2015 Summit

The debate shaking India

Who’s winning the fight against sexual violence and gender inequality?

The banning of India’s Daughter, Leslee Udwin’s documentary about the aftermath of a horrifying 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, has stirred many raw emotions and a monsoon of rhetoric. Udwin is British, and some Indians have made clear that they do not welcome an outside critique of their legal system, even if they agree that rapists have too often enjoyed impunity in their country. But for many in India and elsewhere, the film and its banning have provided an opportunity to bring gender-based violence out of the shadows, as the country continues to change at a rampant pace, and adapt to evolving gender roles and mores. Bringing much-needed clarity to the issue of rape in India, and stripping away the hype from the controversy surrounding the film,  journalist Barkha Dutt sat down with the filmmaker herself at the 2015 Women in the World Summit.

Actor-activist Freida Pinto, associate producer of India’s Daughter, introduced the conversation by outlining the details of the crime and its victim, “Nirbhaya,” or “the fearless one,” whose death triggered an awakening in India: an eruption of anger about the treatment of women that, it seems, had been seething just below the surface. Thousands marched to demand justice and accountability. Yet Pinto questioned the pace of progress: “After two years, there has been some change, but is it really enough?”

The government, wary of a backlash, argued that the film would only incite further violence against women. Some officials complained of an international conspiracy to defame India, or that Americans and others were holding the country to an unfair standard regarding the treatment of women. But Udwin and Dutt agreed that the the film was a catalyst for long overdue discourse.

“The gang rape was a tip of the iceberg; it elicited such a response from ordinary men and women in India who came out in unprecedented numbers and displayed such courage and tenacity, that as a woman I wanted to amplify their voices,” said Udwin of her decision to make the film. But once on the ground in India, she was disheartened by what she learned about attitudes toward the perpetrators and the way in which society rationalized their violence.

“Society’s way of shame is to marginalize the women like they are rotten apples in the barrel, but in fact it is the barrel that is rotten and rots the apple.” She elaborated that what surprised her most was how society itself teaches men to regard women. “The fact that the rapist didn’t think he had done anything wrong, and because the girl was out at dark she deserved it really shocked me the most,” she said.

Dutt noted, however, that instead of heightening an environment of hostility towards women, the aftermath of the gang rape had become a “moment of hope for women.”

She “saw the issue of gender move from the margin of news to the center of politics.” Nevertheless, Dutt added that she had a problem with how India was being characterized in the narrative. “The incidence of sexual violence is higher in the United States and the United Kingdom than India,” she said. India, she noted, had a woman leading the country four decades ago, and paid maternity leave, while America has yet to achieve either. “Gender is more complex than that, it cannot be put in a box,” Dutt insisted.

The gang rape of an educated young woman resonated, said Dutt, partly because it was a story of aspirational India. “The father of the victim was a baggage loader at the Delhi airport and his daughter represented the hopes of many women and parents who dream of a better future,” she said.

Udwin described her thought process in choosing to visit the homes and learn about the backgrounds of the rapists. “I wanted a clearer understanding of at what degrees they were victims too,” she explained. This, she said, was not done for shock value, but to educate viewers. “It is crucial that we should not shy away from it and we dare not silence it,” she said.

While there has been harsh criticism from some quarters in India about Udwin, an outsider, making a film about something so damaging to the country’s image, Dutt raised an interesting point on the relationship between India and the West. “Would I be accepted if I came into, say, Ferguson, and had a definite conversation on race?” she asked. She agreed that the ban was regrettable, but said that it was not the result of insecurity or a misplaced sense of national pride, and that, ironically, the ban itself had deepened a conversation about gender in the Indian media.

Dutt brought up an illuminating statistic: “90 percent of women know the men that abused them, and we have failed in this fight of marital rape.” But the failure is a shared one, not limited to one government or society, said the filmmaker. In short, we all have to take responsibility for violence against women, wherever it occurs.

“My documentary is a drop of water on a stone and we should all globally hang our heads in shame [if] we don’t stop war on women,” said Udwin.

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