Rhetoric and India’s Daughter

Is the term “daughter” patriarchal and divisive? Is it still so if used in relation to “Mother India”? Is the term “rape” a cage? Does it limit a woman’s honor? When we talk about women, how do semantics factor into the ideas that institutionalize them?

These are questions that politicise women, dividing us into factions and camps. These are questions that distract from the problems that women face. These are questions that don’t matter. What we should be asking is: Why do men abuse women? And why don’t women report sexual harassment?

How we write a woman is how we teach her. Bad writing is bad teaching, and bad teaching is bad education. Bad education makes the bad man. In a majority poor country with no education about rape it’s little wonder why historicized views reducing women to a sub-class exist.

When a woman is raped it’s an internally confounding experience. First she is disgusted. Then disgust becomes shame, shame becomes the belief she is irregular, irregularity becomes anxiety, anxiety becomes depression, and depression immobilizes.

It takes a strong stomach to watch Leslee Udwin’s film India’s Daughter, to take it all in, and to take her in. Without understanding her and her voice she could be considered a complicit asset in the lack of change after Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder, attempting to bring about change through the elite route of film festivals in developed cities that don’t understand why men rape.

There’s little wonder why this film should sting. Kavita Krishnan and her women’s group colleagues have been angry that they aren’t written into the film properly; that their voices aren’t rounded, their stories of struggle and qualified successes not told. This is not coming from a selfish place and lack of understanding of the purpose of the film, but rather it reflects a justifiable flinch at a situation that brutally inflicts a conservative society. It’s a sensitization that Udwin misunderstands. Her film feels incomplete and released compulsively, apparently lacking interviews she should have worked harder for from Jyoti’s closest friends.

And of course it’s not only the film’s subject, it’s Udwin herself. She is a talented filmmaker, and the arguments about her position of entitlement are mere pebbles cast around her feet. She comes off strongly, which can be perceived as full of it. To men, part of this is racism, but a larger part is personality. Yes, we should kick and scream and fight until women are treated equally and the abuse stops. But we also need to join our sisters who don’t kick and scream but rather protest in their own less confrontational, more compassionate or cerebral ways too. My main complaint is that if Udwin wanted this film shown in India, she needs to make it Indian. When she sacked her former Indian co-producer and accepted the BBC’s assignment of Oxford Uni professor Dr. Maria Misra she should have campaigned for an Indian voice, preferably male, preferably devout. Without him this film will always be foreign. And from a foreign film no national spirit is moved.

Not every government of the world will put our Emmeline Pankhursts on pedestals and dedicate halls in her honour. We also need the Madeleine Albrights campaigning that to win this war for women we can’t spare any sister, no matter how timid or how loud. But to rectify the fate of her film she is doing absolutely the right thing: developing a curriculum that teaches gender equality from very early learning.

For a concerted effort through change, we need early years education to inculcate a values system towards gender, male, female, and queer. We need parent education with support from a faith-based community of leaders. Conservative societies do not change their “hard-wiring” through documentaries and exposés. They are not Western like that. They listen to leaders who represent their ideas, to the societies and doctrines they themselves choose. Only once these are established can we work up the chain of law and bureaucracy, publish public service announcements, elect representatives, and so on. Only then can we take authority away from those in positions of power against women.

It cannot work in a foreign script alone. Udwin has done a brave thing, and she has sown from it some conversation so desperately needed. But her rhetoric isn’t brave, not in the East, not now. It makes like the hysteric incantations of a gypsy woman. Writing feminism is hard. Feminism cannot work in religious texts, constitutions, and commandments, no matter which they are. All of these permit male domination, which institutionalises female submissiveness. Dead texts do not rule in societies like India; religion, spirituality, and political thought do not occupy the same place in that social sphere. What works is living text that constantly revises itself. What works is demonstration, conversation, and representation.

Feminism was never achieved in any society across the world. We wrote it according to the particular language and set of standards of one moment, packaged it, branded it, then got bored and forgot about it. We need more women on screen and in print, in office and on the street, to demonstrate equality. And most importantly, we can’t afford to lose anyone in the conversation, the radicals, the conservative, the foreign, the national, the poor, the rich, the men, the women, the trans, the adults, the children, the powerful, and the helpless.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Sabeen K.’s story.