India’s Women

I had put off writing a blog post about the horrific Delhi rape and death of Jyoti Singh, the protests in India aftermath, the trial of the accused, now convicted and on the death row, and the media coverage of all these developments. We were all shocked and emotional right after the incident. I remember having a mixed feeling of fear, uneasiness, sorrow and anger. This is not about me, it is about every woman in India. The fear and uneasiness came from the realisation that how each of us could’ve been Jyoti Singh; how each of us, when taking the public transport, have been sexually assaulted, harassed by men and yet how each of us had to make that journey again the next day putting the previous day’s incidents in the back of the mind. The sorrow and anger came from the realisation that all we could do was to feel horrible for a woman who, for no fault of hers, was attacked and put through unimaginable pain.

The incident is in the news again, with Leslee Udwin’s BBC documentary India’s Daughter to be aired on 8 March 2015 at 10 pm on BBC4. What began as a documentary on the ‘rape crisis’ in India focussing specifically on the Delhi incident, goes on to portray the psyche of gender inequality and gender violence. The Indian Government has banned the film from being screened in India, whilst TV stations have been banned from televising the interview of one the convicted rapists now in Tihar jail. The government’s rationale that this documentary ‘defames’ India on the world’s stage has been criticised by many in India and abroad. And the politicians also indulged in their favourite pastime of finding a somewhat irrelevant aspect of the issue to focus on hoping that the main issue would dissipate from the public sphere: in this case, wondering if Udwin had obtained legal consent to the interview the rapist even though she has documentation to prove that she wrote to the Home Ministry, and the rapists’ defense lawyers have also participated in the interviews! Censoring dissent or ideas/expressions that subvert (what are seen as) the norms, specifically pertaining to misogyny and heteronormativity, is not new in India (and I’ll hasten to add, in other countries too!). Famously in the 1990s, the film Fire was banned because it portrayed a lesbian relationship.

I must admit that when I read about the documentary, I was rather uneasy not because of the reasons given by the Indian Government but because I wondered why and how the family would have wanted to relive the horrific incident.  As it became clear that the family had consented to the film being made, my uneasiness diminished. I would like to clarify that I do want the film to be shown not only in the UK but also in India to remind us that rape and sexual assault must not be seen as a norm in any society and that the movement that began after the incident must not dissipate. That, I strongly believe, is the only way gender inequality and gender violence can be overcome. In fact, when this issue, of banning the documentary, was debated in the Indian Parliament, a Rajya Sabha minister (upper house) argued that “it is good that the documentary has been made because it will make several men realise that they think like rapists”. Although capital punishment was given to all the convicted rapists and during the legislative measure following this incident, many  insisted on the law stipulating capital punishment for rapes, this is not necessarily the best solution because as research has proved time and again, capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent for any crime. Having said this, Udwin has said that the judge, who heard the case, admitted that this was an exceptional circumstance and hence the punishment.

On the coverage of the controversy surrounding the screening of this documentary, Udwin (for many justifiable reasons) said how she found the attitudes of several men rather shocking and ‘brutal’. She argued that she wanted to understand ‘why do men rape?’ My skepticism with the documentary lies primarily in the way media has dealt and is dealing with the issue of rape/gender violence, in general and the Delhi incident, specifically. The question we must then ask is, what is the purpose of this documentary? In other words, what has the film maker, Leslee Udwin, attempted to do in this documentary? If the primary purpose of this documentary is to ‘keep the conversation going’, then yes, it is much needed in an environment where protests and grassroots movements need such impetus.

The sensationalism that has been created by publicising the interview of one of the rapists and how he blames the victims seems rather counterproductive. As Nilanjana S Roy rightly argues, whilst Udwin was right to interview the rapist, creating a ‘buzz’ for the film through this interview is in many ways giving a voice to the perpetrator. That he has no value for another human being, specifically woman, does not need to be proven. Additionally, the fact that Udwin claims that ‘things have gotten worse’ seems to only prove the point that a ‘shock factor’ is at play here. Women raised in India and familiar with this context would agree that since the Delhi incident more cases of rapes have been reported in the Indian media; how does Udwin claim that things have gotten worse? Or has she only now become aware of how widespread the problem is? Also, to call the movement after the incident an ‘Arab Spring’ is problematic. The use of the term ‘Arab Spring’ in the media for any grassroots movements is rather ubiquitous and unhelpful. If it is used as a buzz word to make a comparison to a sensational movement (actually ‘Arab Spring’ is not a monolithic movement nor is the term ‘Arab’ – but I digress), then it proves my argument above – the film-makers are using sensationalist terms to draw attention to the documentary.

One might say that I am focussing on semantics and that the core issue, gender violence, is being completely ignored. In this context, however, semantics is very important because then the issue transforms from a gender inequality problem to an Indian problem. We are thus no way closer to solving this, rather we are attempting to frame this as a ‘natural’, ‘psyche’ of the Indian society. In other words, we are taking an Orientalist approach to gender violence, which Rana Kabbani, in her fabulous text, has discussed in detail. Radhika Santhanam shares some of my critiques here.

What might be a responsible way for the media to address this problem?

The theory of Mediatisation (media shaping and framing the issues) is closely related to two other mass communication theories – Agenda Setting & Framing. The crux of the theories is that media has the ability – through its coverage, placing and framing of issues – to shape the viewers’ perception. Numerous studies have used these theories in various fields specifically in Political Communication and Journalism.Take the example of the UK’s No More Page 3 campaign or the campaign against so-called ‘lads mags.’ The fundamental argument of these campaigns is that by portraying women in a particular way, in this case unwarranted nudity, an association is made with sexual violence against women. Coming back to the specific issue of ‘rape crisis’ in India, an opinion article in The Hindu wrote about ‘normalising’ incidents of rapes by incessant reporting by the news media: the writer argued for a responsible coverage of the issue, instead of reporting incidents of rapes like that of daily weather.  This idea, that the media can influence public opinion, also makes a case for a responsible media. What might seem idealistic is in fact very important and practical here.

What do I mean here by responsible media coverage? If we are speaking of incidents of rapes and violence against women, we must also talk about the daily sexual assaults and harassment women face in India. I have argued on this blog and on twitter that within the context of India violence against women focuses mostly on rapes but does not give nearly the same attention to the daily sexual harassment and assaults women experience in the public sphere. Media institutions must come out against violence against women, yes – but not only as a matter of political correctness, they must avoid misogynist heteronormative coverage of news involving women in general. That is – a news organisation cannot condemn rapes on the front page and carry sexist articles about women in the entertainment section. This is far too common in many Indian news publications. It is hypocritical and counterproductive. It is important for the media to remember that gender violence exists across the world; the ratios are different but the issue still remains, something this article by Suzanne Moore has shown well. Of course, this does not say that I am using the ubiquity of gender violence as a counter-argument or even a defense for what happens in India. On the contrary, I am arguing that whilst it seems easier for the Western media to claim a moral high ground on how women are treated in the West, a favourite argument used whilst Othering Middle Eastern countries and ‘third world’ countries generally, it is important to remember that violence against women exists in every society. Using the argument of ‘it’s much worse over there’ is hardly an answer or a solution.

Grassroots movements are one important aspect to ending gender violence and gender inequality. And those who are familiar with the political system in India would know that it is utterly naive to expect politicians and the government to be the agents of change. If that were true, then every country in the West with a law to end violence against women should have achieved gender equality – and we all know that that is not true. Change must then come collectively from various sections of the society. Media, as one of the key players in a society, must aide these grassroots movements… responsibly!


Thanks to Dr Michael Marten for comments on the draft version of this blog post.

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4 thoughts on “India’s Women

  1. Reblogged this on In The Public Sphere and commented:
    Today, on International Women’s Day, my colleague Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan has written an excellent wee blog on gender violence in India and elsewhere, reflecting on the BBC programme about the brutal rape of Jyoti Singh and related issues.

  2. Good article. Dan Ariely in his book “The Upside of Irrationality” talks about “The Identifiable Victim Effect” in which he traces the reasons on why we respond to one person who needs help but not to many. As an example, he talks about “Baby Jessica” saga in which 100 of 1000’s of $s were donated to a rescued girl with great CNN coverage than say Rwanda genocide in which 800,000 people including many babies were brutally murdered. Several social experiments were conducted to understand this phenomena and there is a great deal of psychology to it. Basically rational thought can block empathy and this documentary being an outcome of a rational process might have more to do with publicity than with empathy. Regardless, it is not going to create any impact because it is clearly a case of identifiable victim effect.

    1. Thank you taking time to comment. I am not familiar with the theory you are referring to here. Within the field of media studies, there is an issue of proximity-related relevance: people respond to news coverage on something that is happening ‘at home’ rather than ‘over there’. Within Postcolonial Studies, this is highly relevant because the question of hegemonic discourse intersects here. The work I referred to, Orientalism, by Edward Said is primarily about this: how are issues/people/societies/cultures framed, etc. I am sure ‘The Identifiable Victim Effect’ is in some way related to media coverage of an issue and its efficacy.

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