When Leslee Udwin titled her film, 'India's Daughter', it made every man in India look like a culprit. She expressed the chilling opinion that these men, who brutally raped Jyoti Singh Pandey in December of 2012, were not sociopathic or psychopathic monsters, but a reflection of the men of a nation that doesn’t respect or care for its women. I am the first to speak out about the violations on women’s rights in India; I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, and I know it is an enormous injustice that needs to be addressed. Condemning every Indian man as capable of rape however, is a horribly unfair injustice that in no way reflects the majority attitude of the country. For every man who falls under this generalization, is stripped of his humanity and of the empathy and very nature which make us human. It's not just India's daughters, it is the daughters of every nation on earth in which women face violence and inequality, which is every nation on earth.
For these reasons, I wanted to write this in defence of India; a critique on the demonization of a nation, and possibly a reaction to those whose view of India is shaped solely by the media. I wanted to argue that our perspectives are biased and undoubtedly shaped by a myriad of process working to solidify our superiority over the “uncivilized other”. I felt disillusioned by the facility with which we could generalize, qualify, and ultimately vilify a nation of more than a billion people. Yet it didn’t feel entirely right; I felt conflicted between defending a nation and defending women, and quickly realized how incredibly complicated it all is. I do believe that an unfair representation has been placed on India and that the media has cultivated a misunderstanding of this nation and the vast majority of its people. I have tried to understand with a realistic and critical eye and despite the sensationalization always present in the news, the implications of the reality that a woman in India is raped every twenty minutes are undeniable. The fact remains that despite the attention and possible contortions presented by the global media, women in India and all over the world experience inequality, oppression, and violence daily on an inadmissible scale. A recent UN study on Men and Violence in Asia showed that an unbelievable majority of up to ninety percent of accused never faced a single consequence. Women who report being raped are often not taken seriously, subjected to humiliating medial tests, stigmatized, and shamed in their communities for life. Many live under an archaic ideology that has viewed them as second class citizens and pieces of property for hundreds of years. These most recent cases however, have marked a watershed moment for many Indians, forcing the country to introspect on how it treats its women. It is increasingly acknowledged, nationally and internationally, that India needs to see massive societal and cultural changes in order for its women to feel secure.
I was in Delhi for the trials in 2012. I watched the four men accused of the brutal rape and murder of the twenty-three year old medical student aboard a bus in Delhi. When it happened, the case hit a public nerve and the country erupted in protest, calling for harsher punishment and more responsible conviction. The international media jumped to expose India’s “culture of rape” and highlighted the danger and violence facing its women. Since then, several additional high profile cases of rape have emerged, one involving a tourist and the other a journalist, both of which offer a stark contrast to the narratives we’ve come to believe about what a marginalized and abused woman looks like. Protests in India have focused on the abysmally low conviction rate of men accused of rape and called for harsher punishments. This public pressure forced the government to expand the definition of what constitutes rape, implement minimum sentences, and lift the security blanket protecting certain groups, like police, from conviction. These are significant changes, but many onlookers have redirected focus to the wider impact of the cases, beginning a broader conversation around the cultural norms, values, and systems of violence that drive men to feel a sexual entitlement over women.
I believe this is what the documentary was trying to, and could have addressed. That the problem begins at birth when if girls survive infancy at all, they eat after their brothers, they don’t go to school, and they are often viewed as a burden on a family. But the film’s narrow condemnation of men as the problem did a disservice to its potential in steering the discussion towards the deep national and global societal issues that underlie those attitudes toward women. Almost all societal dysfunctions, when you look deeply enough, are rooted in poverty. Global poverty is the manifestation of an ongoing historical process of exploitation, marginalization and oppression in which every country on earth plays a role in perpetuating. We have to look at these issues not as those of the uncivilized other, but as a consequence of our own lives, actions, and attitudes. It’s too easy to point the finger from a self-righteous pedestal of privilege.
There is no doubt that India must address gender inequality, and while news coverage over the past two years has focused on the dangers of being a woman in India, I’ll argue that it marks the beginning of change, and not necessarily an increasing threat. The increasing number of reports of crimes against women does not signify a growth in crimes, but is rather the result of a changing societal mentality that is stepping forward and making a stand to protect its women. Part of the focus on India has been a result of the unrest manifesting in protests, rallies, and a growing movement stating it will no longer tolerate the violence facing women. These are indicators of a country on a path of evolution- one that has awoken to the significance of the violence and is demanding change. Subjects buried beneath centuries of taboo are being discussed openly, challenged, and male and female youth alike are uniting peacefully for a cause that affects every nation on earth. Archaic laws are being questioned, patriarchal mindsets challenged, and transparency and accountability in law demanded. The problems rooted in these historical systems are far deeper than just a matter of the law, but it’s a good place to start.
India has a long road ahead, as does the rest of the world. The four men convicted Jyoti’s rape have been sentenced to death. In Montana, a fifty year old teacher received a thirty day sentence after raping his fourteen year student, who later committed suicide. In that case, we reduced it to an isolated incident that doesn’t speak to the US as a country of villainous rapists; but that’s what we’ve done to India. It is not a barbaric society, and millions of men and women are acknowledging and fighting the problems plaguing their nation, with integrity. I believe things are changing and I believe there is more to understand. In India, I encountered more unencumbered generosity and good people than anywhere else I’ve been on earth. It transformed my conditioned perspectives of necessity, wealth, humanity, and I was taught some of the most important lessons of my life. I am aware of the dangers facing me as a woman, there like anywhere else, and I will be mindful and cautious. I will not however, allow what I believe to be exacerbated narratives born of misunderstanding and biases withhold me from experiencing the beauty, wisdom, and kindness of incredible India and its magnificent people.