Late 1980s. In Rajkot, Gujarat, one early summer evening, around 4:00 p.m., I arrive at a friend’s house to find her in a distraught state, shaking and crying, while her family seemed to be angry at her. After some scramble, I figured that she had been to a friend’s house near-by. Walking back home in the high summer heat of 40 degrees, she decided to take a short cut along a somewhat deserted street. On the street, a flasher passed by on a bicycle. Aghast, scared and confused, she ran home and told her family about him. Her family’s reaction was to reprimand her for being lazy and taking a shorter route.
This incident is one among many that I witnessed when I lived in India almost two decades back. The risk of unwanted touch, cat calls, being followed by strangers, are a daily reality, and all are considered minor offences that should be just shrugged off. Indian women are taught and learn to ‘ignore’ these daily ‘minor’ abuses.
At the time that I am writing this, in the first week of March, the world is debating the legitimacy of the Indian government’s decision to ban a film. Activists, scholars, and the public at large in India are divided on the matter. On the one hand, there are those who argue that a convicted rapist should not be given a platform, and on the other hand, others say banning a film is not an answer to dealing with the issue of sexual violence. And, of course, there is the frustrating reality that media attention has turned away from women’s issues—as it so often does—to re-focus discussion on the threat this film poses to India’s international reputation.
India’s Daughter: The Story of Jyoti Singh, a documentary film made by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, is at the centre of this controversy. The film, originally planned to be aired on BBC, as part of its International Women’s Day telecast, was shown ahead of schedule on March 4th. Earlier the Indian government decided to ban the film claiming the filmmaker breached the terms of contract. Subsequently, the film was released by the BBC on the networks and on YouTube to audiences the world over. Ministers from Prime Minister Modi’s government have suggested that the film is an ‘International conspiracy to defame India’ on a global platform.
The film covers the story of Jyoti Singh, a 23 year old medical student in Delhi, who was gang raped and brutally beaten in a bus in motion in December 2012. Her male friend was beaten too. After the harrowing turmoil, both were thrown out of the bus, and left to die. Jyoti, named Nirbhaya (fearless) by the Indian media so as not to reveal her identity, died in a hospital in Singapore, where the Indian government had sent her for treatment, after the case sparked widespread demonstrations across the country.
In the documentary, director Udwin interviews one of the six perpetrators, his parents, parents of Jyoti, and the defense lawyers, among others. The lack of remorse that Mukesh Singh, one of the perpetrators shows, and the highly controversial, ignorant and sexist comments that the two lawyers make, have left the world shocked and angry. The rapist Mukesh argues that ‘a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,’ that the girl would have not been killed if ‘she hadn’t fought back.’ He claims that he, and other culprits, should not be given capital punishment, as it will only encourage other potential rapists to kill the victim, so that no proof of crime remains (capital punishment should not be a legal option in any civilized society; nonetheless, debate about capital punishment is beyond the scope of this article). One of the defense lawyers claims that there is no place for women in Indian culture, and the other lawyer says that he wouldn’t hesitate to burn his daughter alive if she went out late in the evening, or was seen with a male friend.
The film contains footage of the demonstrations that ensued after Jyoti’s case became publicly known. For the first time in India’s history, youth across the country demonstrated for over a month demanding an end to gender discrimination. Young women carrying posters announcing ‘enough is enough’ marched the streets. Police action in response was brutal and repressive. Women were stopped from participating in the demonstrations, and batons, water cannons, and tear gas were used by the police to disperse protesting people.
In a country where sexual assaults against women are so common that a woman is raped every twenty minutes, women’s safety is an issue that needs open discussions. Modi government’s suggestion that there is some kind of a conspiracy on the part of the director, is not only naïve but self-defeating. If anything, India needs to face the crisis of gender inequality head-on, rather than throwing it under the rug. Of course, it is important that international audiences not simply scapegoat India, turning its rape culture simply into another spectacle of India’s patriarchal oppression of women, like the media has so often done; instead the international community must realize that this film reflects what is going on around the world. Quite simply, filming this documentary in India was possible for a complex host of reasons, not least of which was the filmmaker’s ability to access prisoners in a maximum security prison. The film has its drawbacks too; for example, Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association, also interviewed in the film, has opposed the airing of the film given the possibility of the film influencing the legal outcome of the case, and questions the title of the film, arguing that projecting a woman as a nation’s daughter is problematic.
The film forces one to ask questions: when is India going to deal with its misogynist culture? When will the so-called upholders of morality be reminded that a woman is not responsible for rape, irrespective of her being rich or poor, educated or uneducated, dressed in a sari or a mini-skirt, standing in a bus queue or sitting in a bar, out in the morning or at night? When will the government take the initiative to curb rape culture in India? In fact, the current government might be doing the opposite. While all this uproar is in the air, as per a recent report in The Independent, India’s current government shelved the previous government’s plan to open 660 rape crisis centres; the ruling BJP government has absolute faith in the Indian police, and does not see the need for such centres. One is, of course, asked to turn eyes away from the fact that many rapes in India occur in police stations, or at times, a rape victim is subjected to further assaults and abuses at the police station where she tries to lodge a complaint.
When I speak with my female friends in India about the issue of daily harassments on the street that women in India face, they tell me that there is not a woman in India who has not felt intimidated, in one way or the other, when she steps out of the house – from eve teasing to brutal sex assault and everything in between – nothing is off the table. It is difficult to understand how in a country where powerful goddesses such as Durga, Kali, Saraswati, and Lakshmi are worshipped, where the country has had female Prime Ministers and Presidents, and women work as judges and doctors, like Jyoti herself planned to do, rape culture proliferates. Various theories have been proposed to understanding the epidemic of assaults on women; from old Hindu cultural values, to the introduction of Islam and Christianity in the region, to colonization, to Bollywood, many factors have been held responsible for women’s second-class status in India.
And yet, while the content of the film is specific to India, the context is not. Rape culture is a reality across the globe. The film raises questions relevant to global socio-cultural and legal contexts as well. Whether it is Boko Haram kidnapping more than 200 Nigerian girls, or the high number of sexual assaults on college and university campuses in the US, or the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, the reality that misogyny and patriarchy have ramifications in cultures around the world needs to be confronted. There is no country in the world where women are free of the risks of sexual violence. As Jyoti’s mother says in the film, perhaps Jyoti’s case will help throw more ‘light’ (Jyoti means light) on these issues. Perhaps someday women will be able to walk through deserted alleys without worrying about their safety. Perhaps!