Film Ban Reignites Discussion of Women’s Rights in India

Erin Snyder, Goucher College:

On March 8th, the world celebrated International Women’s Day in a myriad of ways – marches, protests, Twitter campaigns (check out the #NotThere initiative), and Facebook posts. Around the world the global community engaged in conversation about women’s rights – both how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. In India, a film slated to premiere on International Women’s Day and contribute to that discussion was swiftly shutdown. India’s Daughter, a documentary produced for the BBC by Leslee Udwin, chronicles the infamous 2012 New Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh through interviews with the victim’s family, relatives of the rapists, lawyers, government officials, and (most controversially) one of the accused rapists who is currently on death row. Made as “a work of passion, a labor of love, because I [Udwin] care greatly about this issue and I want to move the debate and the conversation forward,”[1] the Indian government issued a ban on the film. Justifications for the ban range from understandable – the accused rapists are appealing the case, so the film could sway judges and compromise a fair trial – to the ridiculous – some government officials are concerned the film will negatively affect tourism. Concerned that the rapists’ statements portray India in too negative a light, the country’s parliamentary affairs commissioner, M Venkaiah Naidu, even called the film an “international conspiracy to defame India.”[2]

The Indian public’s response to film has been mixed. Some feminist organizations take issue with the film’s title; “daughter” perpetuates the notion that women in India are simply mothers, daughters, and wives – their worth defined by roles, rather than by them simply being women, being human.[3] Others worry the film glorifies the rapists or will incite more violence against women. On the other hand, many – especially India’s youth – are calling for the film’s release. One of the largest news channels in the country, NDTV, left their screen blank during the Sunday timeslot the film was supposed to fill in protest of the government’s decision. On March 13th, activist Ketan Dixit hosted a screening of the prohibited film in the Ravidas Camp (where the convicted rapists lived). Although the police issued him an FIR (a document that indicates a criminal investigation will begin), Dixit said “it’s very important for the people, especially women, to see the film as it clearly shows the mentality of many amongst us.”[4] Despite the contesting opinions within India, the government’s ban does not extend past the subcontinent’s borders, which has enabled the film to be put on YouTube for any who are interested to see.

I first heard of the New Delhi rape case when it made headlines in 2012, but did not fully understand the implications of this incident until I read Simon Denyer’s Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy a few months ago. His book featured a chapter about the New Delhi case and its consequences. Although there is a high frequency of rape in India, one perpetrated nearly every twenty minutes, this especially gruesome case received unprecedented national and international attention. India rallied around the then-nameless victim, who at the time they called either J or Nirbhaya (meaning “fearless”), and called for long-overdue government reform. As one woman put it, “the government is completely disconnected with the reality of the twenty-first century urban India.”[5] In 2012, New Delhi police responded to the mobs of political protestors with excessive violence (tear gas, water hoses, batons), which did not help the government’s image or relationship with the public. In an attempt to lessen that disparity, the government commissioned the Verma Committee to examine the country’s existing structure to protect women. The committee found the current system of governance severely inadequate – “police, politicians, and even the army were castigated for being incompetent, apathetic, and even criminal in their disregard for women.”[5] The government responded quickly to the Verma Committee’s report, issuing an emergency ordinance within a month of the report’s publishing. The ordinance the government issued (and signed into law during Parliament’s next session) did not address all systemic problems the report identified, but it was one of the most substantial changes to India’s laws to protect women in decades. As frustrating as the slow pace of social change and legislative reform can be, it is important to acknowledge these moments of success that will (hopefully) lead to more extensive government restructuring in the future.

This summer I will be traveling to India to work with an NGO and study abroad. I will be there for about six months, and will be traveling alone for portions of my trip, so women’s rights and safety have been on my radar. Thus, for both personal and political interest in the issue, I sat down to watch India’s Daughter this week. The documentary was, as I’m sure Udwin intended, deeply unsettling. I found myself cringing throughout the film. Hearing the man who found Jyoti Singh’s body recount that she “looked like a cow looks after giving birth to a calf,”[6] turned my stomach. Watching the faces of Jyoti’s parents crumble as they searched for words to adequately describe the sheer anguish of losing their only child, whom they loved and supported, broke my heart. Listening to one of the rapists on death row, Mukesh Singh (no relation to the victim), defend his actions infuriated me. Just six minutes into the film Mukesh says, “a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” For good measure, he elaborates: “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night . . . Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.”[6] Although I cannot speak to how people, especially women, in India would react if the film were made public, I can speak to my experience watching the film as an American woman.

Despite the Indian government’s fear of the film besmirching India’s image, watching the documentary did not make me more anxious about traveling to the country alone or feel any less respect toward the country I will call home for six months. The sexist comments made by Mukesh and his lawyers did not surprise me. They upset me, yes, but what else could I expect a convicted rapist and his defenders to say? To expect a renunciation of his actions and recognition of women’s rights as human rights from a man – who unflinchingly drove a bus as six of his friends took Jyoti to the back, gang raped her, and disemboweled her using metal rod – would be utterly unrealistic. Additionally, the comments did not shock me because many male politicians in the United States have made similarly appalling, sexist comments for years. In 1990, a Texas gubernatorial candidate said, “Rape is kinda like the weather. If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” Five years later, Lawrence Lockman, a representative from Maine proposed that “If a woman has [the right to an abortion], why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman? At least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom doesn’t [in most cases] result in anyone’s death.”[7] It took Lockman almost two decades to issue an apology for that statement. Better late than never, right? To put it gently, some government officials are completely clueless. In 2012, Senate candidate Todd Adkin made headlines for claiming that, if a rape is “legitimate,” pregnancy rarely occurs because the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”[8] It appears that victim blaming, ignorance, and sexism are not confined to India.

My experience watching the film was not purely negative. As the misogynist comments disturbed me, the images of thousands of young men and women gathered in the streets of New Delhi calling for justice and reformation gave me hope. As Murkesh’s lawyers defended his actions made me question the legal system, the judges on the Verma Committee proved that legislative change is possible and is, slowly but surely, on its way. The activists in the streets, the 80,000 people that submitted suggestions to the Verma Committee, and the pro-women statements made by those in the film attest to the fact that India is ready to address this issue. Of course, this film is not a solution to the problem. Much more work needs to be done to dismantle the “entrenched patriarchal society” that too often feels “deeply threatened by social change and modernization and by the slightest hint of women’s emancipation.”[5] It seems that banning India’s Daughter will only stifle a discussion that needs to happen. The film did not make me disappointed in India; what has disheartened me most is the government’s reaction to the film. India wants to prove to the world that it is not defined by the stereotypical, sexist opinions expressed by those in the documentary. The best way to do this might just be to embrace its flaws and engage in the conversation that women and men in India, and around the world, are eager to have.

 

Sources:

[1] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/india-ban-documentary-deadly-gang-rape/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/04/indias-daughter-director-appeals-to-narendra-modi-over-broadcast-ban

[3] http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2015/03/10/392111392/an-anti-rape-activist-is-disturbed-by-indias-daughter

[4] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Activist-booked-for-screening-banned-BBC-documentary-in-Delhi/articleshow/46559893.cms

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-31865477

[5] Denyer, Simon. Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2014.

[6] Udwin, Leslee, dir. India’s Daughter. Berta Film, 2014. Film.

[7] http://www.addictinginfo.org/2013/07/16/the-party-of-rape-culture-40-republican-rape-quotes-everyone-should-remember/

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/us/politics/rep-todd-akin-legitimate-rape-statement-and-reaction.html

 

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