One of the things that I think about a lot, sometimes obsessively, is how to get more people who are situated outside of the feminists/activists circles, to talk openly about abortion within their own social networks, be it with their friends, family, co-workers, etc. And although I would certainly be thrilled if the mainstream discourse on abortion could be more nuanced, non-judgemental and stigma free, and embedded in an equality and rights framework, I think the biggest challenge we, as feminists and abortion rights advocates face around the world, and particularly in India and South Asia, is how to even engender a mainstream discourse on abortion in the first place. In a context where any conversation on abortion is almost non-existent (or extremely negative and stigmatized) in our mainstream popular culture, whether it’s movies, music or literature, it’s quite a herculean task to push for a discussion on an issue that people are accustomed to being uncomfortable and silent about. It’s no wonder then, that the taboo and stigma around abortion only gains more steam, and the vicious cycle of silence and shame around abortion plays out in women’s lives day in and day out.
And it isn’t any wonder that individuals are accustomed to and shamed into keeping the silence, when the mainstream media in India, if it deems a story worthy to share, sensationalizes, violates confidentiality, and reinforces prevalent stigma by using imagery and language that devalues abortion and the people who have them. Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t folks here who are sensitive and judicious about their writing and discussion on this issue. However, the unfortunate truth is that the destigmatizing allies are only a minority and their reach is often limited, not only by number but also by profile of the audience.
However, India, luckily, is also in the midst of a media revolution, where newer and more innovative forms of media, especially online media platforms are gaining huge popularity. Moreover, these new media forms are not afraid to claim their space and are committed to challenging the dominant mainstream narratives on various issues of social importance. BuzzFeed India is one such example of this new, bold, and cool media revolution overtaking India. I have been a big fan of BuzzFeed for a few years now, and it has really changed the way I, and millions of other people, especially millennials, consume news today. BuzzFeed is an American online media company which has become popular worldwide for using lists, quizzes, and videos, peppered with GIFS and memes, as a way to unpack important news stories and other issues for its audience. Moreover, it also enables users to contribute to and generate online content, thereby driving news and discussion on issues that are of relevance and interest to its readers.
BuzzFeed India, which was launched quite recently, follows a similar format, except that the content is adapted for an Indian audience. It has become quite a rage on the internet here, with its Facebook page boasting more than 600,000 likes, and has managed to capture the attention of young (though mostly urban) audience in India by carving out a space to talk about issues that are usually not talked about openly in the mainstream media, such as feminism, women’s rights, casteism, socioeconomic inequality, LGBTQ rights, etc. BuzzFeed India has also allowed young people, often missing from mainstream media spaces, to carve out a more progressive space for themselves through actively writing, contributing and providing a commentary on a range of issues, and thus demanding and affirming that their voices be heard. So, as a young abortion rights activist, when I started following BuzzFeedIndia online in early 2015, I knew that this could be a perfect medium to push for a fresh and progressive narrative on abortion in India!
At the time when the thought of collaborating with BuzzFeed India occurred to me, I was working at CREA, a feminist human rights organization based in New Delhi. I worked at CREA for close to three years, with my work primarily focused on the issue of abortion rights and improving access to safe abortion in India. So, early in 2016, I decided to approach BuzzFeed India about writing up a post on abortion. Once I got a go-ahead from my supervisor at CREA, all I did was write a quick e-mail to the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed India. And just to be sure, I also messaged her and one other person (who was based in BuzzFeed’s New York City office) via Twitter, pitching my idea to do a collaborative post on abortion. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard back from both of them within a day, and also by their very enthusiastic agreement to hearing the pitch.
You might wonder why this was a big deal. Well, prior to BuzzFeed India, I had tried reaching out to some of the more established and big names in media world in India to pitch a story on abortion, however, I was disappointed every time, either by a lukewarm response or absolute silence from their end. So, I couldn’t contain my excitement when BuzzFeed India was at least willing to hear the pitch and consider the idea! However, it is worth a mention that having the backing of an organization, as I did with CREA and I am thankful to them for their support, usually does wonders when trying to reach out to media to pitch a story, given that they are more likely to respond based on the organization’s (or an influential individual’s) body of work and credibility.
Next, a colleague and I spoke with BuzzFeed India over the phone to discuss the pitch and figure out the process of working on a possible BuzzFeed post. I remember the discussion vividly because we all immediately agreed about how important it was to write about abortion and get a conversation going online and among young people about an issue that is integral to affirming our rights, bodily autonomy and choice. [Side note: there were all women who identified as feminists on this call, which perhaps, made it easier for all of us to see the significance of openly talking about this issue]. So, we now had to decide on the key message that we wanted to convey through the post, and agree upon the best possible way to do it. Although I was always very clear that the popular and user-friendly BuzzFeed list format would be a great way to unpack the issue of abortion for the readers, BuzzFeed was initially more interested in having a personal narrative as a starting point for the conversation on abortion. And yes, while this does make absolute sense, given that people are more likely to be interested in reading a human story that they can relate to at some level, one of the biggest challenges for us at the time (and a challenge that still remains) was to get women to openly share their abortion stories and experiences owing to the shame and secrecy that shrouds the issue.
Moreover, given the time constraints we were working within, getting a personal narrative would have taken time since it’s a process that requires trust and patience, and I firmly believe that it is really up to the woman to decide how, when and where she wants her abortion story to be told and shared. Hence, we had to convince the BuzzFeed India team, that while storytelling and sharing was absolutely essential when talking about abortion in the media, it was something that would have to be done at a later point. So, a couple of rounds of discussions later, we instead decided on putting together a post that could really challenge the status quo and the deep stigma that exists around abortion, by employing the popular BuzzFeed list format as a way to enumerate reasons for why India ought to start talking openly about abortion. And voila, that’s how the first BuzzFeed India post on abortion was born! (Yeah, the irony here is not lost on me).
The process of putting together the post was truly collaborative, with research and writing for the content piece put together by a team of 3 people from our end (big shout out to fellow abortion rights activist and inroads member Kristin Francoeur, who also writes on issues of feminism, sexuality and abortion, and fellow abortion rights activist from Delhi and founder of Hidden Pockets, Jasmine Lovely George, both of whom played an integral role in making this BuzzFeed post a reality!). The task of translating this research into the quintessential BuzzFeed style (yes, accompanied by brilliant images credited on the post!) was taken up by the BuzzFeed India team.
I think it is worth mentioning that the images used in the post were decided upon after a lot of consideration, given that imagery conventionally associated with abortion in mainstream media is often very negative that further reinforces stigma around abortion. For instance, an image of a ‘heavily pregnant woman with her head hung in shame’ painted in dark hues of color is a typical image that accompanies most abortion stories in the mainstream media in India. We, therefore, wanted to ensure that images we used for this particular post were able to challenge the shame and stigma that surrounds public discourse on abortion, and thereby propel a positive change in the popular perception about abortion. Hence, images that we used for the post were a collection of sharp, positive, colorful, and rights-affirming pictures that portrayed confident and happy women, thereby conveying an end of the stigmatizing discourse on abortion.
The process of putting together the entire post involved several rounds of review, whether it was regarding the content, the images, or the authorship. Given that our combined aim was to engender a new, non-stigmatized, and rights-based discourse on abortion, we were very particular about the tone of the article, the language that was used, and the images that accompanied the list. It was a relief and very encouraging to see that BuzzFeed India was welcoming of every feedback, open to critique and committed to getting it right.
This process, however, did lead to some delays in execution of the article. For instance, while we thought we could get the article ready in two weeks, the process of editing, curating the images and sometimes a lag in communication took us nearly a month to get the article published. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to have some reasonable amount of time on your hand when working in collaboration in order to account for any unexpected delays. However, despite the delay we were certainly happy to see that BuzzFeedIndia wasn’t in a rush to publish the article just for the sake of it. They were committed to quality journalism, with focus on facts, languages, and images used.
Similarly, we at CREA, had the opportunity to learn and understand how to best tailor content on a contentious and sensitive issue like abortion for the social media, how to make the language simpler and accessible for readers, how to make the content more relatable for the readers while not comprising on our message and objectives. Therefore, it was a mutual learning process, which enabled us to publish something that both involved parties are very proud of. I think having a collaborating partner that is as committed to the same goals and objectives as you is rare to find, so it was certainly a very happy and productive collaboration!
The only thing that, perhaps, we could improve upon further was the dissemination of the article post its publication. Given the big outreach that BuzzFeed India enjoys (and one of the reasons for collaborating with them on this issue), I wasn’t entirely happy with their social media outreach for this article. Although the article was published on Facebook, the outreach on Twitter could have been better. Moreover, higher frequency of sharing the posts on various social media channels could have helped as well. We also used our own social networks to push out the article, and while the article was appreciated and received a fairly good response overall, it did not garner the sort of reach that other BuzzFeed India posts usually receive. Given that this article was relatively serious, and did not have funny GIFS or memes that are generally a common feature of most BuzzFeed articles, this could, perhaps, be a reason for its slightly diffused reception on social media.
However, I would like to conclude on an optimistic note by saying that the collaboration with BuzzFeed India was a success for me, personally, given that we were able to partner with a very popular online media organization and publish an article on something as taboo and stigmatized as the issue of abortion. More importantly, we were able to do it right, by affirming our understanding of abortion as a matter of rights, equality, choice, bodily autonomy and integrity for all people, regardless of what the dominant media narrative might tell us. This collaboration, therefore, will always remain very special for me, and will serve as an inspiration to keep marching ahead in our collective endeavour to end abortion stigma wherever it exists, by not only using, but also devising, new, bold, and innovative mediums that challenge and overturn the dominant patriarchal narratives on abortion, and instead rightfully reframe abortion as an issue of rights and social justice.