Sunday, March 8, 2015

"India's Daughter" is my Daughter

I grew up in the old-fashioned southern city of Hyderabad in India, in the eighties. I was born into a liberal family and quickly came to realize that the world out side was not a reflection of my family's values. There were invisible rules in the real world that gave more freedom to boys and less to girls. The rules for young women, mostly as an excuse for their own safety, did not apply to men. Women had a curfew, they could not be seen walking with men unless they were married to or in some way related. Women were trained to clothe themselves keeping in mind the "male gaze". Riding behind a man on a motorcycle was seen to be sexual, unless married. If you were to ride with a male friend, there was a certain distance that needed to be maintained on the seat and certain decorum to be followed. Show of affection in public between the sexes was taboo. While young men and women on college campuses enjoyed some freedom, in public spaces they had to adhere to a different set of rules. The separation was subtle and permeated through the culture as a code.

As a teenager, I recall stories of my sisters being harassed for wearing jeans or being too "western". My older sister gained notoriety on college campus for once slapping a man on a bus who tried to grope her. She was brave but also fearful of reprisals and sought protection of her male friends. I also remember my sister being shot on her arm with an air gun while walking down a street, a victim of someone's twisted idea of fun. I experienced harassment from the police in my youth first hand, when I was out with my girlfriend past curfew time. It was 9:30 pm and we were sitting by the lake talking and a police van pulled up. The questioning by the police constable was direct. Who was this girl to me? Was she my sister, wife etc.? If not I was breaking the law. Confronting him was dangerous, so we had to scurry. Life in most cities in India was comparable, but there were some exceptions.

Some things have changed in India since my time, but others have not. Women in India still feel harassed and preyed on. In cities like New Delhi, they fear for their safety after dark. Today more and more women work the night shift in call centers across India servicing the west. Bringing them home safe is a task all companies take seriously. More women in urban India are financially independent, and therefore ambitious and are challenging established norms, demanding freedom and equal rights. This is causing a seismic shift, as traditional mores are challenged and families are forced to adjust to the winds of change. At times when that adjustment is resistant, it leads to violence and shocking human behavior, like acid throwing and honor killings.

The predicament of Indian women suddenly came into sharp focus in December of 2012, when two students boarded a bus after seeing the film, Life of Pi. What happened next shook everyone to his or her core. The man was brutally beaten and the woman was gang raped by six men, one among them a seventeen year old. They were then discarded like trash on a dark New Delhi street to fend for themselves. The woman was badly mutilated and later succumbed to her injuries. As the details of her ordeal emerged, the nation was enraged. The youth protests in the capital sparked pitched battles with the police, the city was on edge. To calm things down, the rapists were caught in a record seventeen days and were "fast tracked" to hang. The juvenile rapist was sentenced to three years, as that is all the law could deliver. New laws were quickly passed to make punishment of rapists more severe than they already were. The story of the victim and her parents captured the imagination of the public and there was an earnest push for some tangible change. 

Suddenly the reporting of rapes in the media saw a dramatic increase. Almost every week a grisly rape story greeted the front pages, and outrageous statements began to emerge from men in power who saw rape a woman's own doing. Many of India's power elite expressed outrageous opinions, which exposed a medieval mindset that was no mystery to many. Asaram Bapu, a powerful religious leader said "She should have taken God's name and could have held the hand of one of the men and said I consider you as my brother and should have said to the other two, brother I am helpless, you are my brother, my religious brother. She should have taken God's name and held their hands and feet...then the misconduct wouldn't have happened”. 

This month to commemorate International Women's day BBC television planned to air a documentary titled India's Daughter across India, United Kingdom and elsewhere. The film began to attract controversy before its broadcast, as graphic excerpts were released to the press. India's Daughter is a hour-long television documentary, constructed in the "true crime" genre that meticulously re-imagines the December 2012 rape and murder of Jyothi Singh. Through interviews of her parents, a friend, one of the rapists, his lawyers and other experts associated with the case, the film walks the viewer through a sequence of events as they occurred on that dreadful night to a young woman who we learn was filled with dreams, aspirations and a zest for life. For the first time in two years the name of the victim is revealed and the harrowing nature of her trauma is laid bare on the screen for all to digest. What caused most controversy was not the telling of her tragic story, but the lack of remorse exhibited by the rapist who candidly expressed his motives and rationalized his actions. The egregious mindset of his attorneys, who openly blamed the victim for her misfortune, was more shocking. But what was most unnerving was the Indian government's decision to trample on its citizen's rights, by calling for a ban on the broadcast not just in India, but the world. In the days of the Internet, a hope to achieve this was folly. What they instead accomplished was exactly the opposite. 

The reasons for doing so, as usual came from a place of fear, weakness, insecurity and prejudice. Not having faith in its citizenry to make decisions about important issues, exhibits an impotency of a nanny state. With many male members of parliament facing rape and other criminal charges, the response was not surprising. Then there was the usual mudslinging and discrediting of the filmmaker, that she was white, exploitative, Eurocentric, undermined Indian feminists and was out to smear the image of India with her imperialist, post-colonial world view. And then there were the legal issues, which to some extent were a valid concern. The rapists have an appeal pending in the Supreme Court, on which a decision has yet to be made, and a worry that this documentary could influence the legal process was valid, but highly unlikely. The rapists had already been convicted in public opinion and "fast tracked" to death by the media frenzy that engulfed the nation soon after the incident. So to assume that this film, two years later would cause interference in the judicial process was asinine.

India’s Daughter is not exhaustive in its purpose, intent or treatment. It is not a film about "rape" as a social evil in the context of India. It is not an in-depth investigation into this subject matter with all its nuances and does not pretend to be so. It is only interested in telling this particular story in the way that it happened. But by telling this singular story in gruesome detail, it hints and reveals very effectively how rape is a horrific social evil and how its perpetrators come to be formed. It puts a human face on the monster. It shows how poverty, destitution and a lack of education and a healthy family structure, can lead to a total collapse of humanity. The rapist's lack of empathy reveals the true nature of crime, both internal and external. By listening to the rapist we come to learn, how when men come of age without structure or a space for healthy sexual interaction and expression can become deviant. As a result, the rapist believed and continues to believe, that the purpose of a woman is to serve a man's libido - that is all. The seventeen-year-old juvenile rapist is a victim of his fate. His family was so destitute that he had to run away to live in the city slums, making a living among deviant men. When his family was informed about his crime, they had not heard from him in three years and presumed he was dead. Monsters are created by society, but that does not give them impunity to commit crime, but it should give us pause and not a knee jerk response as we have witnessed in the media and on online diatribes making a case for the film’s demise. 

While the documentary is set in India and is about an Indian crime, it in no way makes assumptions that this is an Indian problem alone. It definitely makes the assertion that it is a "male" disease.

Ever since this particular rape in New Delhi, the western media has made India the rape capital of the world by focusing its attention with undue concentration. The west's fascination with all things dark and dismal when it comes to India or the "third world" is not new, but it need not necessarily be a cause for every defense leading to senseless bans and over reaction. The reality exists for all to see, people should be given the freedom to make a decision on the lens they wish to see by.

While the plight of Indian women has been a cause for concern since as long as I can remember, India in no certain terms is the rape nation of the world. In numbers, more rape cases are reported in South Africa, Sweden and America than in India. But in the same breath, it is safe to say that large numbers of cases go unreported in India and many are never investigated as they take place inside marriages and in villages where law and order is fragile or non-existent. Blaming the victim for her own rape is widely prevalent in the culture. Justice for rape victims is far from real or its lynch mob or crude rural justice as seen in a recent case in Nagaland. In America for the most part, the victims are front and center and justice is swift. Even when evidence is hard to come by, the victim is given the benefit of doubt. Why women in such large numbers are violated in the west, where it is assumed they have a better standing in society, is a quandary, but it is not hard to find the symptoms in an over sexualized environment that is all too pervasive.

While Indian women face sexual harassment and other challenges, as women do all around the world, they have achieved more than what they get credit for. The feminist movement in India is strong and powerful. Women in leadership positions are spread across all strata of society. Indians love to flaunt the fact they have had a woman prime minister govern them for more decades than any other nation. Though grossly under represented, there are many women in politics and in position of power all across India even today. Much like President Obama's ascendancy did not bring an end to racism in America, having women in power has not brought any significant reform to the mindset of Indian men. In many instances there has been a regression.

While India may not top the list in rapes committed, it certainly takes the lead in female foeticide. Decades of families discarding their girl child in the womb, has resulted in a lopsided sex ratio that is troubling. Data between 1951 and 2011 shows that the sex ratio decreased from 983 to 918 women for every 1000 men. While sonograms have been made illegal in India to fight this scourge, it is not improving the situation in any significant manner. This is also a contributing factor to rape and harassment of women. 

I live in New York City now, with my wife and two daughters. There is no denying, women I have known, including my wife, who have moved here from India, feel a sense of liberation. My seventeen year old takes the subway everyday to school and while you see women on trains alone at all hours of the night, you also see women being whistled, honked, heckled at and lewdly approached. I am sure my daughter has been on the receiving end of some if this diseased behavior. While my daughter does sometimes have to deal with this, in no means does she feel unsafe. Most women who live here, feel rather safe in one of the largest cities of the world. But rape in America is a reality one cannot shy away from. A misogynistic culture is pervasive in the media. Over sexualized movies and books, such as the world wide smash hit 50 Shades of Grey (which was incidentally banned in India), while asserting they empower women, also spread a deviant and skewed image of what women want and desire. The abhorrent extent of rape in the American military was documented powerfully in the film The Invisible War. Women being treated as mere disposable sex objects in rap music as "bitches”, is widely prevalent in the youth culture of America. The statistics on the phenomenon of "date rape" on college campuses is frightening as one in four women, will be a victim of sexual assault before she completes her academic career. But in America, these issues are largely openly discussed, confronted and attacked. Films are made, books are written and information is freely exchanged for all to make up their minds. If India wants the world to see it as a modern democratic developing nation, then it really needs to look at how it deals with issues of free speech and expression.

So where do we begin to teach men to behave and treat women with respect and dignity? In India there is a dream to change the long established "mind set" of men through education and protest. This is a daunting generational task but it has to begin in earnest somewhere. But if we begin by banning films like India’s Daughter, we only move backward not forward. 

Laws cannot change values, but they can scare people into behaving when enforced. The only way I can teach my daughter to navigate the difficult world, is by giving her the tools to make the right choices and hope that she makes them. Even if she makes the right choices, I am aware that as a woman she will be at a disadvantage. But for her to begin to make the right choices she needs to have full access to all information. Censorship does damage to all our daughters and our sons. It is what it is.