India’s Daughter/Sister/Mother

Like every other amateur feminist, I watched India’s Daughter, the BBC documentary on a 2012 Delhi gang rape. It hit close to home, and left me shaken. Frankly, I watched the documentary only because of the controversial court order by the Indian government that required YouTube to pull down the video in India. I wanted to see for myself what the government deemed so slanderous.

Jyoti Singh was a 23 year old medical student who was visiting her parents during a short break between college and an internship. She stepped out one night with a male friend to watch a movie at a nearby theatre. On the way back, she was gang raped and assaulted in a moving bus, and subsequently both she and her friend were thrown from the bus. She later succumbed to the injuries sustained during the attack.

The incident sparked a number of protests and demonstrations throughout the country. It is easy to understand why. Jyoti had just finished a professional course, and was months away from earning a salary that would pull her family out of their financial difficulties. In a way, she was reinforcing New India’s belief that daughters can be as good as sons. Also, she was behaving in a manner that has become commonplace among young working women: While our parents’ generation frowns upon spending time in public with male friends, and being out at night, it is something that most of us do, whether out of necessity or choice.

The makers of India’s daughter have interviewed Jyoti’s parents, one of the accused, the lawyer who defended the culprits, and a couple of experts on Indian society. Watching her parents talk about the death of their daughter, who was clearly their pride and joy, was heartbreaking. On the other hand, her rapists show no remorse for their actions. About her grievous bodily injuries, one man says: “We had to do it, how dare she struggle against us?”. Their lawyer, despite presumably being educated, says that being outdoors after dark with a male who was not a relative was unacceptable, and that she deserved physical punishment.

As a documentary, I feel like the director spent too much time on this (admittedly horrible) case. A single incident, and maybe five or six inhuman perpetrators, is much too small a sample space for a nation of 1.2 billion people. While Indians are aware of the high incidence of violence against women, we also know that most of the time, women work late and travel home at night without any trouble. People from other countries, however, do not have this context and are likely to assume that India is a lawless, scary place for women. In fact, stories about male Indian college students being denied internships in foreign countries (“because we don’t want rape culture in our lab” have been doing the rounds on the Internet. Historically, westerners have often succumbed to the belief that they are the saviours of the natives, or something of the sort, and the makers of this documentary are no different. The Indian government may be justified in taking offense at this one sided portrayal.

This affected me because though the culprits (and their lawyer!) are most definitely misguided and misogynistic, there is an undercurrent of truth in their harsh words. Everyone has a nosy middle aged neighbour who passes judgement on their ‘immodest’ or ‘unkempt’ clothing and their habit of meeting friends every weekend. Most girls, and even some boys, are encouraged to avoid travelling after sunset for the sake of safety and propriety. Most rapes and sexual abuse are never reported. Though the situation is certainly not as bleak as India’s Daughter would have one believe, India’s metros need to work on ensuring safety for women and girls.

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