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Nirbhaya: The Fearless One

Nirbhaya gang-rape, 2012

On December 16, 2012, a 23-year old woman was brutally gang-raped in a moving bus. She was returning home with a friend after watching a movie, at about 8:30 at night. There were six men in the bus including the driver. They drove the bus around for 2 hours, during which she was brutally beaten, sexually tortured, and gang-raped repeatedly. About 9:54 pm she and her friend were thrown on the roadside naked in the cold December night. (Mandhana and Trivedi 2012).

Protests for Nirbhaya

Wide-spread protests in Delhi as a reaction to the 2012 Nirbhaya gang-rape incident.

The brutality of the rape jolted the apathetic Indian public. Young women and men in Delhi poured out into the streets in protest. They were furious, outraged, and demanded that the rapists be brought to book. In India, it is against the law to identify a rape victim. So the media named the young woman, "Nirbhaya" which means fearless in Sanskrit. She fought for her life in the hospital, gave testimony about her attack, and identified the attackers. This given name, “Nirbhaya” became a rallying cry for the nation.

After 13 days, despite the surgeries and round-the-clock care, Nirbhaya succumbed to her extensive injuries and died on December 29, 2012, (The Hindu 2017). The whole nation mourned her death. Newspapers carried the story of her death on the front page, with a single candle. The outpouring of grief and anger in equal parts was absolutely unprecedented. Nirbhaya had already changed the country. Perhaps she was the spark that was needed to start the fire of rape reform laws, rape victim advocacy, and setting an example for other perpetrators and rapists.

India’s Arab Spring and Occupy Movement

The protests only intensified after her death. This was India’s Arab Spring. People were protesting vociferously in the streets, and staging sit-ins in front of the The Gateway of India and The President’s Secretariat. These locations are significant, because this is where political and national events are staged on a regular basis. This was India’s Occupy movement - the people had occupied the seat of the government to demand justice for Nirbhaya.

Asha Devi, the new Mother India

The grieving but stoic and brave figure of Nirbhaya's mother, Asha Devi, became the new Mother India.

 

Women flocked to her, to support her, to tell her their own stories of sexual violence, to stand with her.

 

Nirbhaya was called India’s daughter, and she herself said that while she lost her own daughter, she gained thousands of daughters in her fight for justice.

Asha Devi is the new face of Mother India, a strong, courageous shero who will fight for her daughters with superhuman strength.

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Asha Devi, Nirbhaya’s Mother at a vigil.

The six convicted rapists of the Nirbhaya gang-rape case.

The 8-year long legal battle

Asha Devi, and Nirbhaya’s father, Badrinath Pandey, fought a long and arduous legal battle for 8 years to get the six rapists prosecuted through India's notoriously slow judicial system.

The most brutal of the rapists was 17 and got off with three years of remand custody in a detention juvenile center, (The Quint 2017). One of the remaining five rapists committed suicide in jail, (The Hindu 2016). The remaining four rapists were hanged on March 20, 2020, (Al-Jazeera 2020).

Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust

Nirbhaya’s mother, Asha Devi and father, Badrinath Pandey, founded a trust called Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust (Times of India 2013), to help other rape victims that continuously approached them for help, emotional support, and legal advocacy.

Asha Devi primarily speaks in Hindi in her interviews with the press. She has an amazing presence, sincere and authentic. She embodies the pain and injustice that women go through every day in India. Her activism and advocacy are admirable and inspiring, (Mumbai Mirror 2020).

Anti-Memorial for Nirbhaya

Installation comprising of sheer fabric printed with large-scale drawing of Nirbhaya Superheroine.

When a memory is unbearable,

how do we memorialize it?

Installation comprising of sheer fabric printed with large-scale drawing of Nirbhaya Superheroine.

Nirbhaya's brutal rape, and the courage with which she fought it, inspired a nation. While the number of rape cases every year is still disappointingly high, the Nirbhaya case is a landmark for India and a beacon of hope for what is possible when people come together to demand deep social and legal changes.

James E Young eloquently describes what an anti-memorial is, and how it differs from traditional monuments and memorials, “Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet.” (Young Fall 1997).

Enlarged comic book panel titled, “I’m Nirbhaya, and I’m back.”

Nirbhaya, the Superheroine

A fitting memorialization for Nirbhaya would have to be an anti-memorial, so that she may never be forgotten.

In my anti-memorial for Nirbhaya, I reimagine her as a Shero, a Superheroine, whose superpower is that she can eradicate rape and sexual violence.

In this drawing of Nirbhaya reimagined as a Superheroine, I created an enlarged comic book panel titled, “I’m Nirbhaya, and I’m back.”

A text box on the panel provides the meaning of Nirbhaya - "In Sanskrit, Nirbhaya means the fearless one."

Enlarged comic book panel titled, “I’m Nirbhaya, and I’m back.”

I am becoming fearless

Nirbhaya reimagined as a Superheroine, drawing of an enlarged comic book panel, in which she states, “I’m becoming fearless.”

Becoming a superheroine is a process, not an overnight miracle.

Nirbhaya is answered by other budding Nirbhayas, "Me too!" This call-and-response interaction is inspiring and inclusive of other women to claim their inner superheroines and transform into fearless Nirbhayas.

Nirbhaya Superheroine says in an enlarged comic book panel, “I am Becoming Fearless,” and she is replied by many Nirbhayas, "#MeToo." 

Nirbhaya Superheroine says in an enlarged comic book panel, “I am Becoming Fearless,” and she is replied by many Nirbhayas, "#MeToo." 

Nirbhaya Superheroine says in an enlarged comic book panel, “I am Becoming Fearless,” and she is replied by many Nirbhayas, "#MeToo." 

MeToo movement in India,
#MeTooIndia

This project starts to make concrete connections with the MeToo movement in India. In fact, I would argue that the Nirbhaya case and Asha Devi's fearless advocacy to get justice for her daughter by punishing the rapists, created a social shift in India.

Rape victims felt empowered to make their rape public and seek the media, social workers, and lawyers to prosecute their perpetrators.

This, in turn, opened the door to the MeToo movement in India, where privileged and working-class career women started speaking up about the sexual harassment they face on a day-to-day basis in their respective professions.

Nirbhaya Superheroine says in an enlarged comic book panel, “I am Becoming Fearless,” and she is replied by many Nirbhayas, "#MeToo." 

Nirbhaya’s superheroine costume

As a woman, I actively disidentify with “superheroines” that are presented as scantily clothed, perfectly sculpted bodies, presented for the consumption of the male gaze.

 

I present Superheroine Nirbhaya as a strong woman, wearing comfortable clothes that offer her agility and protection in combat. She has a cape that doubles as a coat, so it is practical.

 

Her costume is all black and eschews the colorful and impractical costumes of conventional superheroine comics.

 

Superheroine Nirbhaya’s costume is more like a Ninja’s costume, and therefore more authentic to her new role as a warrior.

Nirbhaya Superheroine in an enlarged comic book panel titled, “KAPOW!!!”

Nirbhaya Superheroine in an enlarged comic book panel titled, “KAPOW!!!”

Becoming Nirbhaya

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Enlarged comic book panels showing the moment when the artist decided to become Nirbhaya Superheroine, without the mask.
The artist in Nirbhaya's costume, with the mask.

Becoming Nirbhaya

The artist in Nirbhaya's costume, without the mask.

The artist in Nirbhaya's costume, with the mask.

This enlarged comic book panel shows the moment when the artist decided to become Nirbhaya Superheroine by donning her costume and her mask. The artist undertook martial arts training herself, to fully embody the transition of an ordinary woman to a superheroine.

Nirbhaya's Mask

A close-up of Nirbhaya Superheroine in an enlarged comic book panel titled, “Who is Nirbhaya?”

A close-up of Nirbhaya Superheroine in an enlarged comic book panel titled, “Who is Nirbhaya?”

Since Nirbhaya’s face was never revealed by her parents, and understandably so, I have chosen to have Superheroine Nirbhaya wear a mask similar to the Anonymous mask. The Anonymous mask is an iconic symbol of protesters in the West and Middle East during the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring movement, respectively. I felt that this would be a fitting way to depict Nirbhaya as representing an anonymous multitude of Indian women who have experienced rape and sexual violence, and are rising up against this injustice.

Nirbhaya's Mask 1

Nirbhaya’s mask is distinctly feminine and Indian, compared to the Anonymous mask in the West which is male with a prominent moustache and Imperial beard. Nirbhaya’s mask, is adorned with a bindi, kohl, nose stud, and lip color, and devoid of the moustache and beard.

Nirbhaya's mask

Nirbhaya's Mask 2

Nirbhaya's mask