The BBC Documentary film India’s Daughter purports to shed light on India’s rape culture and sets itself up as an ‘event’ that will launch ‘global action’ against sexual violence. How this is to happen, other than through media hype that accompanies celebrity studded spectacles, has not yet been explained by its film-maker, Leslie Udwin.
In a knee-jerk reaction, the government of India has banned the film. Also emerging are patterns of TV channels competing for ratings, possible corruption, and conflicting political agendas. One of the most urgent concerns, dismissed in most Western media, is that the appeals for the rapists are still sub-judice and the documentary has possibly jeopardised the judicial process. While outraged mobs may well be baying for blood, a vitiated appeals process serves no citizen or country well.
But there are other disturbing aspects, such as exploitative editing that – in one particularly disturbing moment – overlays a rapist’s statement about throwing the victim’s intestines out of a moving bus, with a close up of her mother with a tear running down her cheek. The documentary identifies and includes footage of a minor, who is a convicted rapist’s son. In addition to the ethics of filming a minor, given the high emotions surrounding this incident, this surely endangers the child’s safety.
That India – like everywhere else in the world – has an entrenched rape culture cannot be denied. That India’s rape culture is also deeply linked to cultural notions of honour and shame is also undisputable. But it would be foolish to believe that social, economic and political factors have no role in sexual violence.[i] It is telling that the Modi government recently slashed a proposal by the Women and Child Development minister for 660 rape crisis centres throughout the country to 36; the budget for the ministry was also cut by 55 percent.
A recent study shows that participation of Indian women in the country’s workforce remains the lowest amongst the BRICS, and is declining by some measures. In part, this is because most of India’s women work in the agricultural sector, which is undergoing a vast and rapid transformation.[ii] At the same time, the emerging picture is complicated by the improved access for education, although this has yet to reach critical mass in terms of drastically affecting economic and social structures. But given a young population, with fifty percent of the country under 25 years of age, it seems obvious that a tipping point will be reached in the foreseeable medium term.
Udwin’s documentary chooses to frame rape in India as ‘stranger danger,’ positioning the victim, Jyoti Singh [iii] as aspirational, educated, ‘well-behaved’; constructing a ‘perfect’ victim. Yet the government’s own statistics reveal that most rapists are known to survivors, a fact familiar to sexual violence experts across the world; neither does India criminalise marital rape, an issue that remains at the top of the country’s feminist agenda. The film also glides over a glib reference to ‘fun’ on GB Road– an area of Delhi frequented by low income sex workers – thus ignoring possible survivors of sexual violence by the same perpetrators who don’t fit the film’s sympathetic ‘good girl’ stereotype.
Despite Udwin’s editorial choices that in effect silence Jyoti Singh, a fighting, resisting woman emerges, not from the film but despite it. The documentary never questions the rapist when he claims that his victim was killed because of her resistance. We, the audience, are prompted to feel horror, outrage and sorrow. Yet in his own recounting, and that of others, a ‘warrior woman’ emerges who not only fought her attackers, even to death, but survived long after she was expected to, and long enough to ensure her attackers were caught, and a government shaken to its core.
That story of resistance – by Jyoti Singh on that night, and by many, many Indians, men, women, activists, citizens, and survivors – remains untold by the documentary and ignored by most Western media, although it is a narrative told repeatedly by Indians ourselves. For example, many non-Indian commentators – in and outside the documentary – appear unaware of the 1972 Mathura rape case and the subsequent agitation that led to amendments in rape laws. The domestic violence bill, the long march to the new rape law (fast tracked after the incident), including repeal of the two-finger test, and continuing protests against Section 377 are some results of direct, mass, and political action, and resistance to entrenched patriarchy.
The documentary pays lip service to the protests that erupted after the attack but mostly ignores the women who led the demonstrations in cities, towns and villages. In January 2013, I stumbled upon a demonstration in a tiny north Indian town, formed entirely of teenagers, most still in school uniforms. One young woman carried a homemade placard with the words ‘Shaheed Nirbhaya Amar Rahein.’[iv] She looked determined, terrified, and didn’t want to be photographed. Yet, the placard and her manner spoke of a quiet revolution, beyond the media eye and politico-economic agendas.
If we really care to understand India’s rape culture or want to change it, we must focus not on stories of rapists and victim blaming that allows us facile outrage. We need to give attention to stories like those of the young protesters, and the country’s women revolutionaries, even of the quietest kinds, who continue to find ways to be fearless.
[i] There is little that is ‘cultural’ as culture is neither immutable nor eternal but constantly evolving. To talk of rape and violence against women as rooted in ‘culture’ is to ignore structural factors, and to fall fatalistically into Orientalist tropes of an ‘eternal, unchanging’ India.
[ii] The urban workforce participation has stayed the same in percentage terms in the same period.
[iii] Although Indian law prevents a rape victim being named, her parents have placed the name in the public domain. I also feel it important to name, honour and remember her rather than her torturers and murderers.
[iv] Given legal constraints, the Indian press widely used Nirbhaya (fearless). Loosely translated, the placard read ‘Martyr Nirbhaya Shall Live Forever.’
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Sunny Singh was born in Varanasi, India and studied at Brandeis University (USA), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India) and University of Barcelona (Spain). She has published two critically acclaimed novels and a non-fiction work on single women in India. Now based in London, she teaches creative writing at the London Metropolitan University. An expert on Bollywood, she is currently finalising a book on Amitabh Bachchan for BFI/Palgrave’s series on Film Stars. Her new novel, Hotel Arcadia, will be published by Quartet Books in spring 2015. More information on her writing can be found at: sunnysingh.net Tweet her @sunnysingh_nw3
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