~ Rekha Datta
March 8, 2015
Earlier this week, marooned at home due to a blizzard, after having completed my tasks for the day, I brought myself to watching the much debated newly released BBC documentary by Leslee Udwin, titled, ‘India’s Daughter.’ The film revisits the brutal gang rape of a 23-year old medical student on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012. It also contains an interview with one of the accused, the driver of the bus, Mukesh Singh, who is on death row.
The film, scheduled for launch in India and a few other countries on International Women’s Day, March 8, has been banned by a court in India, and has raised a furor of debates in parliament, among activists, on social media, and among the public in general. Various uploads of the film on You Tube have also been pulled down from time to time over the past few days.
I watched the film with apt hesitation and braced myself for difficult details and footage surrounding the incident. What follows is my attempt to process some of the narratives and issues surrounding the film’s depiction of the gruesome tragedy. I begin with some of the questions that emerged in the context of the film. Alongside, I attempt to offer some alternatives that can emerge from this film, the debates surrounding it, and what we can learn from the documentary.
Above all, in analyzing the film and the incident behind it, the intent here is not to disrespect the heroic victim, Jyoti Singh and her family, and all those who are tirelessly working in India to bring positive change to make women’s lives better. In fact, like the film, this reflection is a tribute in gratitude and hope that it will bring much needed social and cultural change to take the country and humanity forward with gender equality.
Apparently, even though Udwin had secured permission to interview Singh, there are some issues surrounding the extent and nature of it. Some official spokespersons and parliamentarians are showing outrage at the fact that the permission was given in the first place. Others are claiming that the terms were violated. Even as these details are debated, some questions abound, and certain facts remain, whether or not within the purview of the permission.
Especially given India’s proud and rich democratic tradition, banning the film will not serve any of the powerful changes that it can bring to society.
Glorifying a convicted rapist?
As already mentioned, the film provided one of the accused, Mukesh Singh, currently on death row, a platform. Interspersed within the narratives of the protagonists, the film does portray Mukesh Singh, who recalls the incident, and shows no remorse. During the course of his interview, he is dismissive and boastful. It is unsettling to watch his demeanor and process his views. At one point he even says that if Jyoti Singh had not resisted, they would ‘let her go’ after they were done raping her!
If anything, it is difficult to agree that the film has put criminals on a pedestal. If anything, I doubt that after watching it, anyone would have any sympathy for the offenders.
If there is anyone who the film glorifies, it is Jyoti Singh’s parents, and Jyoti herself. Through the voice of her tutor, whose quiet demeanor and narration of the kindhearted individual that Jyoti was, the film brings us closer to someone whose death has been more familiar to us than her life. The film cherishes her life, her dreams. The interview with her parents shows the nobility and generosity of their hearts in raising their daughter, selling their plot of land so that Jyoti can pursue her education and dreams of becoming a medical doctor. Sure, they are seeking justice; sure, they are hurting. But the film allowed me, as a mother, to weep with Jyoti’s mother. Her words of comfort for her daughter, as she lay in the hospital fighting for her life, “everything will be all right,” is a universal language of a mother to their children when they are hurting. The film offered me the opportunity to share her pain at a human level. It brought me closer to her.
In 2012, a study by Trust Law portrays India as one of the worst countries for women. Some sources have dubbed Delhi as the rape capital of India.
Behind such dubious distinctions is the overall state of violence against women (VAW). And India is by no means the sole proprietor of VAW. But surely India is not bereft of it.
Most certainly, violence against women is not unique to India. The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, 1 in 3 women face violence in their lifetime. According to recent data published by the United Nations, 35% of women around the world have experienced sexual violence. The National Crime Records Bureau in India states that a crime against a woman is committed every 3 minutes. A woman is raped every 29 minutes. UN Women estimates that up to 50% of women in European countries face some form of sexual harassment at work. 20% of women in Nairobi have faced sexual harassment in school or at work. In the United States, 83% of girls between 12 and 16 have faced some type of sexual harassment in public schools. [i] Other estimates from the UN show that “more than 133 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East.” [ii] This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the numbers and extent of gender based violence women face. So, there is no ground to suggest or argue that India is portrayed in negative light when it comes to VAW through this one documentary. It is a problem in India; it is a problem worldwide.
In fact, while watching the film, through the pain of the family, I felt that it actually commends India and its democracy. It shows the empathy of the Indian populace, the passion in the hearts of women and men who spontaneously and courageously took to the streets protest, to seek justice. It shows a concerted effort by individuals from all strata of society, activists, feminist groups, media and NGOs demanding government action. It shows a democratic culture at its best, and, perhaps one of the crowing moments of channeling action against VAW as a public dialog and policy priority and change. One only hopes that the ‘Arab Spring’ of a people’s actions forcing policy change to address VAW does not lose its momentum in India, and becomes a path to follow elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, Mukesh Singh’s statements strike a deep chord about the cultural argument. In fact, he, as well as the defense lawyers appear to defend the stereotypical patriarchal perspectives that a woman’s place is in the home, she should not have been out at 9 p.m., not without a male relative; a sentiment often echoed by many in India and worldwide – “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”
Some are worried that Singh’s remarks will serve as a catalyst to encouraging nascent perpetrators – it is okay to ‘teach a woman a lesson,’ if they detract from their traditional roles! One of the most shocking statements was from the defense lawyer, AP Singh, who said that if his sister or daughter “disgraced herself” by being seen with a man, he would set her ablaze alive. Such misogyny is there, the film will not bring it about, it merely brought it to the fore.
To be sure, these are deeply disturbing statements and views, but they are hardly untrue. By underscoring these perspectives, the film has raised our consciousness of the need to work on these perceptions. Not facing them is not going to make them go away.
How to change this culture - through policies, through dialog, through the home, where much of domestic violence occurs, through the media, and through education – that is the national and international conversation that the film encourages us to engage in.
The feminist literature, organizations, activists, and individuals have long argued that ‘power’ relations lay at the root of the prevalence of a cultural perception of overpowering women through force and other means. Gender equality and removal of discrimination, prompted by such and other realizations have helped put laws and policies in place at national and international levels. The will to implement and enforce them remains a challenge, albeit. Cultural change goes deeper than policies and laws. But the latter do have a role in addressing cultural practices as well. It does not happen overnight; it takes time.
One of the questions that surfaced as I watched the film is the juxtaposition of the new India with the traditional role expectations of women. The film made references to women’s roles in a new India and traditional India. Here are some excerpts: “A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night…. Boys and girls are not equal…Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes….”
It is legitimate for many to be outraged by such statements. But let us ask ourselves the question – regardless of the source and context, do they ring true? Is there a cultural perception that boys and girls are not equal? Are women blamed for what they choose to wear? Are women expected to conform to traditional roles set by generations of men?
Behind these questions are also some other cultural aspects that India (and the world at large) needs to address. As women get more educated, and work outside their traditional patriarchy defined socially constructed roles, alongside have we also enlightened boys and men to adapt? The film is inspiring us to address such questions. Empowering women does not have to mean men are disempowered. Perhaps we need to become more intentional in imparting that message. Feminists have struggled for equality, to keep both genders equal, not to further more discrimination. We do not need to shoot the messenger.
At another layer, the film also hinted at India’s development disparities and class differentials that are intersecting with gender issues. When it depicted the background of some of the perpetrators, the reference to their economic hardships did not go unnoticed. Was there a subtext there? Do women who are successful in the new economy of India’s rise become more of a target of male hatred, especially from those in society who feel economically marginalized?
If there were an aspect of the film that made me think of doing something differently, I would perhaps look at the film’s title. It seems ‘India’s Daughter’ feeds right into the conflicting images of women and girls that the Indian culture nourishes, and confuses.
Roles such as ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ evoke emotional connections, and also introduce the element of a ‘power relation.’ For instance, a man can be devoted to his mother, but is responsible to protect and provide for his wife and daughter. The latter implies control, power, and often lead to the right to ‘overpower.’ Along with objectifying women that is prevalent through the media, films, and other forms, and a sense of machismo, these deep-seated sociological elements often lead to VAW.
Following the train of thought in the earlier sections, perhaps it is time that women’s rights and women’s place in society are determined as individual rights. The conversation should begin on looking at a woman as an individual. Constitutions around the world offer fundamental ‘individual’ rights. Twenty years ago, the Beijing Women's Conference introduced the call for treating women’s rights as human rights. That campaign has achieved much progress in bringing legislation to bring perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and peacetime to court. States are also required to take VAW more seriously if they are seen as violating human rights. In a similar vein, we need to campaign for the right of girls and women to be educated as a fundamental individual right, and not one based on their gender.
‘India’s Daughter’ evokes an emotional connection, we need to also strengthen a powerful connection, that of an individual’s right to their own body, to their right to movement and assemble, to be educated to become a doctor (if she or he so chooses) – rights which are constitutionally guaranteed to every person! Perhaps this notion will also help us understand, and decouple worship of the female form through images of goddesses and misogyny.
Exploiting a tragedy, and the victim(s), could be, and remain problematic.
Interference from the outside is also often at issue in such instances. Since this particular tragedy, the Government of India has undertaken some strong legislative and other measures to combat VAW. The perpetrators have been brought to justice in record time. These have been the outcomes of domestic pressure and actions.
Yes, we have to be respectful about cultures, and be deferential to community-based solutions. Community-based solutions are often the most effective. Women of the communities can be and are, the agency. We should refrain from meddling from the outside, and above all, avoid patronizing.
As an expatriate writing about an event that occurred in India, it has crossed my mind whether I have any authority to express my reflections on the issue. But contextualizing it helped me process such feelings.
For many of the reasons and facts outlined above, I see VAW as a cultural, as well as global phenomenon. Cultural practices are to be honored, but a patriarchy-defined system that justifies physically harm girls, or keep women silent cannot but be detrimental to the body politic, and geography knows no boundaries in this respect.
We live in an interdependent world. If we are ready to reap the economic benefits of globalization, we cannot at the same time want to make culture impervious. If the world inspires us to think about women’s rights as human rights, and women in our respective countries, communities, and families can live lives without fear as a result, that is neither cultural imperialism nor patronizing! And, when Leslee Udwin has made this film, as a rape survivor herself, she might actually know what it feels like, more than just being from India, to be able to tell the story. Rape knows no nationality!
So, on this day, as we celebrate the 2015 International Women’s Day, we can certainly raise a global voice and rise above "narrow domestic walls." As Tagore had put it about a century ago, “nohi devi, nohi samanya nari/ pujakori morey rakhibe urddhe, se nohi, nohi/ hela korimore rakhibe piche, se nohi nohi/jadi parshe rakho more, sankate sampade/ Sammati dao jadi kothin brate sahay hote, pabe tumi chinite more” – "I am not a goddess, not an ordinary woman. I am not one to be worshipped. I am not to be ignored and kept behind. If you keep me beside you, seek my assistance, in hardship and in struggle, … then you will get to know me."