand, newspaper being a print medium has a longer and standardized vetting process, often using factual imagery (images 9–11). Below are some images of newspaper articles breaking the news with the initial evidence.

Image 9–11. (l-r) Factual photographs used in print media

The stark contrast in the tonality of the news as seen through these visuals, in newspaper and online media is a direct contributor to their reliability. Yet the average consumer might easily be unaware of the drawbacks of fast news. There are outliers in print media as well, where stock imagery gets published , however this is relatively rare in newspapers.

3. Crowd-Sourced Curated Imagery

This category is based on alternative imagery created in a one of its kind design challenge curated by a human rights organization in India in 2017, raising this issue for the first time. #RedrawingMisogyny challenged designers, artists and illustrators to change the narrative and come up with representative sketches of gender-based violence or ones that surpass gender (Bardi, 2017). Some of the outcomes are shared below (images 12–13).

Image 12–13. (l-r) Photo manipulation by designers in a crowd-sourced challenge

The difference in these images and all the traditional representations discussed above, is the truthfulness of the moment. The sentiment of unapologetic Indian women (image 12), in Indian attire, and the men’s lecherous gaze is a common scenario experienced by most women in India. These images are also illustrating (like many previous ones) how sexual assault is ‘done to women’ without their consent, but the head-on stance is impactful in signifying that she may not have been submissive and may have put up a fight. The shift in focus, (literally in image 13) also emphasizes that the news reports should be action and accountability oriented rather than centered in details of the moment of brutality alone.

Image 14. Digital illustration created in a crowd-sourced challenge

The final image in this paper (image 14) is an alternative approach, illustrating the focus on the woman’s revival and sending across a message that she is not helpless. The lady of justice extends her arm to the victim, to assure her that there will be action and she can keep her head up high, in submission to no one. Subtle details of this illustration also ensure representation of a relatable Indian woman, who is depicted older in age and perhaps even married (bangle in hand).

Summary and Conclusions

In a country where rape and sexual assault is unfortunately commonplace, a revival in the current discourse around the subject is necessary. While journalism is evolving in terms of content and some channels are able to relay true and well-rounded information, visuals have been long unattended. It is the responsibility of journalism as well as design, to communicate in a way that challenges the patriarchy, rather than bolstering it through quick route visuals that parody the sentiment of the case.

This paper reflects on a diverse set of visuals that are used in specialized channels of broadcasting. The semiotic analysis sheds light on the shortcomings and strengths of the visuals currently in use and some emergent designs. The worst performance of empowering reflection is unfortunately by the most widely used type of media: Digital Art. Photo manipulation is being used to create a dismal choreographed image that portrays the survivor as a victim, assuming their submission and representing them buried in shame. These are most often used in fast media, as they are mostly open-source on account of already being overused. Fast media also uses a lot of illustrative, comic strip style visuals. The style of these illustration is borrowed from an art movement that is centered in parodies of documentation, along with their vivid color palettes that use symbols of brutality as design elements and most importantly, the representation of the violator is mostly missing, leave them faceless and anonymous. This visual system bars the readers from visualizing any assumptions about the violator, unlike the many connotations depicted in the woman’s illustration. This lack of visualizing the perpetrator is a cause of concern in the viewer’s understanding of the entire case itself. If one does not understand the perpetrators, they can never understand sexual violence. Even in written journalism, for every ten papers written about the victim there one written about the perpetrator (Hamby & Grych, 2014).

One of main unforeseen evils borne out of hyperconnectivity, is user-generated content that risks revealing the anonymised identities of the victims. Not always ill-intended, but has in numerous cases posed a massive threat to the victim and their family’s wellbeing. Print media, owing to a relatively longer turnaround time, has factual photographic depictions of the case, which seem to be a sound method of depiction that does not distract from the story and also helps evoke empathy.

And lastly, the topic is gaining pace, with NGO’s like Breakthrough India drawing attention to the matter in an action-orientated fashion. The outcomes of the very first attempt at revising the visual language have highlighted alternative schools of thought that can not only help correct our visualization but also push the boundaries of the craft to achieve larger impact.

There is an opportunity for designers, artists and illustrators to revise the current visual language of rape in India.

The implications of each medium described in this paper can be utilized as a vantage point to address problems of victimization, stigma, myth endorsement, misrepresentation, lack of violator representation, awareness of semiotics of design elements, accountability, gender-neutrality and more than anything, empowerment for the survivors through redesigning the way we have been conditioned to visualize sexual violence.


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