India's Daughter , Sexual Violence and the Many Indias

india flag  with clipping path
india flag with clipping path

Meryl Streep recently opened the U.S. premier of the controversial documentary India's Daugther about the rape victim who died in December 2012 in India. In the film by Leslee Udwin, the world learns for the first time the motive for the attacks directly from the mouth of one of the accused rapists. Mukesh Singh says that his co-conspirators wanted to teach Jyoti Singh, a medical student, a lesson that she should not be out at night with man that is not her husband. According to him, her death was an accident and that she would not have died if she did not resist. The Indian government has banned the film and asked the BBC not to air it, because the filmmaker failed to follow the guidelines of the prison where the interview of the accused was conducted.

Even before this, feminist lawyers and activists wrote a letter to a TV station in India that was planning to screen the documentary asking that they delay its showing for a host of legal reasons -- that it contains hate speech, it incites violence, and interferes with fair trial rights of the defendant whose appeal is currently pending in the Supreme Court. Many Indian women's movement leaders object to the documentary because it feeds the triumvirate troupe of the Western woman as savior, the Indian woman as oppressed, and the Indian man as rapist.

The real contribution of the documentary and the reactions to it is that exposes the vast divide between the "many Indias." The discussion around the film neglects the important information we learn about Jyoti, she is like a new generation of Indians who have been raised with Western media, American food, and the values that follow it. She challenged societal norms and insisted that her parents allow her to pursue a medical education and worked at a call center to support herself. Following economic liberalization in 1991, a growing middle class emerged that is increasingly indistinguishable from those in many Western cities -- they watch American movies, eat hamburgers, drink their version of Starbucks coffee, and date. These young Indians may work at call centers, Indian-subsidiaries for foreign corporation, banks, and other emerging businesses.

In the new India, it is not unusual for a woman to go to a mall to watch a movie on a Sunday, exactly what Jyoti and her male friend were doing. Even the former Supreme Court Justice, Leila Seth, observes in the documentary that what Jyoti was doing was so very normal. But another India, represented by the accused rapist, who lived in slum-like conditions Delhi, thinks Jyoti's behavior was immoral. They attacked her because she was violating traditional gender norms. This India doesn't think that women should date, but rather their marriages should be arranged. This India, who hasn't benefited from increasing employment opportunities and economic growth, fiercely resists the changing gender norms.

As young women increasingly claim their equality with men, the government must provide protection for these women from those who are resisting the change. Recall that Jyoti and her friend boarded the bus because they were denied rides by taxis (auto-rikshaws) and didn't have their own car and driver as rich people do in Delhi. Where are the public buses for the middle class who have enough money to watch movies and eat in malls but not enough to own a car? Even assuming the Indian government is right that the filmmaker violated prison rules, at this point the documentary is in the public domain on Youtube. Instead of spending resources in suppressing the misogynist views expressed in the documentary, the Indian government should work on changing them by investing in quality education and taking better measures to protect women who are increasingly claiming their equality with men.