Why I Am Not Celebrating a Female Doctor Who

There was much rejoicing on both sides of the Atlantic about the BBC’s recent announcement that the 13th Doctor Who will be played by a woman.

As a feminist and someone who fights for gender equality, I am not celebrating.

Doctor Who is an original BBC science-fiction series that launched in 1963 and ran until 1989, and then revived in 2005. At face value it might feel like progress, that after more than fifty years, the BBC has finally cast a female lead. And my objection might seem counter-intuitive, but my problem is that this is entirely the wrong kind of progress on this issue.

My mother-in-law, a wise woman, was also a path breaker in the field of medicine, during a time when it was entirely male-dominated; she explains my disappointment with something she used to say, “The moment they allow a woman into a profession, you know the money has left it.”

To be clear, I am not talking about how much Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who, will get paid (although I am curious if her salary will be on par with her male predecessors); what I am referring to is the idea that we still seem to be perfectly willing to accept sloppy seconds for women in this modern society or ours.

In every field, it still feels like it is only when men are done fully dominating, do they acquiesce and allow a woman into it. Doctor Who is yet another example of a role written for a man, that we are now telling a woman she can play – how bloody generous of us men, in 2017…

If we wait long enough then women will eventually be able to do all the things men have discarded. Is this the message we want to teach our daughters?

There are those who will argue that it is still not a bad thing and it does no harm to have a woman helm the same characters that men have forever been associated with. We have witnessed this trend with an all-female Ghostbusters movie, now a Doctor Who, and next maybe we will see a Jane Bond, a Harriet Potter and India Jones?

Following this path might make us feel better but it is superficial and intellectually lazy: please let’s not call it progress.

It actually does more harm than good, because rather than strive for true equality, we satisfy ourselves with the false belief that we are on our way to achieving it, and pretend that we are making strides, when we are really just taking settling for much less.

Most importantly, acquiescing to this path lets the male dominated TV and movie studios completely off the hook, while allowing them to cheaply reboot tired old series and characters under the guise of promoting feminism.

No.

We will only make honest progress when the BBCs and Hollywood studios start investing the same millions of dollars writing new, original female characters that can go on to become screen and merchandising legends in their own right. We must not let them get away with recasting old male characters to gain PR and novelty value at the box office.

I want to see the silver and streaming screen graced with a generation of strong female heroes who will show our daughters that women can do anything. I want to see female characters that not only serve as role models for our daughters, but also become an inspiration for every young boy.

That is real progress, and until we start to see this happen, this feminist will refrain from celebrating.

Advertisements

Why We Should Use Our Outrage For Good

(Image credit: Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press)

WARNING: long read…

While I was surprised by the small but vocal backlash, against India’s Daughter, I was even more amazed to see the amount of time and energy people have spent writing blogs, tweeting, posting, gathering and sharing global rape statistics (someone has even made a YouTube documentary called “United Kingdom’s Daughter”). All this to discredit a documentary that does more than any other I have seen to honour the memory of an amazing woman who lost her life in a brutal gang rape in India.

The thing that saddens me most is that, if even half these people spent half of the same energy to actually start a discussion on the gender inequality issues we have in India (like every other country), just imagine the progress we could have already made.

To begin with, I don’t know how anyone who has seen this documentary can say that it is an indictment of Indian society and ALL Indian men. While I saw some of our imperfections (as with EVERY society on the planet), I also saw the story of a beautiful, modern, smart, independent young woman with forward thinking and open-minded parents. It made me want to strive to create a society where Nirbhaya’s are the rule, and not the exception. Why not put every last bit of energy we have towards making India a country where “a girl can do anything”, as Nirbhaya used to say.

Nobody in the world, or in their right mind, believes that rape, sexual abuse, misogyny and sexism are a uniquely Indian problem. Some of the outraged point to a Western media bias against India, saying the media only focuses on negative stories about India. To them I say, yes, there absolutely is a bias in Western media, but surely you do not believe that this documentary is part of some greater conspiracy to malign India, because the facts within it remain undisputed. The brutal rape happened, Nirbhaya’s parents have suffered, all India was outraged and our judiciary and government took unprecedented action as a result of it, and the attitudes of some men (not ALL Indian men) exist in society.

Also, when did the Western media become our moral compass for how we see ourselves? I for one do not care what the Western media has to say about India; we are defined by our own actions. Let us never forget that. What I am saying is that even if the film was biased, why not take the parts that are real and work to fix them. A great nation does not fear criticism or cower when faced with unsavory truths, but shows the world a better way and leads from the front. I want India to respond by demonstrating how we will take the lead on the gender equality movement, and in doing so show the rest of the world a better way forward. That is the best %#&@ you…

One final thought on this; it is easy to be critical of everyone and everything. Criticism comes very easy to all of us, and it also makes for more pithy tweets, Facebook posts and attention grabbing headlines. But in the end, criticism alone neither fosters meaningful dialogue nor facilitates the type of debate than can lead to change. In this storm of criticism, consider that the most important aspect, Nirbhaya, has become a footnote.

So we can choose to stay focused on being critical of every little detail, event and person, ignoring that there is no such thing as perfection and that we are all imperfect. Or we can accept that change does not come about in a logical fashion, on some pre-ordained schedule or through luck and prayer. Instead, we can recognise that serendipity most often arises out of all the imperfection, horror and chaos around us. If we can seize on these opportunities and use them to further causes (for the greater good, rather than for ourselves) then we have a much better chance of achieving success and creating lasting change.

Now let’s examine the so-called ‘facts’ and the various arguments that people have been throwing around in social media to discredit the film and film maker.

1. Shocking as it may be to see and hear in full technicolour, nothing the rapist or his lawyers say are things we have not heard from our own leaders from across the gender, political and social spectrum. Read: “Why India’s Daughter Holds A Mirror to Our Society” (each quote has a link to a reputable media source). I think we can also agree that the rapist and his lawyers were not provided a script and were all allowed to speak their minds. As an aside, I also appreciate the fact that the documentary had no narration; which one can argue might have given it an inherent bias.

2. Leslee Udwin has stated many times and even sworn in an interview with Scroll.in, on her children’s life, that she did not pay a single penny to the rapist or his lawyers to gain the interviews. One other point to consider is that is entirely plausible that Mukesh Singh was prepped by his lawyers and encouraged to speak in order to help his plea hearing. It might explain why he kept insisting that he was always behind the wheel and never touched Nirbhaya.

3. There has been much flap about why Nirbhaya’s friend, who was with her on the bus, did not appear in the film. Any psychologist will tell you that a person who has suffered the level of physical and emotional trauma he did will likely take dozens of years before they are able to talk about it; leave alone publicly. This is a well-documented fact. Second, Ms. Udwin has said that she tried for six months to get him on film but that he refused. More recently Ms. Udwin told the Asian Age that he asked for money and she refused on moral grounds. (Source: Asian Age article).

4. Ms. Udwin clarifies in another interview that Nirbhaya’s father did not want to use his daughter’s real name in the Indian version but agreed to feature it in the International one. However, with the Indian government banning the film, neither she nor the BBC has had much control over which version is being posted across the internet. However, I do think people are rightly upset with the narrow and ‘sensational’ manner in which the BBC chose to market it, and for removing global rape statistics at the end of the film. Ms. Udwin says this was done without her permission and she too is unhappy about it.

5. I have seen the graphic below posted in many places to prove that there are more rapes in the developed world than in India.

Rape Stats

Again, nobody has claimed that rape is solely an Indian problem but let’s review these statistics, with some additional context, and by digging a little deeper into some of the unique underlying societal issues:

  • Marital rape is still considered legal in India (unlike in the USA and UK)
  • Until very recently, an 18th century, ‘two-finger’ test was still being used on rape victims in India. There are still questions on whether this recent ban has been fully implemented (Firstpost article).
    • Further, until the outcry after what happened to Nirbhaya there was little rape sensitivity training within the police force that I am aware of. Personally, I know in many cities I still think twice about involving the police in ANY matter. Ask yourself how comfortable a woman might feel going to a police station in Haryana to report being raped?
    • Consider what we subject rape victims to during the legal process and how they are repeatedly humiliated in open court, as happened with both Suzette Jordan (Scroll.in article) and the Uber rape victim.
    • It is true that across the world, rape is the most underreported crime, but if we are honest with ourselves, can we deny that in India there are perhaps greater societal and familial pressures NOT to report incidents – for fear of “shaming” the family?  Globally, and in India, some 90%+ of rapes are committed by someone known to the rape victim.

The point is that there are still many barriers and disincentives in the Indian systems and society that we need to work on changing.

  • The practice of dowry is still prevalent practice, and nobody can deny that in many parts of India, girls continue to be seen as financial burdens while boys are considered prized possessions. But don’t take my word for it:
    • Look at gender gap figures from a 2013 World Economic Forum study where we “emerged at the near-bottom of the heap, before only Azerbaijan” (Source: Times of India).
    • Or at the female foeticide figures; a panel of Indian experts, gathered at CII earlier this year, described it as “Though, a lot of laws and acts have been framed against this evil, until and unless mind sets see a revolution, the gender ratio will keep falling” (Source: Times of India)
  • Look at a 2014 study of attitudes among youth conducted across 11 major cities in India which found that the importance of “gender equality” scored the lowest. Here are a few other findings (Source: Firstpost article):
    • “52% of Young India thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen”
    • “39% of girls and 43% of boys, agreed that women have no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence”
    • “55% women and 59% men, whether a woman wears jeans or a sari, her clothing is to blame if a man chooses to manhandle her”
    • “A whopping 43% of the men are under the impression that well, tough luck women, you had that coming, now suck it up and accept it (on sexual violence)”

6. Some feminists have also been critical of the film for ignoring their movement in India. First, this film was never meant to document the rise of feminism in India, or showcase the movement. I laud all the women in India who have dedicated their lives and been championing gender equality. Many have been shouting till they are hoarse from the rooftops for decades – and now suddenly a British woman has appeared out of nowhere and grabbed all the headlines, perhaps positioning herself as the champion of this cause. While, I fully understand where the emotions are coming from (and they are justified), I also ask if the issue is not bigger than any one individual or movement. In the end, does it matter if the spark was lit by a white woman or a green Martian? Why not use it as an opportunity to now take control of the debate and further this cause by driving the public discussion. Let’s use it to keep the media spotlight on the issue and affect much needed change in our society.

7. The title has been another bone of contention because some say it serves to reinforce the patriarchal mindset that exists in society. On the title, even if one concedes this as a valid point, does it really matter? Living in America with political correctness now reaching a point where such great care is taken not use even a vaguely incorrect or offensive term – I feel like the focus on the actual issues and debate is more often than not diluted. This undue sensitivity and hang-up with words or terminology might make us feel better, but it also serves to ensure that we miss the forest for the trees.

8. There has also been much ink spilled over Ms. Udwin allegedly flouting and disrespecting Indian laws, both during the approval process and with the film’s release. Yet, the government, in all their rhetoric, so far has been unable to make its case in a way that separates the legal and procedural aspects from the content of the documentary. If it turns out that Ms. Udwin broke laws, then absolutely prosecute her, BUT it still does not change the realities contained on film. It seems to me that the government is more ashamed of the picture it paints of India and the negative impact it might have on India’s image abroad; rather than any serious legal lapses. They have gone as far as calling it a crime that Ms. Udwin released the film – I ask them; would it not be a greater crime NOT to release this film, sweeping these realities under the carpet and never giving us an opportunity to change them?

Why We Must Watch India’s Daughter (an Indian man’s perspective)

I cried when I watched this documentary.

I did not cry because I was shocked by what the rapists or their lawyers said or from shame, based on their views about women (they did not say anything India and the world does not already know), but because of the dignity and grace of Nirbhaya’s parents and because of the glimpse we get of a truly amazing young woman, who would have made us all proud. The BBC was wrong to market it in the way they did; they decided, like most media institutions today, to pursue a path of cheap publicity to gain views through sensationalism and controversy by focusing on the rapists. This film is not about the rapists.

I cannot even begin to fathom the enormity of her parents’ loss or the depth of their suffering. Yet they have presented themselves with an élan and dignity rarely shown by world leaders or royalty. Their wisdom, stoic demeanour and perspective prove once more that being rich or poor has nothing to do with human dignity and grace. I know a lot of wealthy and well-educated people who have far more medieval and regressive attitudes toward girls. Nirbhaya’s father and mother not only celebrated the birth of their daughter with the same fanfare reserved for boys, but also gave her everything they would have given a boy.

Unlike most of us in India, they realised that their child’s happiness had little to do with what they might want for her or what our society’s minimal and ambitionless expectations are. They decided that the greatest gift they could give her was to nurture the independent spirit with which she was born, and do everything in their power and limited means to help her realise her dreams; not their dreams. So when she asked them to invest the money her father was saving for her marriage into her education, they not only obliged but also sold their ancestral property to help.

Instead of forcing their child down a path of marriage and throttling her ambitions, they lauded and supported her choices. It seems like they gave her a strong value system, taught her to differentiate right from wrong, instilled principles and then let her fly. They allowed her to make her own choices and mistakes, but were there to help and support when she asked for it. I think many parents today feel that they need to protect their children from the world, when they really need to give them the values and skills that will help them take on and face the world.

I was also moved by a story about a boy who tried to steal Nirbhaya’s purse. A policeman caught the boy and started to beat him until she intervened and asked the cop to stop. She told him that beating the child would not help him learn his mistake. She took the boy aside and asked him why he tried to steal her purse. He told her that, like her, he too wanted nice clothes, shoes and to be able to eat hamburgers. She bought the boy everything he asked for but also made him promise never to steal again. Wow. Her actions are again a testament to how her parents brought her up. And it makes me think about how we are busy building statues for Mayawati and temples for Modi – boy, do we have our priorities all wrong.

Yes, the film also interviews one of the rapists and the defence lawyers. But it neither glorifies rape nor gives these men a platform for self-aggrandisement; in fact, it left me feeling the opposite. I felt sorry for these sad and lost men who are clearly trapped by their small minds and their medieval misogyny. But the thing that struck me most about what the rapists and their lawyers said was that it sounded like the same things our politicians and leaders have been saying for years (See: Why India’s Daughter Holds Mirror to our Society”); their attitudes about women’s place in our society and their indifference towards women was no different. This, I believe is the reason, our leaders have had such a violent, vicious and fearful reaction to this film. They cannot bear to look into this mirror…

The reason I believe that every Indian MUST watch this film is two-fold. One, rape is a global problem, not just an Indian one, and monsters exist in every society. Let’s use this as an opportunity to begin an honest and public debate about our demons. This way we can start to change the attitudes of the next generation of men, empower women with self-worth and give them equal rights from birth. If we refuse to confront the ugly truths behind its underlying causes, we will only ever treat the symptoms; much like our government does with hastily passing new laws banning lingerie on shop mannequins or by banning Uber.

The second reason is to honour the memory of Nirbhaya. She wanted to live; even after everything that happened. Nirbhaya wanted to be a doctor, she called it the most honourable profession – being able to heal people and save lives. Let’s use this as an opportunity to make India a place where a “girl can do anything,” as she used to say.

If we do this together, not only can we create a stronger and more powerful India, but we will honour Nirbhaya’s memory and ensure that she lives forever.