Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Unbearable Righteousness of Being Indian ~ On the Documentary, India's Daughter

India has done it again.  We are reliving the brouhaha after Slumdog Millionnaire.
And once again the messenger has been shot because she is white.

The Indian government has banned Leslee Udwin’s documentary, India’s Daughter, about the brutal 2012 rape in Delhi (and subsequent death) of J.S., a 23-yr old student. This gruesome incident galvanized a generation of youth in India, men and women alike, to protest against violence towards women. Udwin’s motivation to make the documentary came from this very phenomenon of a peaceful uprising by the youth demanding some accountability. The protests in Delhi (and other cities) were the first of their kind in India – a voluminous show of solidarity among the youth to counter the ever-present predation of women. An additional impetus to make the film comes from the desire to get to the root of violence against women, and rape in particular. As a victim of rape herself, Leslee Udwin wanted to shed light on the broader causes of such violence. On a televised forum she said she viewed cases like the 2012 Delhi rape as symptoms of larger causes. The film is her contribution to helping unravel the source of such heinous symptoms.

The film has extensive footage of interviews with the parents of the victim. In the film, we get to see, in direct terms, the loss of the daughter through the parents’ eyes. And through a friend of J.S’s, we get a window into who the victim herself was. As it is illegal to disclose the name of a rape victim in India, in the early aftermath of the incident, the victim was dubbed Nirbhaya (one who is without fear) - a tribute to her fighting the rapists, and her tenacity to hang onto life for a few days, despite the horrific extent of her injuries. If there is any subtle message that this documentary tries to imbue, it is to re-inforce that Nirbhaya’s life and aspirations were so violently cut short for no good reason. If you followed the news about this rape in 2012, there is nothing of “shock value” that the documentary adds. And it doesn’t aim to.  Aside from a few gruesome details about J.S’s injuries that may not have made it to the newspapers in 2012, there is nothing new that we learn.

The documentary contrasts the life of J.S. (as seen through the eyes of her parents and her friend,) with the viewpoint of a few in the Perpetrator Camp. Considerable camera-time is given to Mukesh Singh, one of the accused, - the driver of the bus.
The film showcases the mindset of not just Mukesh Singh, but his lawyers too. We get to see that there is not an iota of remorse in the words of Mukesh Singh - nor in his tone or demeanor. He, along with his lawyers, squarely blames the victim for all that she endured.

Despite the film being banned, the extremely misogynistic opinions of Mukesh Singh and his lawyers are plastered across print media in India for all to read. There is nothing new you will learn from the film that you don’t already know.  The film is merely a reminder, or rather, a confirmation, of your worst fears: That misogyny is all-pervasive. That it is not restricted to a few depraved souls, nor is it the result of poverty or a lack of education. It has firm roots in the Indian psyche.

Weeding out something that is so deeply ingrained seems near impossible, especially in this culture of righteousness that has taken a renewed hold of India.
Awareness is the first step to rooting out social ills. So if you have nothing to contribute to this latest discussion on gender violence, please stay out of it. But don’t sabotage the efforts of those who choose to make themselves more aware.

Righteousness is a cultural value ascribed especially to the Indian Woman. It has been glorified, sought after voluntarily, or fed down unwilling women’s throats for several generations past. The Indian woman who deviates from this path of righteousness deserves what she gets! That is the essence of the message from Mukesh Singh and his educated lawyers.

Some commentators on social media are dismayed that the perpetrators were given a platform to air their malignant thoughts. If you were offended by Mukesh Singh's lack of remorse, perhaps you should direct some of that affront towards meaningful change: towards changing the attitude of victim-blaming. Begin by allowing people to watch the film and make themselves doubly aware that victim-blaming exists, and that it transcends boundaries of caste, class and education.

In recent months, several countries have issued travel advisories to their women citizens wishing to travel solo to India: ~ Don’t! A spate of rapes in cities across India of foreign women travelers is what has led to this separate but common warning. It is easy to see that these warnings stem from a desire to keep female citizens of those countries safe, in the face of a spurt in violence against foreign women. Nobody (with any degree of credibility) would cite these warnings as instances of Gender Policing.
Gender Policing is when there is an enforcement of gender-normative behavior on an individual. Gender policing works to delegitimize and devalue behavior and expressions that deviate from the gender norm. Victim-blaming in rape is a prime example of gender-policing. Having the opinion that women bring about their own destruction by wearing certain clothes and going out after sunset is gender policing.

The problem with identifying and eradicating gender policing behaviors in a climate of violence against women is that they are hard to recognize because they overlap with common sense rules for safety. In places where there are high crimes against women, even the most liberal person might recommend to daughters and sisters that they should watch for their safety by not engaging in behaviors that might leave them vulnerable to attack. In gender policing, misogynists say the same thing: Don’t engage in certain behaviors. The difference is that in gender policing you are punished if you do. Rape and honor killings are examples of punishments meted out to those who stray from gender- normative behavior.
This message is loud and clear in India’s Daughters. The words of Mukesh Singh and his two lawyers make it amply clear that their thinking is not that of eccentric outliers. It is alarmingly main-stream. One lawyer uses the metaphors of “diamond” and  “flower” for women. The other lawyer declares, without hesitation, that he would pour petrol on his daughter and burn her alive for defying ascribed gender-roles.

When you shed the coat of vulnerability and submissiveness that you are given by being born female, you are stepping out of the role ascribed to you. Victim-blaming will always exist so long as submissiveness and vulnerability are considered womanly virtues. So the next time you caution your daughters and sisters to “stay safe,” be aware that your message mirrors that of gender policing misogynists. Distance yourself from this overlap, even if it is only mentally.

 The Nirbhaya case has certainly become the 21st century symbol in India, of violence against women. It has forced discussions about gender disparity like no other single incident has. For that very reason, to critique a film about this landmark crime on artistic grounds and on its merits as a documentary is misguided. To ban it and prevent people from watching it is irresponsible. If the Indian Government has embarrassed itself (again) by this ban, the redeeming factor is that there are many who are protesting the ban.
My desire to watch the film was not for entertainment. I didn’t care if the documentary was not nuanced enough, or if things were over-dramatized, as some critiques imply. For me, it was one more source of information that adds to the mish-mash of material that contributes to making sense of so many contradictory forces in the Indian mindset.

India is full of empty clich├ęs of female power: Bharat Mata (Mother India), Durga Devi, Kali Mata, Shakti Devi and innumerable goddesses in mythology. If it’s money you seek, honor Goddess Lakshmi. Pursuing the Arts? First, a blessing from Saraswathi, Goddess of Knowledge and Arts! On this eve of International Women’s Day 2015, forget these imaginary forces of power: Worship the real women in your lives!