Anniversary of Delhi brave heart, December 2014. Demotix/Rohit Gautam. All rights reserved.India’s Daughter, a documentary film directed by Leslee Udwin as part of the BBC’s Storyville series, based on the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a 23-year old woman, was to be broadcast in India and the UK on International Women’s Day, March 8. But in India, it was banned. Some women’s organisations who have been working on issues of gender justice in India were supportive of the court restraint until the trial is completed. However, given the BJP government’s long history of jingoistic nationalism and moral policing of women, it is unsurprising that many in India read this as a politically motivated ‘ban’.
This is not the first time that Indian women have found their issues being compromised through intervention of a ‘foreigner’ that raises the hackles of nationalist bullies who believe that national pride and India’s ‘image’ should be maintained at all costs. Before India’s Daughter, we had Katherine Mayo’s controversial Mother India, published in 1927. But in recent times, especially since the emergence of the ‘Nirbhaya Movement’, Indian women have emphatically refused the terms of the choice that asks them to choose between their gender and their national identity. And here, I am not referring to feminist activists, academics or articulate students in elite institutions, who can perhaps be viewed as unrepresentative on account of their elite status. I am referring to women who inhabit mainstream cultural spaces, such as the actress Mallika Sherawat, who publicly shut up nationalist bullying from a journalist and stood by her statement that Indian society is a regressive place for women. I am also referring to Suzette Jordan from Kolkata, mother of two, who gave up her anonymous naming as the ‘Park Street Rape survivor’ and had the clarity to retort to allegations of being ‘an escort’ with the question, is it ok for an escort to be raped?
Rape culture is not new in India. The moral policing of women, the blaming of victims, the permissibility of a woman’s ‘character’ as evidence against her credibility in court have all been longstanding issues facing women’s quest for justice in India. Neither is it news to Indian women that rape culture is widespread in our society. We live with it, and our responses have covered the whole range from outrage, satire of sexist comments that belittle women protesters as ‘painted and dented ladies,’ pragmatic conservatism to internalization.
In fact, I can barely remember a single case of rape reported in the media over the last two years that has not been followed by reports of outrageous statements of victim-blaming by politicians, religious leaders and bureaucrats on one hand, and apathy or intimidation of the victims by the police. Furious protests from civil society and women’s organisations have followed these reports and have more often than not led to red-faced apologies.
So we come to India’s Daughter. Previous responses on openDemocracy have pointed to the difficulties of embracing the full horror and profound implications of this case for India’s culture. But it must be added that Mukesh Singh’s words, as horrific as they are, are neither new, nor particularly original. The idea that his victim ‘asked for it’ by not being careful enough/domestic enough or virtuous enough has already been stated by the likes of Asaram Bapu, the religious guru who was later himself accused of rape. The idea that 'Nirbhaya' made things worse for herself by resisting the rape is also not new to Indian ears. Let us take some time to briefly recall the widely reported words of Dr Anita Shukla, an agricultural scientist, delivered at a seminar organized by the police on women’s empowerment. ‘Had the girl simply surrendered (and not resisted) when surrounded by six men, she would not have lost her intestine. Why was she out with her boyfriend at 10 pm?’
Looking at the western media’s coverage of Mukesh Singh’s interview, however, one would think that Indian women were waiting for Leslee Udwin to discover the nature and texture of rape culture in India and tell us all about it. In brandishing abroad sexism and misogyny, all too familiar to Indian audiences, as somehow a new ‘scoop’ – what I want to argue here is that every single major English language newspaper published in Britain and the New York Times of USA has in effect given greater importance to the sensibilities of their domestic audience than the struggle for justice and gender equality being waged by Indian women.
Leslee Udwin claims that her film is inspired by the national upsurge demanding dignity and safety for women in the aftermath of this horrific gang rape in Delhi in 2012. The scale of the protests and their determination in battling police batons, tear gas and water cannons in their quest for justice for the victim, were indeed unforeseen and inspiring. So Leslee’s conviction that she simply had to use ‘whatever talents and skills she had’ to amplify their cries of "enough is enough!" is readily understood. Forgive me for thinking that given these intentions, her film would highlight the creative and courageous ways in which activists and ordinary women have pushed back against India’s rape culture.
There were so many possibilities. We could have woken up to sudden international publicity of exclusive interviews with ordinary women who braved water cannons. Or perhaps we could have woken up to international coverage of the creativity of women in coining catchy take-downs of rape-culture, in banners that read ‘don’t tell us how to dress, tell men not to rape’, ‘we live in a society that teaches women not to get raped, not men not to rape’ and ‘teri nazar buri, aur purdah main karu?’ (if your gaze is dirty, why should I cover my face). Or we could have been invited to an exploration of what it took for feminists and women’s activists on the ground to educate the outraged youth and shift the focus from ‘death’ for the rapists, to ‘azadi’ or freedom for women in India.
Instead, the publicity for the film makes it clear that the unique selling point or USP of the film is that it promises viewers the first ever exclusive interview with one of the convicted rapists, Mukesh Singh. By expressing his lack of remorse in brutally raping a young girl, on camera, to an intrepid British film-maker, Mukesh Singh has achieved celebrity status in the western media. The name, and in many cases also the face of an unrepentant rapist graces the pages of every single major English language daily in Britain and America, ranging from the Daily Mail to the Guardian and New York Times, as a build-up to International Women’s Day!
So Udwin’s intervention has been true to her self-assigned role as an ‘amplifier’, except that the only voice that she has managed to give an international platform to, other than her own, is that of a rapist.
It is difficult not to read this focus on the rapist and the ‘horror’ of his statements as an attempt to capitalize on the marketability of rape. Rape-culture is not unique to India. It is widespread and deeply popular. In sexist jokes, in drunken college parties in colleges in Britain, in frat-boy cultures, in the international porn industry, in video-games and internet bullying. Even the horror of rape spikes viewership, as proven by the infamous rape scene in 'Game of Thrones'. Having ‘rapist’ in the headlines ensures far greater effectivity as clickbait than ‘woman’ or ‘survivor’. It is, however, difficult to see how women’s emancipation is served by such tactics.
Wouldn’t it be fair to say that both Leslee Udwin and the BBC have shown themselves to be far more eager to profit from international interest in the Nirbhaya movement, than to further gender justice or equality in India in any way. As I submit this piece, the BBC has cynically brought forward the screening of the documentary to tonight (4 March), in full knowledge of the fact that women’s organizations in India are opposed to making a spectacle out of Mukesh Singh’s views while his appeal in court is pending. And Leslee Udwin has revealed how little she cares for the opinions of women’s organizations in India, or the due process of law, by appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to allow the screening of her documentary. Even if we assume that Udwin is unaware of Modi’s record of shielding rapists and rioters as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, her willingness to resort to extra-judicial means to promote her documentary speaks volumes of the limits of her concern for justice, of any kind, in India.