Nirbhaya film: Solidarity is what we want, not a civilising mission
Hailing Indian women as "India's daughters" is something India's patriarchs have always done.
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I am beset with a growing sense of unease at the global publicity campaign surrounding the release of a film by Leslee Udwin called India's Daughter. The film's subject is the December 16, 2012 Delhi gang rape and the movement that followed it. The film is to be released on March 8, and we can discuss it after we have seen it. But I would like to flag some concerns about the "Daughters of India" campaign that is due to be launched in the wake of the film, and about the response to the film in India.
Two articles about the film in the Guardian of March 1, 2015 ("UK director gets star backing for 'daughters of India' campaign", and "India's Daughter: 'I made a film on rape in India. Men's brutal attitudes truly shocked me") tell us something about this campaign.
First, the campaign's name is intriguing.
Why refer to India's girls and women as "daughters"?
Anyone who was paying attention to the movement that flooded India's streets after December 16, would have noticed the anger of the women protesters against being identified as "daughters", "mothers", "sisters" instead of as individual women in their own right. One of the most important things about that campaign was the rejection of patriarchal protectionism that offered "daughters" protection but only by denying daughters freedom. Since then, we have also seen political campaigns (in Muzaffarnagar, for instance, and also the "love jihad" bogey) unleashing hatred and violence against the minority community in the name of "saving daughters". Hailing Indian women as "India's daughters" is something India's patriarchs including Indian government's and the most anti-feminist forces in India have always done. Why does a global campaign against gender violence do the same?
Moreover, why should a global campaign against gender violence be called "Daughters of India"? Though the articles do cite statistics of gender violence from other countries too including England and Wales and Denmark, it does seem that the focus of the campaign is India. Does it seek to convey the impression that "India's daughters" are in need of a rescue mission?
The Guardian stories do in fact convey the "white saviour" impression rather strongly.
One of the articles says "India's Daughter, a powerful, brave and heart-wrenching documentary made by Leslee Udwin, provokes grief and anger but also pity for the ignorance".
In its title, one of the articles quotes Leslee Udwin saying, "I made a film on rape in India. Men's brutal attitudes truly shocked me".
Referring to the film's interviews of convicted rapists and their defenders justifying rape (more on these later), actress Meryl Streep, one of those backing the campaign, is quoted as saying that the film "forces a look at the mindset that must be made to know it has no place in the civilised world".
One article describes "Nirbhaya" as "speaking excellent English".
What comes through, then, is a sense of India as a place of ignorance and brutality towards women, that inspires both shock and pity, but also call for a rap on the knuckles from the "civilised world" for its "brutal attitudes". Nirbhaya, described patronisingly as a speaker of "excellent English" is marked approvingly as a good subject for the global rescue mission.
I have encountered such attitudes a lot from many interlocutors (journalists, media and researchers too). Every time, I have taken great care in framing my responses.
In public talks abroad, I tend to open the discussion with remarks about "How not to talk about rape in India".
I have tried to convey that while we in India are in fact engaged in confronting the violence and discrimination against women here, it does not help for people in other countries to imagine that such brutality is India's "cultural" problem; that India's "backwardness" is the problem; or that gender violence is "worse out there in India". I have tried to point out that rating gender violence as "worse and better" in this or that part of the world does not help very much. I point out that in India, too, it is tempting to tell ourselves that women in "Muslim countries" or the Muslim community are "worse off" than Hindu women. Likewise, it is reassuring for someone in the UK or the US or France to feel pity and horror at the gender violence and brutal attitudes in India. Doing so, however, helps prevent one from recognising the "brutal attitudes" that abound in our own comfort zone, our own "culture". For each of us, whether we are in India or any other country, the most important, useful - and tough - thing to do is to recognise the "brutal attitudes" that have achieved normalcy in our own culture. To feel shocked by those attitudes when they are far away, located in the exotic other, is easy; to recognise and confront them in our own comfort zone, is much harder.
I point out that in fact, like the movement in India, there has been a global upsurge in movements against victim-blaming - the slutwalk protests, for instance, that began in Canada. Politicians in many countries - not only India - have faced protests and anger for their victim-blaming and rape culture remarks.
In response to questions about "what can we do to help", I suggest solidarity with each others' campaigns and protests and sharing of experiences, rather than "aid". There is much we can learn from struggles in each of our countries, but we will find it much harder to learn, if we imagine ourselves in the role of "rescuers". Above all, it is crucial for people in the UK or US and so on to recognise the ways in which their own country's government and corporations collude in gender violence in India today. Actions in solidarity with movements in India, would help expose and resist those ties of collusion.
It is absolutely true that movements in India have often been inspired by outrage against acts of horrific brutality: Not only the December 16 gang-rape, but the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur and the Khairlanji massacre for instance. But in each of those movements, there have been determined attempts to highlight the structural nature of such violence, rather than talking only in terms of brutal patriarchal "mindsets". The structures of caste, gender, class and the state; of the global economy; all collude in creating and perpetuating gender violence.
What has grabbed attention in India and globally about the film are the interviews with Mukesh Singh, convicted for the December 16 rape-murder, and his lawyer ML Sharma. (Incidentally, the Guardian story does not even get the name of the jail in which the rape convict is lodged right; it refers to Tihar jail as "Tahir jail". I cite this, not to indulge in nitpicking, but to suggest gently that telling an Indian story calls for familiarity with India's minute details.) The words of Mukesh Singh are, to me, very interesting - not because they are uniquely brutal but because they are so familiar. It is almost as though he is performing the words that he has heard Asaram say. Even the phrase "it takes two hands to clap" and the suggestion that the rapists would have left the victim alone had she not fought back, are almost word for word what Asaram notoriously said about the December 16 rape.
Mukesh Singh's and Sharma's words are instances of rape culture - rape culture that is widespread, in India and all over the globe. But the stories that focus on Singh's and Sharma's interviews are framed to take away from that realisation. Instead, the responses they invoke are about how these men are brutes, animals, vile beasts and so on. Our efforts during the December 2012 movement and since were to widen the frame away from just a few "beasts" and towards the more systemic rape culture and denial of autonomy to women in homes, schools, by the state machinery, by the caste system, by communal violence.
Reflecting on the interviews, I think about other instances where terrible acts of brutality have been justified by their perpetrators, almost boastfully, for an audience. Babu Bajrangi, boasting on camera of how he raped and killed a pregnant woman during the Gujarat 2002 pogrom of Muslims, came to mind. Bajrangi also boasted of how "Narendrabhai" (now India's PM) would ensure that he and other perpetrators would walk free. Bajrangi, convicted for his part in the brutal massacre, got bail for a week last month to attend a wedding.
American Sniper also came to mind: A man who wrote proudly of having enjoyed committing acts of unspeakable brutality during the US war on Iraq, has been immortalised now as a Hollywood hero. Do these instances invoke in us the sense of outrage to "civilised" sensibilities that the interview with Mukesh Singh does?
One question that feminist activists in India are asking is, how was the filmmaker allowed access to convicts inside jail? Indian jail authorities otherwise prevent most human rights campaigners in India from speaking to, let alone filming, prisoners in Indian jails. Custodial torture and killings are therefore very hard to document. What was the impulse that led Tihar jail authorities to allow Udwin to interview Mukesh Singh? Could it be the same impulse that let them allow Ram Singh to be killed in the same jail?
I am concerned at seeing responses on social media to the interviews, vilifying "Indian men" as brutes. If solidarity with Indian struggles against misogyny and violence are overshadowed by racist profiling of Indian men, it is most disturbing. Leslee Udwin is quoted as saying that she sought to "amplify" the voices that said "enough is enough" during India's "Arab Spring" moment against rape. That is a laudable objective. But the danger is that what gets disproportionately amplified instead, is the voice and image of the "Indian man" with the "brutal mindset". Also, it is a matter of concern when the voices of the Indian movements for gender equality, cannot themselves decide or control what they wish to amplify globally; instead, the gaze of a single filmmaker (however well-meaning) and a bunch of "stars" decides what gets global amplification and what does not.
We are told, for instance, by the news stories that "the Maharashtra education ministry is deploying 1,89,000 volunteers to work on the campaign in schools, including those in Mumbai, reaching more than 20 million pupils, while 8,000 community youth leaders will take the campaign to rural areas."
Have Indian women's movement groups had any role in preparing this educational material and the campaign in general? Why has the Maharashtra Government needed a "global campaign" to undertake gender-sensitisation education, while it and other governments in India remain impervious to the efforts and demands by movements in India for the same? Why has this global campaign failed to speak to activists in the Indian women's movement, in fashioning its understanding, its strategy, and its emphases?