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?

Breaking Silences! by Priya Mirchandani

(Photographs by Sinbad Phgura Photography)

The lambs have found their voice. And, when the time is right, a solitary cry can turn into a roaring revolution of change….

The curtain rises to reveal the interiors of a bus. Four men sit slumped in their seats, as a couple enters. The door slams shut even before the bus speeds off. What follows is the dramatisation of the savagery that was inflicted on Nirbhaya, a young Delhi professional, and her male friend on the night of December 16, 2012. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s just as difficult to look away.

The unravelling threads of Nirbhaya’s life are then picked up one at a time, by five women who dare to bare – their scars, their grief and their stories. In short stark monologues, each one breaks her silence. Poorna Jagannathan (formerly seen in Delhi Belly) – who is also the producer of the play – shares her pain at being repeatedly molested by a trusted adult, and then being mauled and groped for years, in Delhi buses while going to school. “For that one hour,” she whispers, “my body isn’t mine. It belongs to everyone on that bus, to do with it as they please. I step out of my body. It’s the only way the child in me knows to survive.” Every woman in the auditorium knows what this feels like, and identifies with her helplessness.

Priyanka Bose (who made an impact in Gulaab Gang) unleashes her furious inner child, still raging at her parents for dismissing the recurring sexual abuse by male domestics. She wipes away angry tears, knowing she’s speaking up to ensure that her child and every other child out there can grow up without being preyed upon in their very own homes.

Sapna Bhavnani, feisty celebrity hairstylist, steps up and confesses to how hard it’s been for her to break the silence to herself. Gang-raped at the age of 20 on a cold Chicago street and tossed into a dumpster, she has never quite been able to confront what happened that night. Her body is now so heavily inked with tattoos that it is hard to find a patch of clear skin. As she watches Nirbhaya fighting for her life, it dawns on Sapna that she’s hiding her wounds behind her tattoos. Twenty years after it happens, she finally musters up the nerve to say the words aloud to herself and let them sink in. “I was gang-raped,” she repeats now on stage, and shares her grim story.

Hiding her scars is not even an option for Sneha Jawale. A dowryburning survivor, her disfigured face makes words unnecessary in her story. Yet speak she does, and relives her ordeal on stage, hoping to reunite with the son that was snatched away by her perpetrators, her in-laws, after setting her ablaze.

The final testimony comes from the exquisite Rukhshar Kabir, a waif-like creature, whose pain breaks through the gentle, calm exterior – a product of a violent and abusive childhood followed by a marriage many shades worse. Before being thrown out on the streets, she was made to pick one of her two children to take with her. She now shares the agony of a desolate mother who flees with her female child, hoping that the male she has left behind will at least be spared the gender-based abuse that seems to shroud the women in that family.

Ankur Vikal, the sole male cast member, plays the male antagonist to each one of the protagonists, masterfully personifying every misogynistic, violent and nauseatingly brutal crime that has been inflicted on these women, and countless others, for centuries. Nirbhaya, the muse, is played hauntingly by British-Indian actor Japjit Kaur.

Status quo is never a good thing. It smacks of inertia, reeks of resignation and spells stagnation – especially if it has remained unchallenged for centuries. Gender abuse and sexual violence is one such issue that has been lulled to sleep in patriarchal societies all over the world. Every now and then there is a loud blip on the graph, but just for an insignificant nano-second, and then it is back to slumber land. The year 2012-13 has been one of those blips on the Indian graph, triggered by the brutal rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi, followed by the Goa Thinkfest debacle. The strident public response to both these is what has enabled the media spotlight to remain trained on the rampantly recurring instances of sexual abuse throughout the country.

So, as you watch Nirbhaya, you rise to your feet, applauding these women, their courage and resilience, not realising that the evening of breaking silences has not quite ended. In fact, it has just begun. Hands shoot up everywhere in the audience. A comfortable shawl of intimacy seems to envelop every person in the theatre, and people begin sharing. We hear reactions to what they have seen; confessions about distorted perceptions that have now got corrected, promises and pledges to reach out to survivors with support and empathy, and finally, the stories – theirs or their loved ones.

That’s when it dawns on you what this play is all about. It’s about awakening a Nirbhaya in every survivor of sexual violence, in this country and beyond. It’s about keeping that flame of righteous indignation that spilled on to the streets in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, alive and burning. It’s about pushing for justice and social change in a society that is plagued by inertia, resignation, even regression. And no one could do a better job of cameo-ing social injustices on stage than South African director Yael Farber, a testimonial-theatre veteran, known for her sensitive but strident portrayal of issues like Apartheid.

When Nirbhaya fell so tragically, she set off a wave of seismic reactions, and the dominos continue to topple, after every show, in every city, across the world. Walls come down, barriers are broken, voices that have remained muzzled for decades break free, tormenting secrets are told and hearts unburdened, denial is shrugged off and hurt validated. Most importantly, loss is mourned and life embraced. All this, in what Team Nirbhaya calls ‘The Aftercare’: forty -five minutes of free-range audience participation, with members of the cast taking questions and soliciting sharing. A very thoughtful gesture is the presence of NGOs on discreet little counters outside the auditorium. Should anyone in the audience feel the need for professional intervention, for themselves or someone else who may need help, one can just pick up a card with contact details, and follow up later, in privacy. In every city where Nirbhaya is staged, the team hands over the baton to a panel of experts – social workers, lawyers, human rights activists, celebrities, doctors and counsellors, who will examine the city’s sexual violence and abuse trends and history, and blue-print a way forward. The wheels of change are whirring into motion.

The Fringe Festival in Edinburgh greeted this powerful piece of theatre with a standing ovation every single day. Nirbhaya has now become the gi    rl who could not be silenced even by death.

Reprinted with permission from Verve.com