nirbhaya

India’s Daughter

A BBC documentary (embedded below) that exposes the common mindsets in India that are very much responsible for the country’s rape culture has been banned in India. It showcases the 2012 Delhi rape of Jyoti Singh a.k.a. Nirbhaya through interviews with one of the rapists, two defense lawyers, the doctor, individual socio-cultural and judicial experts, activists, and various family members.

Elected leaders, conservatives and even liberal feminists have decried it on several grounds as follows (in no particular order):

— It shows India in a bad light and creates tourism problems (one senior political leader, Venkaiah Naidu, even described it in Parliament as an international conspiracy to defame India — mind you, he wasn’t talking about the rape itself but the act of presenting the rapists’ views on film).

— It gives the rapists a platform and makes them celebrities.

— It interferes with the judicial process as the final appeals are still pending in the Indian Supreme Court (which, by the way, has not had a single hearing in over a year).

— It is illegal as the appropriate permissions were not given and/or directions not followed by the filmmaker.

— It is not representative of Indian society at large and, therefore, misleading.

— Justification/glorification of rape will only encourage more rape crimes.

— Putting a single face or a handful of faces to India’s rape culture allows others who think and act this way to disassociate themselves from being a part of the problem.

— It focuses on the rapist rather than the victim or even those who fight for such victims/survivors.

— This film insults Nirbhaya’s memory (I’m not clear on how exactly this argument stands).

— (and the silliest reason yet) This film is an example of the “white savior” phenomenon because it took a Western/white woman to come to India and make a documentary to show us how awful we are.

Some of this was voiced rather vehemently in the Indian Parliament yesterday even before anyone had actually watched the documentary. Some was cogently expressed across news media, blogs and open letters.

The upshot is that Indian politicians, thought leaders, journalists, activists and citizens are all deeply divided. And, the government has expressed “personal hurt / outrage” and taken swift action: Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, has, overnight, mobilized resources across the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Law & Justice to stop anyone from viewing this documentary, both in India and abroad.

Those for the documentary say that:

— It highlights reality and should be compulsory viewing so that those of us who might think like these rapists will, perhaps, change our mindsets.

— It should be leveraged to drive constructive actions like completion of the judicial process so that Nirbhaya and her parents finally get justice and a clear message is sent to other such criminals.

— It helps us understand that it isn’t the odd aberrant individual but an entire mindset prevalent across all levels of society that is causing gender inequality and violence in India. And, this includes our esteemed political leaders.

— Justice delayed is justice denied. Telling this story again is important to highlight that our judicial system needs to be overhauled.

— India’s infamy has already occurred because of the rape culture that continues to live on, supported by a judicial system that is absolutely broken; a documentary isn’t going to make matters worse. Consider that even after being convicted and sentenced, a rapist is unapologetic about his crime and even blames his victim. Much worse, his defense lawyers use even stronger language to describe what will happen to women who do not know their place in society.

— Ignoring the real problems won’t make them go away so let’s confront them and deal with them, using this documentary to springboard the right kinds of debates and discussions.

— It is an insult to Nirbhaya that her rapists have not been punished yet.

— Those worried about white saviors need to be more worried about their personal colonial hangovers.

It is understandable how such a hot button area in the country can get so many arguments and responses, all splintered across various political and social interests. And, it is also good that we are having so many debates and discussions with various angles and perspectives across the country and beyond. But, what galls the most is that a good number of such passionate individuals have hijacked the conversations to impose on the rest of us their views on what is appropriate for us to watch and discuss.

The legal aspects are troublesome, there’s no getting around that. I’m no lawyer, so I cannot say whether Leslee Udwin, the filmmaker, followed necessary procedure to the letter. She has appeared in various news media — TV, online and print — to explain, clarify and respond to allegations. She has provided evidence that she followed due process as required by the officials who granted her the necessary permissions. Those who have accused her of bypassing legal processes have yet to refute all of this. Yet, on her lawyers’ advice, she had to fly out of the country last night so that she would not be arrested herself.

The BBC moved their broadcast date forward and showed the film in the UK last night rather than waiting till International Women’s Day (March 8th). Good for them.

The entire one-hour documentary, as aired on the BBC, is available on Youtube, though, it may be removed at any time by the Indian Government — at least for people in India. [UPDATE: It was removed within 12 hours of being uploaded.]

Having watched it, I am not shocked in the slightest. It is much tamer than I’d been expecting, given the media hype and public outcry. But, let me add that I don’t think it is a particularly well-made or balanced portrayal of India’s rape crisis. For one, it does not give much of a voice to rape survivors or activists who have contributed much, particularly since the 2012 rape that this film highlights. And, unfortunately, for those who do not know India well, a film giving rapists and their lawyers so much airtime just reinforces their prejudices against the country. [UPDATE: Here’s an example that came to light shortly after the film came out: a German Professor rejected an Indian student’s application due to “India’s rape problem”.]

And, yet. The so-called rape justifications and misogynistic beliefs of these vile men are commonplace and widespread and most Indian women have heard them all growing up — including from our own family members, upstanding and decent citizens in our social circles and our elected leaders. Respectable girls/women don’t dress a certain way; they don’t go out late; they don’t socialize with the opposite gender; their place is within the home, looking after family matters; if a man misbehaved with a woman, she must have done something to incite him; and so on. And, if they deviate from these social norms, then “they deserve what’s coming to them” or “they need to be put in their place and taught a lesson”. Dressing these ideas up by referring to women as “flowers” or “diamonds” or “food” (as one of the defense lawyers did) does not make them any less pernicious.

There are a couple of important things to keep in mind about rape. First, it is never really about sexual pleasure. It is about an assertion of male power, authority and superiority. The talk of the men in this film reinforces this patriarchal mindset clearly. And, second, rape is, ALWAYS, a pre-meditated crime, and, therefore, highly indefensible unlike, say, killing a person sometimes can be. A rapist has to choose his victim, lure her, immobilize her, rape her and, then, figure out what to do with her when after the deed. There are several cognitive processes involved in the act of rape. So, there can never be ANY justification of rape. Once it has been reported and proved, there should be no possible reason for delaying justice. There is no reason why we cannot throw the book at rapists and deal with them in an expedient manner, judicially speaking.

And, finally, educating and empowering women is not the sole answer. Jyoti Singh was an educated woman: a physiotherapist-in-training. Still, she could not prevent what happened to her. Yes, an educated woman is more likely to raise men who respect other women. But, why must the onus be, again, on women? Fathers are also responsible for raising sons — after all, they are the earliest role models before their boys. And, it is these fathers who need to change how they behave towards their own mothers, wives, children, female coworkers and other women with whom have day-to-day dealings. It is the patriarchy, India’s Fathers, that needs to change. Consider, again, that the two defense lawyers in the film, with their misogynistic opinions, are among that educated patriarchy of this country.

Banning a documentary to curb discussions about India’s rape culture is sending exactly the wrong message from the political leadership of this country. It will make rape victims even more afraid of standing up and reporting crimes, while rape perpetrators will continue to believe that they enjoy impunity.

So, a step in the right direction by all these male politicians, lawmakers and law enforcers is to lift their silly ban and let the public make up our own minds. Yes, we can do that by ourselves. That is true education and empowerment.

Let’s be ashamed of India’s widely-accepted rape culture, not of a documentary that showcases it to a world that already knows.

For a decent review of the documentary, try this one by Sonia Faleiro.  [UPDATE: Excellent Granta interview of Leslee Edwin by Sonia Faleiro]

UPDATE: Of course, the documentary has now been banned in India. So, instead, you can watch this 2013 interview that shows one of the defense lawyers, M L Sharma, in an interview with Newslaundry’s Abhinandan Sekhri where the former talks earnestly about the four steps to rape and how consent comes before the act of rape. Further, Sharma explains, in all seriousness, how the rapist is not able to achieve penetration without prior excitement, which can only come from immediate external circumstances, particularly, the woman-to-be-raped. Sekhri’s expressions are a study in well-exerted patience, though, at times, it’s hard to tell whether he’s trying to hold himself back from jumping across and grabbing Sharma’s throat or from laughing out loud at him. There are also the usual things about a woman’s place and how the man’s job is to protect her, yada-yada-yada.

If anything, this interview, which represents the viewpoint of many Indian men and women, both educated and uneducated, tells us exactly why a repressed, patriarchal culture will continue to propagate crimes against women. In a country where, today, even degree-qualified, married people find it hard to discuss rape in mixed company, how will they possibly educate their own children to be better citizens and human beings? So, mindsets like this one will continue to flourish, surely.

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