Sunday, March 08, 2015

Talking about rape

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 8, 2015

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  • Protests against the December 2012 gang rape.
    PTI
    Protests against the December 2012 gang rape.
  • Film-maker Leslee Udwin, Director of the documentary 'India's Daughter'.
    PTI
    Film-maker Leslee Udwin, Director of the documentary 'India's Daughter'.

We are so easily outraged. We get angry if someone from another country critically views what we know to be our terrible reality. We know women in India are not safe. We know there are rapes of women every day — young, old, Dalit, tribal, in cities and in villages. Yet, if a ‘foreigner’ deigns to point this out, we get upset; we are ‘hurt’, says the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh; we are outraged; we think it is a ‘conspiracy to defame India’.

So the controversy surrounding Leslee Udwin’s documentary film India’s Daughter — about the December 16, 2012 gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi — goes round and round in circles. It generates heat and sound but little sense and certainly no hope.

I have not seen the film and so will not comment on its contents. The controversy surrounding it has once again brought into focus the grim reality of rape as well as how many Indian men view women. Personally, I don’t think any film, made by an Indian or a foreigner can make things look worse than they already are. Nor should there be a question of banning such films. What are we afraid of? What we can question is the perspective in such films. For instance, the decision of the filmmaker to interview one of the convicts and the lawyers, knowing what they would say, can be questioned.

These questions can be asked once you see the film. Now that the government has successfully got a restraint order from the court, this is not a possibility (although the Internet defies all restraint orders, as we all know). In fact, by releasing the content of her interviews with Mukesh Singh and the lawyers, the filmmaker has ensured that her film will be sought after, despite the restraining order. Perhaps that is what she wanted in the first place, to stir a controversy to promote her film. Or, to give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she did not anticipate the government’s response. If not, then she was incredibly na├»ve.

But the separate — and perhaps more pertinent — issue is whether we can go on talking about December 16, as if time has stood still and nothing has changed. The Delhi gang rape galvanised women and men in a way that has not been seen in India for several decades. It might have seemed momentary. The demonstrations and candlelight vigils did end eventually. But the protests set in motion several important initiatives including the Justice J.S. Verma Committee report, the changes in the law and the growing consciousness and conversation about crimes against women.

We see this in the increase in the reporting on the incidence of rape. We notice this in the way some women are now fighting back. We acknowledge this in the fact that no political party can now ignore addressing the question of women’s safety (whether they mean what they say is another issue). This is the legacy left behind after those weeks when women and men came out on the streets and expressed their anguish. The clock on such consciousness cannot be turned back easily.

We also know that, as articulated beautifully by the activist Kavita Krishnan, Indian women do not want to be seen as India’s daughters — or, for that matter, as mothers, wives, aunts, nieces or grandmothers. Women want equality as citizens. They do not need the legitimacy of a link to a male, a family or ‘the nation’. They demand respect as human beings. It is so easy to bracket women within this cosy frame of ‘the family’ while leaving ‘the nation’ to be managed by men. Objecting to the title of the film is not just a question of semantics; it is objecting to the attitude that the phrase represents; something that is ultimately at the root of the violence that women face.

So a film, good or bad, should not bring us back to the subject of rape, of sexual assault, of everyday violence that millions of Indian women suffer every single day. Our concern should not be reduced to one incident, however horrific it was, one set of parents, or even one city. There are women in Manipur, in Kashmir, in Chhattisgarh who face the violence of the state. There are Dalit women across India who face the violence of the upper castes. There are women born into poverty who face the violence of a heartless economy that excludes them.

We must also recognise that there is a struggle to see an end to this violence. Women and men are needed for it. All Indian men are not rapists or criminals. Women know that. So even as women sometimes despair at the dominant attitudes that prevail, we must not fall into the trap of reducing our problems to these simplistic binaries — of helpless women and villainous men, of daughters that should be protected and of rapists who should be hanged. And the ‘hurt’ that the Home Minister should feel is not over the contents of a film, but the daily reality of violence that women in India continue to face.

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