Two weeks before India’s Daughter made it to the headlines, I came across this new pledge for Delhi school kids, especially young boys:
“I (name) solemnly pledge that I shall always extend due regard and respect to women and desist from violent behaviour of any kind against them. I shall respect and protect the dignity of women in school and society at large. I solemnly affirm to oppose any kind of gender bias against women…
….If I notice that any women in distress need urgent help, I shall extend her my best possible assistance.”
The Delhi government hopes this oath will reduce violence against women and also prevent the sexual harassment or abuse of children in schools. Maybe I should celebrate the fact that we are engaging with the boys. Or maybe I should concern myself with what the girls will be doing, while the boys are taking oaths about how to treat them. Maybe we should ask ourselves if oath taking has ever worked.
While we are on the topic of oath taking, I remember Monday morning assemblies while in school. We had only one National Pledge back then. We fell in ‘neat’ lines and ‘solemnly’ swore: “India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters…”
No one made it past that sentence without giggling, blushing or smirking at the suggestion of potential incest: we assumed back then in our all-girls school that all of us would marry, and all of us would marry men; ergo all of us would end up marrying a ‘brother’. Those who were really disturbed by this took to whispering, “…but one….” between “All Indians….” and “…are my brothers and sisters,” to ensure that there would be no sacrilege, no incest even for the sake of this country that was ‘ours’.
The Nation 0; Incest Taboos 1
(Nation and Taboos, the stories that one could come up with!)
The Indian government has become desperate to keep the nation decent. In the first week of March alone, India issued some six bans: there will be no beef in Maharashtra; no Dirty Politics in Bihar; no 50 Shades… anywhere in India; no using the word lesbian in Hindi cinema; no parties with foreigners (unless they can be scrutinised) in Karnataka, and of course, ‘India’s Daughter’ will be banned because that is what makes India look bad.
Incidentally, I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise, which tells the story of racially pure black men who survive slavery to discover that not all blacks are equal: the gradation of skin colour, class and education divide them. Even as they grapple with this bitter disappointment, a few women begin to discover freedom not only from racial slavery but from patriarchy as well. As a sisterhood emerges in the fringes of the small town of Ruby and women begin to explore their sexuality, men perceiving a threat form a brotherhood to punish the women. The novel begins with armed men hunting women in a convent. I haven’t finished reading it, but I am able to take a lot of comfort in the sisterhood that is emerging; one that understands that women have extra-marital affairs, that women leave husbands, that women may not want to be mothers, that women sometimes have meaningless affairs, that even the quietest women do not condone violence and that women are not always ‘good’. A sisterhood that does not ask for explanations, but has room for any women.
Perhaps it is the absence of such a sisterhood that stood out to me in India’s Daughter. I don’t mean this as a critique of the film. It is just something the film made me think about.
Udwin’s film is about life in a heteronormative, patriarchal society: sons are preferred over daughters, women’s education is not priority, gender inequality seems ‘normalized’ and sex is power play. One ‘ideal family’ emerges at the centre of it, and in fact all characters are cast as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. One father and mother, forced to come to terms with the brutal rape and death of their daughter, search for justice; other fathers and mothers have to come to terms with what that justice could mean for their sons. We also learn that one of the accused is a father who wants to go back to his son; one of the defence lawyers says he too could kill his sister or daughter should they go ‘astray’; the other one says, “We have the best culture. There is no place for a woman in our culture.” A brotherhood emerges when six men get together in the name of that culture and decide to put a woman, who was out with a male friend at night, in her place. Another emerges as the two defence lawyers support and even congratulate the men for what they did.
The women in the film are separated by a wide gulf called class, and so it is impossible to see them coming together only as women. The experts are all upper-class women, and so it becomes very difficult to separate their commentaries on misogyny and the rape culture from elitist prejudices about people of other socioeconomic classes (particularly because they are asked to talk about poverty and illiteracy and connect this to misogyny, and they make a causal connection). Other people in the film particularly Jyoti’s mother and the family of the accused, are unable to distance themselves (and for understandable reasons) from their patriarchal identities and so as mothers or wives, not women, they naturally have conflicts of interest.
In a way, this is our National Pledge gone awry: a brotherhood that thrives on intimidation; a sisterhood that is sparse and thoroughly intimidated; a nation that gives the brothers immense power over the sisters, such that they can threaten to burn them in farmhouses and still continue to practice law in upper courts.
I don’t think ‘India’s Daughter’ is a film you like or dislike. It is a film you watch irrespective of what you think about it. I wrote this article very differently at first, picking on various instances in the film, when I felt that the narrow focus on this incident’s specificities muted wider discourses on rape and on female sexuality. But I was concurrently having a conversation or maybe even an argument with my friend Nitya Rao, who is a documentary photographer and she said,“We can either pour cold water all over it, tear it apart, and get bogged down in the details. Or we can use it to spark some fresh conversation and inspire someone who understands the context better, who can reflect the mindset more accurately to make some new work that we can all then rally around. Right now though, this is all we’ve got.”
I have to agree, because there is a lot to learn even from a problematic film. You watch it not because it is a movie about rape in India, as Udwin told reporters in The Guardian, but because in making this film about rape and not any other, Udwin – albeit unintentionally – leaves us with the image of a patriarchal dystopia where everyone becomes an insider for the span of an hour. It makes you terribly uncomfortable, but maybe that discomfort is good. In making patriarchy its premise, in choosing a patriarchal title, in being unable to cast women and men as anything but daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, in couching explanations for rape within the very patriarchy it problematises, India’s Daughter actually says that this is as broad and as complete as the discussion gets for some of us. Perhaps Udwin meant to deconstruct the ‘patriarchy’ and then got mired in it, or perhaps she did not have the time to broaden the critique. But however deliberately or unwittingly she chose to hang on to the patriarchal lens, she actually forces us to see that such is the only visible ‘reality’ for some of us. It forces us to ask ourselves if we understand patriarchy at all. It makes us wonder why we condone the brotherhoods that rise in support of the morals we believe in and only problematise the brotherhoods that don’t. We tend to use the word ‘patriarchy’ selectively, but we seem unable to recognise that our ideals – the ‘good family’ that is destroyed by rape – or our martyrs – the ‘good girl’ who was raped – are as much a patriarchal construct as is the idea that women should allow themselves to be raped. One is just more palatable than the other.
I had been pointed out that one of the problems is that Udwin is a foreigner, a white woman. But we could extend this critique to include all race/class/caste prejudices. I must confess that I read Kavita Krishnan’s article on the dangers of a civilising mission before I watched the film, and so I was a little too aware of the film’s indelible ‘white saviour’ stamp. But then, within the current rhetoric of reform, even several Indians believe that to belong to a civil society is to be part of a civilising mission. It is not uncommon to come across misplaced sympathy for “the poor slum dwellers,” “the illiterate masses,” “the housewives without agency,” “the woman having an affair,” “the poor unwed girl who is pregnant,” and do not recognise that with every comment they create a new category of the ‘other’ who is now in need of rescue. So, yes, Udwin wears the ‘white saviour’ attitude, but then if we are to be honest, we must recognise that the ‘white saviour’ is a role that brown people can also play in order to ‘rescue the brown woman from the brown man,’ and this could easily have been a movie made in India.
After watching the film I turned to Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others, which she begins with a discussion on Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf’s unwelcome commentary on the origins and cause of war. An eminent lawyer asks Woolf how war could be prevented, she responds by saying that in spite of belonging to ‘an educated class’ the two of them, one a man, socialised to derive satisfaction from war, and the other a woman, not socialised to enjoy it, could not have a dialogue that was entirely free of dissent. To explain this difficulty, she invites him to look at images of war, asking whether it is possible that they would see the same thing when they look at photographs.
‘India’s Daughter’ and the discussions around it beg us to think about this larger issue of ‘seeing as one’. In her piece in Kafila, Nivedita Menon very eloquently writes about this concern, “… what is the ‘meaning’ of representations? Is it possible to arrive at clearly determinable impacts of representations? Are we all agreed that it is the same image we see?”
But should we even see the same image? Within a feminist movement, are we all women? Are we from one class, one caste, one nation, one religion, or one ethnicity? Can we have ‘one lens?’ Visual representations after all mean only very little in a vacuum; the viewer adds as much meaning to them as does the creator, and the ‘truth’ that is produced passes not only through the lens of the filmmaker or the photographer, but also through the lens of the audience. It is an interpretive truth as much as it is one that is presented. At every instance another member is added to the audience, the ‘truth’ alters very so slightly, and it is within a climate of such pluralism that ‘meaning’ is produced.
And if don’t like what we see, should we attack the filmmaker, or perhaps like Woolf try and understand why each of us sees a different picture? Maybe in the difference lies an answer that this film could not offer. Maybe that difference could be another film: one that offers a feminist perspective on rape.
It will also be banned, but at this point, who cares.
So back to the little boys who are taking oaths about protecting women’s dignity, and the little girls who will just be standing around:
It is important we engage with men, and it is important that we know what men think about women. But we cannot really bring about any change if all we have to say is that women should be protected not abused. (Do you hear faint echoes of what Sharma said in ‘India’s Daughter’ about women being flowers and diamonds?) Do we not see that we are teaching both men and women that there are three kinds of people: ‘bad men’ who abuse, ‘good men’ who protect, and women who have no agency of their own, and whom the ‘good men’ have to protect from the ‘bad men’.
What we need are sisterhoods like the one that emerges in Morrison’s fictional town, Ruby: so we can become renegades that don’t want to participate in the patriarchy anymore. One where together we can move away from the ‘good girl’-‘bad girl’ ‘good man’-‘bad man’ binaries. One where, Jyoti Singh will not need a character witness to show that what happened to her was simply wrong. One where we will be able to see that Jyoti herself seems to have cared very little for what people thought about her, and in fact emerges in the entire film as the only woman who cared to explore life outside the claustrophobic cloisters of patriarchy. One where misogyny or the fear of it will not shape our identities. One where we see that women push boundaries all the time; even when men punish them for it. One where we acknowledge that Delhi, or anywhere really, was not defeated by such brutality. One where women can finally stop being afraid of male intimidation, and men can stop feeling threatened by female sexuality.