“Don’t wear those shorts. They’re too short.” “Take off that chain. It attracts too much attention.” “Change out of that dress. It makes you stand out too much.” To a girl born and raised in America, taught by the glossy pages of fashion magazines to embrace a unique style, India seemed like a jailhouse. Replacing the orange jumpsuits were saris and kurti tops and, in the southern city of Chennai, buried deep in the muggy cloud of tradition, nobody questions the stifling conformity obscuring their right to self-expression.
This conformity, however, rises as a self-defense tool against any crime as minor as pickpocketing to as heinous as murder. Despite a sense of conformity amongst men to protect themselves from unintentionally instigating fights, the majority of restrictions are placed upon women in response to one of the most prevalent issues plaguing India: rape. The first time that I had perceived even an inkling of the horror of living with this constant fear was in December of 2012, the time of the Nirbhaya gang rape. When a 23-year-old physiotherapy student nicknamed Nirbhaya, or “The Fearless One,” was lured into a bus, she was defenseless against five men and a teenager who repeatedly raped the young girl leading to her ultimate death from the injuries accrued. I remember being confused, feeling the same emotions that I felt after September 11, 2001, deeply reflecting on Nirbhaya’s struggle despite her knowledge that it was all for naught. I felt what most teenagers experience at some point while flipping through the pages of the newspaper, each story more terrible than the next, or scrolling down a list of atrocious statistics: helplessness. I shared this sentiment with the majority of the Indian population at the time and,through this feeling of helplessness, there emerged a powerful and unstoppable force of determination to change. The Nirbhaya gang rape sparked progress in terms of gender equality and women’s rights. After receiving around 80,000 recommendations, the Justice Verma Committee finally put new anti-rape laws into action, with a more broad, yet more specific, definition of rape and more harsh punishments to follow the crime. The new enforcement and changing psychology of the Indian people became evident when the number of reported rapes increased by 35.2% from 2012 to 2013. Although this statistic may appear counterintuitive, it indicates progress in the sense thatit is reflective of the increasing number of women who feel safe enough in their community to report incidents of rape, rather than an increase in actual rape cases. Despite the one and a half years that have passed since the Nirbhaya incident, the public is still reeling from the atrocious story and several thousands similar to it.
So, when photographer Shetye took photos of a beautiful woman wearing designer labels on a public bus being overpowered by the will of the men, it touched a chord and the backlash was enormous. Thousands turned to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media websites to voice their complaints:
Raj Shetye photographs. Rape isn’t a fashion accessory. #thewrongturn
— Eesha (@Eesydney) August 7, 2014
— Arshi Gupta (@Arshi_Gupta) August 8, 2014
Did i just see a fashion-spread depicting the Delhi gangrape of Nirbhaya? Disgusting!I hope all associated, die of shame! Insensitive swine!
— VISHAL DADLANI (@VishalDadlani) August 5, 2014
Examining Shetye’s work on a deeper level and using his statements as guidelines, the symbolism is slowly unveiled: the bus for any public space, the female model for any outspoken girl unwilling to conform, and the clothes for any method of self-expression. According to Shetye, the photographs call attention to men’s assumption that “well dressed women in public transport . . . can be targets.” In addition, he questions society’s “right to cast aspersions on women and their character if they are well dressed and seen in public.” In other words, Shetye tries, through this fashion shoot, to demonstrate the complete invisibility of women in Indian society by portraying the inverse. Playing on the idea that anyone who stands out is prey, he intentionally attracts the viewer’s attention to the victim’s fashion choices and sensual allure. He tries to make the case that although conformity is used as a self-defense mechanism, it also stunts the growth of any long-term change. When women are unable to express themselves freely in public, it not only makes them more vulnerable but also denies them individuality, something that is essential to their empowerment.
Additionally, the model, through her closed-lipped pouts and dramatic gazes, seems removed from the act about to occur. Her lack of struggle, however, is not advice for the way Indian women should act during such situations, but rather a symbol of the helplessness that women feel everyday in Indian society. Shetye’s point is that despite the anti-rape laws passed after the 2012 gang rape, the government and society still have not empowered females enough to effectively stand up for themselves. Although Shetye’s work narrows the viewer’s vision to the current state, I would like to believe that change is on its way, especially once the social ills exposed in his photographs are realized.
It is truly a shame that any deeper meaning, intended or unintended, is lost in the public’s reaction over Shetye’s medium. The reaction has nothing to do with the depiction of rape and everything to do with the presentation. Believe it or not, this is not the first time that rape has sparked an Indian photographer to make a statement. Rafique Sayed, in response to the 2002 Mukhtar Mai rape case, used the actress Konkana Sen as a model to portray the emotions of the victim. These photographs depict a dark-skinned young girl with tangled tresses wearing a white gown, matted with mud and blood, sobbing in recollection of her recent rape. Obviously, these images starkly contrast the aesthetic allure of Shetye’s work. Sayed, in fact, criticized Shetye by arguing that “you can’t have a girl, dressed in designer wear, depict a victim who was dressed in simple jeans. Also, you can’t tell a story of pain and brutal crime in a fashion shoot.” This lack of realism in the photographs has been the main source of anxiety and anger for everyone, myself included. I believe there is a certain value in Shetye’s work if analyzed under the idea of symbolism; however, by using designer labels and not providing an adequate explanation with the photographs explaining the purpose, Shetye alienates the audience and reverses his intent.
You can find another opinion on the Shetye fashion spread here.
“Explaining India’s New Anti-rape Laws.” BBC News. BBC News, 27 Mar. 2014. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.
Jha, Rega. “This Fashion Photo Shoot Depicts An Indian Woman Being Abused By Several Men On A Bus.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, 5 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.
“The Wrong Turn.” NewAge. New Age, 10 Aug. 2014. Web.
Image Credit: © Raj Shetye/via behance.net /Fair Use law