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Indian ad campaign undermines female symbols of power, critics charge

A detail from an image of Durga, altered to show signs of abuse.

Design & Branding by Taproot India

India is a place where millions recently finished a week of celebrations devoted to the goddess Durga. It is also a place where, on average, a newly wed woman is lit on fire every 90 minutes by her in-laws for bringing insufficient dowry into the home.

A controversial ad campaign designed to highlight those contradictions by depicting three of Hinduism's most powerful goddesses, including Durga, as battered women recently went viral – posted on ScoopWhoop, the Indian equivalent of BuzzFeed, and shared by thousands on Facebook.

In a nation rocked last year by the fatal gang-rape of a young woman on a bus, some activists say the advertisements shine a welcome spotlight on women's rights. Others have blanched at depictions of bruised goddesses, saying they undermine the rare symbols of female empowerment in India.

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The pictures show Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, with a swollen lip, and a gash across her nose. Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, sports a black eye, a drop of blood forming at her lips. Durga, the all-powerful mother goddess – flanked by a lion, sporting the trident and a metal club, and with bruises on her face – sheds a single tear.

"Pray that we never see this day," the campaigns tagline reads. "Today more than 68 per cent of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to."

Lakshmi Chaudhry, a columnist and senior editor at Firstpost, an online news site, wasn't impressed. "We don't really have many symbols of unashamed, aggressive female power in this country," Ms. Chaudhry said. "These goddesses are incredibly powerful, they represent emancipation, but these ads make them out as if they need to be protected." The ads are "very patriarchal," said Ms. Chaudhry, who wrote a scathing column with a headline calling them "a giant step backward for womenkind."

But Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Alliance, a women's rights group, said the images made men and women think about rape and domestic violence. "They are good, we need more of these," Ms. Krishnan said. "These are few and far between and they are welcome."

They could have benefited, however, from more emphasis on promoting equal rights for women, she said. There is a deep sense of irony in the Indian culture, she said, where the female form as a goddess is worshipped, yet women are beaten, tortured and sometimes killed for making choices that do not necessarily fit social norms or expectations, such as marrying outside their caste or class.

"There may be respect in treating women like gods, but we are more interested in being treated as human beings, to live with dignity in public spaces and inside homes without being subjected to violence," Ms. Krishnan said. "That could have been a more powerful message."

The advertisements went viral in September, after the sentencing of the four adult men in the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in Delhi last December. The incident led to violent protests on the streets of Delhi as protesters demanded tougher laws to punish those who commit violent crimes against women. By April, the Indian government amended centuries-old laws to include a harsher sentence for rape, and make crimes of stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks and trafficking of women and children. In September, the four men were given the death penalty.

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News that they were to be hung for the rape and murder of the young woman led to much jubilation on the streets and in the courthouse, where crowds broke into applause.

Sattvik Mishra, the co-founder of ScoopWhoop where the images were posted, said he knew he was taking advantage of the timing to help generate buzz for his website by putting out controversial imagery.

These images are not new. They were created by an advertising company, Taproot India, for an NGO three years ago, but were ultimately not used. Mr. Mishra, a former advertising executive, tapped into his friends network to seek out the pictures.

"They were bold, yet the point was made subtly," Mr. Mishra said. "These were unprecedented in India."

Mr. Mishra admitted that debate sparked by the images may have happened in something of an echo chamber, limiting their ability to spark real change. Those who saw the images were among the country's affluent, English-speaking minority, in a country where more than half of the 1.2-billion population live on less than $2 a day.

That does not mean it had no impact. In fact, it might help an unexpectedly vulnerable segment of the country's female population: upper-middle-class women.

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While India has an increasing number of outreach programs designed to help poor women come forward after being abused, wealthier women largely are left to fend for themselves and feel stronger societal and familial pressures to avoid bringing shame on the family by reporting a rape.

"Domestic violence does not have a class and society," Mr. Mishra said. "There is no statistic that says it occurs only in rural India. It's just that in urban India, especially women from the affluent class are reluctant to report it."

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