India’s MPs: Bringing Shame Through Silencing
Full credit must be given to BBC for their decision to air Storyville: India’s Daughter last night, ahead of schedule, in response to the lunacy displayed yesterday in India’s Parliament, and by the attempts to ban the screening of the film, not just in India, but absurdly beyond the country’s borders as well. The embarrassing display by India’s politicians, and indeed by a Delhi court which granted the ban within India, represents yet another missed opportunity for India to have a public discussion on equality. Yes, the film made deeply uncomfortable viewing. Yes, there might be questions as to the timing of the airing of the film, given that the appeal process is not yet complete. Yes, there might even be questions about how access to Tihar Jail was achieved. But it is not the BBC, or the director that shames India. It is India’s own inability to host an open discussion about how to achieve the equality granted to her women in the Constitution. As Leila Seth (former Chief Justice and one of the three authors of the Verma report following the horrific rape) eloquently puts it in the documentary, equality “hasn’t happened because the men don’t allow it to happen” and because of the traditions that allow an embedded patriarchy to govern both men and women. Justice and accountability demand that conversation to happen, and it is very long overdue.
Indian MPs, in their childish cries of defamation, fail to realise that this debate is about India, and how India moves forward. None of this is to suggest that rape and misogyny are exclusively Indian traits. Nor is it illegitimate to point out the rates of sexual violence in other countries. Of course, sexism and violence against women remains a global debate. Progress universally needs to take giant strides forward. But this particular debate is about India. This particularly gruesome crime took place in India’s capital city. And if India’s politicians don’t allow that debate to take place within India, therein lies the critical obstacle to progress. There is a “fantastically strong civil society” movement in India that rose up in huge protests after Jyoti Singh’s rape, which the documentary depicts. It equally depicts the ugliness of the police response to those protests. This is a country in transition. This, like the rest of the world, is a gender model in progress. But the debate in India needs to be contextualised within India’s own mores and norms. Some of those mores and norms are so deeply embedded within a tradition of silence, let’s talk sex ratios at birth just to take one example, that it is time to shout loudly.
There has been a lot of debate about whether this film swaggers with a “white saviour” complex. I reserved judgment until I had seen it. Perhaps those who seek to block the film should see what the rapists had to say for themselves. Perhaps they should ask whether the views expressed by those rapists, and by their defence lawyers, represent the views of anybody they know in India. Those remorseless views, provided with a straight shameless face, need exposure. These distorted, twisted views need to be exposed. And if it doesn’t happen in the context of the most extreme crimes, it is hard to imagine when it will. Nothing in this film will surprise those who have followed news in India since the rape happened. But it is the collection of viewpoints, gathered systematically from the key actors, in chronological order, that is particularly hard-hitting.
As a lawyer myself, I was stunned by the comments of the lawyers, even though I had heard the worst of them expressed before at the time of the verdict. That these men are permitted by their Bar Association to continue to practice in a profession which is bound to uphold the law and Constitution brings the Indian Bar into disrepute. That they continue to be permitted to practice speaks volumes about how common their views are amongst segments of society.
The quotes below are taken directly from the film. They need no embellishment.
The Convicted Rapists:
“A decent girl won’t roam around at night at 9pm.”
“A girl is more responsible for a rape than the boy.”
“Housework and homekeeping is for girls, not roaming in bars and nightclubs, doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.”
“20% of girls are good”.
(On the death penalty for rapists) “Now when they rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her.”
The defence lawyers: ML Sharma and AP Singh:
“A female is like a flower. It gives a good looking very softness performance, pleasant. But on the other hand a man is just like a thorn. Strong, tough enough. That flower always needs protection. If you put that flower in a gutter, it is spoilt. If you put that flower in a temple, it will be worshipped.”
“In our society we never allow our girls to come out of the house after 6.30 with unknown persons.”
“If very necessary, it if it very urgent, that she should go outside, she should go with family members like uncle, father, mother… She should not go in the night with the boyfriend.”
“They left our Indian culture.”
“She should not be out on the street just like food.”
“If you put your diamond on the street, certainly the dog will take it out. You can’t stop it.”
“You are talking about men and women as friends. Sorry, that doesn’t happen in our society.”
“A woman means immediately put the sex in his eyes.”
“We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman”.
“If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing those things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.” (A P Singh stood by that statement when asked by the filmmaker).
A friend of Jyoti Singh says in the documentary that Jyoti used to say a girl can do anything. She was robbed of that opportunity. The only light to come from that darkness is the opportunity to talk about this openly. To ask why the English word for “rape” is used instead of a Hindi word. To ask why lawyers are permitted to ‘uphold’ the law and Constitution whilst advocating a sick violence against women. To ask why a woman’s “honour” is questioned by her ability to leave the house unguarded. By her choice to live her life as she chooses. It’s not about Daughterhood. It’s not about Sisterhood. It’s about a woman’s right to live her life, and to be granted her human rights as a equal citizen under the Constitution of India. The performance of India’s politicians yesterday shows how afraid they are of what that question represents for the male hierarchy that continues to dominate Indian society. This film isn’t about shaming India. It tells a story. if it’s uncomfortable, that’s because it needs to be. At times, perhaps the dramatisation might be seen as exploitative.There might be a lack of contextualisation in the film, particularly in the global context of violence. It might be clunky in parts, and it fails to make apparent that the mindset being exposed does not represent all of Indian society. But the story is in the words, almost entirely, of all the key actors in this grotesque incident. This is not fiction. This is a reality. Of course it is not the reality of all Indian men. Nor does it represent all Indian society. India’s civil society movements are vibrant and the feminist voices loud and strong. This should not be a discussion about a film. It should be a discussion on how India can resolve her own traditions of violence against women, whether in the longstanding context of power, religion, caste or gross inequalities on multiple scales. But a discussion on rape should not shame India’s politicians. It’s the attempt to silence that brings shame.