“At his best, Man is the noblest of all animals. Separated from law and justice, man is the worst.”
More rapes and molestation in India. It does not seem to stop. A 13 year old, molested and thrown out of a bus along with her mother. A 15-year-old girl is burnt to death after being allegedly gang-raped eight months ago.
Sounds familiar? Flashback to December 2013 — Delhi, urban area and capital of the country. The Nirbhaya rape case: young girl raped, tortured, and thrown out of a moving bus. This time, the episode takes place in Punjab, one of the most economically developed states in the country.
Governments get elected on the promise of economic development. Because India believes that economic development is the path to prosperity, peace and better status for women. However, given the rapes in Delhi, other cities, and economically developed states, it seems that economic development has no correlation with the status of women and girls. Not just raps, even sex selective abortions (female feticide) seem to be more prevalent in economically developed areas.
Money is definitely not changing the Indian mind.
India, we have a problem,
What seems to be wrong with this country? I am sure India wants to know.
But whatever is wrong needs to be rectified. NOW. This particular problem needs a solution. NOW.
Rape is not one of those many problems that we can deftly sweep under the carpet, change paperwork and numbers with a bribe or stall in endless parliamentary debates.
And as most of our friends in India’s corporate world, management schools and university education know only too well — unless we analyze the problem with a clear mind, understand the causes we cannot hope to get the right solution. Arriving at the right solutions means getting to know the right causes and then addressing them with determination.
However, there seems to be another problem around the issue of rape. Discussion of the rape problem also leads to controversy. We do not want to talk about it openly. And are left with no recourse but to protest on the streets occasionally.
That is saddening.
Getting to the core of the problem and rooting it out will require root cause analysis – which necessarily means discussion. The media, one must appreciate – is trying to do its job of reporting cases, but the next phase, which is discussion and action in the public sphere seems to be lacking. For instance, a recent documentary on the Delhi rape case of December 2012 met with opposition not only from the government but also from many educated people. Something more is required to stop rape – concerted action. However, in order to take concerted and determined action, first we have to agree that there is a problem and we have to have the same viewpoint about the causes and the urgency of action.
Story 1: The Blind Men and the Elephant
Circa: Few centuries BC (Jain and Buddhist versions)
The story of the six blind men and the elephant has been used as a parable in the religions of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism for ages – to argue against prejudiced beliefs, against dogmatism, or to teach the manifold nature of truth. Most importantly it has been used to teach the value of listening to and bringing together varied perspectives on a topic to get a comprehensive understanding before taking action.
However, the most well-known version of this ancient parable is the 19th century poem titled: “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887). The poem starts thus:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The poem, a re-telling of the original Jain and Buddhist story, goes on to say that each of the six men felt the elephant separately, touched a different part, arrived at their own conclusion, held on to it, and argued endlessly that their perspective was the right one.
The first one felt the side of the elephant – broad and sturdy – and said the elephant was like a wall.
The second felt the tusk – round, smooth and sharp – and thought the elephant was like a spear.
The third felt the trunk – squirming and fleshy – and said the elephant was like a snake.
The fourth touched the legs of the elephant – thick and round – and proclaimed it a tree trunk.
The fifth stretched his hand and felt the ears – broad and flat – and said it was a hand-fan.
The sixth touched the tail – thin and long – and found the elephant like a rope.
“And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.”
In Saxe’s poem the conflict is never resolved.
Story 2: India’s Daughter, World’s Women, and Mother Earth:
The blind men and women of our society and the elephant in the room
Circa: 2012 and 2015
“I am sorry mummy… I gave you so much trouble.”
These were the last words of a 2012 gang-rape and torture victim in New Delhi, according to an account provided by her mother in a recent documentary released in 2015.
“India’s Daughter” – the title of a documentary directed by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, part of the Storyville series presented by the BBC showcasing international documentaries, tries to examine this 2012 brutal rape and murder that shocked India and the world. This documentary (or part of it) has been banned by the government in India citing the content of the documentary, especially the interview and comments made by one of the rapists and his defense lawyer. This ban by the Indian government has generated intense controversy about the documentary.
On 16 December 2012, a young 23-year old woman boarded a bus to go home after watching a movie. She was accompanied by a male friend. Subsequently this young woman was gang-raped in that moving bus; and then tortured with an iron rod pushed inside through her vagina which pierced her uterus and eventually her intestines. She was then dumped on the road, naked and bleeding. The attack, rape, assault, torture, killing, horrific incident was perpetrated by six men, including one juvenile (who will probably be released in a year or two). The young woman fought with the men and then for her life for about 13 days in a Delhi hospital. Nirbhaya (meaning fearless) was the pseudonym given to this gang-rape victim to hide her actual identity. One of the men, who is in Tihar Jail near New Delhi was interviewed in the documentary.
The 2012 incident brought thousands of protesting young women and men out onto the streets of New Delhi and other places in India and forced the government to admit to the problem of violence towards women. Although, in 2015, the Indian government banned the documentary; the Finance Minister in 2013 had announced the Nirbhaya Fund with government contribution of Indian Rupees 1000 Crores for empowerment, safety and security of women and girl children.
On March 1, 2015, The Guardian newspaper published an article on the documentary India’s Daughter. It cited statements from an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the accused in the December 16, 2012 Delhi gang-rape: “a decent girl won’t roam around at 9 pm”; “when being raped, she (a woman) shouldn’t fight back. She should be silent and allow the rape…”
These statements were perceived to be generalizations of the attitude of Indian men towards women, and shocked a lot of people, especially politicians, television anchors and professional TV news-channel guests and debaters, as well as women’s right activists.
The government immediately asked BBC to stop all broadcast of the film scheduled for March 8, International Woman’s Day. The BBC did not broadcast it in India, but aired it (ahead of schedule) for global audiences and also disseminated the film through social media and Internet. One after another Indian newspaper columnists and television debaters and experts vocalized their anger at the documentary.
All these experts and critics focused more on India and less on the daughters.
There continues to be this huge elephant in the room – the issue of how our girls and women are treated – and yet the wise men and women of the media and the political sphere (the so-called change and opinion makers) debated a documentary as if it was some huge policy-changing matter. In fact there are many more cultural forces and legislative policies being pushed through in India that will impact women’s lives in negative ways as compared to this documentary.
Films hardly contribute to making real change on any issue. At best a well-made film can help to highlight an issue, bring issues up for public discussion and maybe contribute to shaping an agenda.
At worst, a badly made film is forgotten even while it is being seen.
Ultimately continuous engagement and advocacy by activists, interested groups, organizations, and lobbies pressure the government to make real changes that impact the lives of people – changes such as legislation, laws, taxation, enforcement, education and so on. Real change has to be brought about in the parliament, the constitution, legislative and judicial systems and in the culture, religious institutions, homes and the streets. If a documentary helps us to achieve that engagement and advocacy – then it is worthwhile; otherwise it is just entertainment. Pay to watch it and forget you paid or it.
However, our wise men and women of the media lost the plot. They took the issue away from the treatment of India’s daughters to that of India’s image. The documentary became an insult to India. A country that the same media commentators proudly proclaim to be thousands of years old. I am sure an ancient country has suffered much more serious insults than some documentary.
The focus and spotlight should have stayed on the treatment of girls and women – on India’s daughters. Rather the shift in focus to an insult of India has perhaps helped a culturally conservative government succeed in distracting attention from its own inaction on the issue of women’s safety and more importantly women’s status in Indian society. Banning a film or supporting a ban is an attempt to close the discussion on a topic – especially in the policy spheres. If something is deemed anti-national then no parliamentarian will discuss it. The media has to keep that space open so that important topics such as women’s safety are constantly discussed in the policy and social spheres.
The media commentators should have asked the government: Fine you want to ban the movie, but what are you going to do about the safety and status of our daughters? They did not. Rather these angry critics pointed fingers at the makers of the documentary. Many outraged columnists attempted to malign the person who made the documentary and shouted at the countries that produced and promoted such films or film festivals to examine their own rape problems. These media commentators asked: Who are you to make such a film and make India look bad?
Perhaps all this is the reflection of the time we live in – when image is more important than what actually is. Looking good is more important than being good. It seems that gang-rapes bring the young out on to the street in protest (in 29013), but a documentary or book or novel that exposes us to the world in a negative light and makes us look bad that makes our wise men and women feel worse. The so called intellectual elites of a country are so caught up in image that they are willing to forego the facts of what their country really is. The superficiality of India’s so called newspaper and TV-expert elite easily revealed in their reactions to the documentary – knee-jerk reactions, prejudiced opinions and no real discussion of the elephant in the room: the social status of our daughters. Every expert simply wanted to state their opinion on the matter and stick to it no matter what – just like the wise men examining the elephant in the parable.
An analysis of the media comments can be classified into six major categories as shown below.
1. Kill the Messenger
There was a clear attempt in some newspaper columns to tar the persona of the film-maker and mention her insensitivity to the rape. However, the director had already declared she was focused on the issue of rape and the question: Why do men rape?
One female columnist attacked her occupation instead, calling it perverse. She wrote: You are a documentary film maker whose business is to chase sad, tragic stories and sensationalize them. You have vested interests and you want fame and money. The critic forgot that some other commentators were angry because the documentary would ruin India’s image and ability to seek investment (see Point 4 below). A country that seeks image and money calls the seeking of image and money perverse.
2. Pot calling the kettle black
Blamer, Heal Thyself. This was the tone of some articles that attacked countries that promoted the film. Data were presented to show that more rapes happened in USA as compared to India or in UK and European countries. One person even made a documentary film titled: UK’s Daughter, which highlights rapes in UK.
Look at your own country, these articles and anchors said pointing fingers at other countries. If pointing fingers at other countries stops rapes in India, then let us ask for a national day when all Indians get together and point fingers at other countries. Let us pray that stops rapes in India because the government or other institutions are surely not taking any appropriate action to stop it.
Also, this group of blind men and women forgot that numbers also reflect the documentation process. What if many rape cases are not documented in India for fear or cultural reasons? And so what if the USA has more rape incidents than India – how does that matter to our daughters? What can we do to make our neighborhoods safer and woman-friendly? Can we not use such documentaries to highlight the problem and make life safer for our daughters? Can we not come up with policies, programs, solutions that can be used by other countries worldwide to make life safer for their daughters?
No country in the world wants rape for its daughters. So how does my pointing fingers at other countries help my daughter? Simply because it makes me feel better?
Do I want to make my daughters feel safe – OR Do I simply want to make myself feel better? Once again the elephant in the room remained untouched.
3. West is west and East is east and never the twain shall meet and how can you teach a country that has such a glorious ancient past?
Some made it a case of West versus East. Our history is thousands of years old. Do not teach us civility – they warned these western countries while promptly sending their own sons and daughters to study in colleges there. The documentary was made out to be another example of the colonial mindset. This is a very dangerous argument in the Indian context. The past is a burden for most daughters in India. The past has become the albatross that does not allow our daughters to live freely in the present, let alone determine their future.
It does not matter how glorious a countries’ past is, what matters is how the citizens of a country treat the people today. Our behaviors today demonstrate whether we have learnt lessons in humanity from our past and our behaviors today determine the foundation for a humane future. Because all we have is today. And today for our daughters is not safe nor human. Let us learn from wherever – East, West, North, South – and make this place safe and human for our daughters today.
4. The Image of India and associated Foreign Direct Investment
Many representatives of the government said that this documentary tarnished India’s image, which according to them was generally very good except for a few blemishes such as poverty and rapes. One politician even said that it would stop Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and this in turn will affect the economy and impoverish the country. This documentary was part of a larger conspiracy to keep India poor. The politician worried about the money coming into the country but did not talk of the flow of black (parallel economy) money going out of the country into tax havens. Most of it money gained from corruption scams or unpaid taxes. No discussion of how that might be impoverishing the country.
5. Dishonoring the victim by naming her
Then some of these commentators, including a female Member of Parliament, turned to the issue of naming of the victim as if that was a horrendous crime. The documentary happened to provide the real name of the victim rather than use the pseudonym – Nirbhaya. The victim’s parents were interviewed. They had no problem with the name of the victim being used. The parents want to honor the victim by ensuring that the fight against gender injustice and rape continues. However our members of parliament are shocked that a victim of rape should be named. She died. She fought. You called her “Nirbhaya” (meaning fearless) and why are our Parliamentarians so fearful of her name getting out?
Our parliamentarians seem to believe that talking about rape will cause more rapes or that public discussion and debate about women’s safety will lead to more harassment of women. Let us keep rapes hidden and out of the light. Let us honor rape victims by not naming them. Let us take away the rape victim’s identity.
6. Poorly made documentary that does not capture all perspectives; especially portrays Indian men in a bad light
Some critics seemed to be looking for a perfect film on the 2012 gang-rape incident. They came up with various critical observations on how this documentary fails to capture all perspectives or that the film is not feminist enough. First of all, there is no perfect film or novel. Second of all, a film always carries the view of the film-maker. And film-makers are often skewed in the way they see an issue. They have their own biases and prejudices or ideas of what will titillate the audience. The documentary film-maker of India’s Daughter may also be biased. After all we live in a world where capturing eyeballs has become the primary goal of every film-maker. It is not about a well-made or poorly-made documentary; it is about how that documentary helps in the agenda-shaping process.
One of the problems found in the film was that it may be giving the impression that most perpetrators of rape are from the poorer communities. However, rape occurs across the class spectrum, and the film fails to capture that. Once again the film-maker may have a limited perspective. It’s a film and every film comes with its director’s biases and focus.
Another argument was that not all Indian men are like the rapist interviewed in the documentary. After seeing the film, the world may paint all Indian men with the same black brush and victimize them. These critics cited the case of one German professor who refused to hire an Indian male in her laboratory because she thought he would attack and rape the women in her laboratory. No one is that insane to jump to such judgments, and if someone is, then these victimized Indian males should stay away from her laboratory rather than try to explain to this German professor that they are not rapists.
However, none of these who defend the Indian male will stand up and say that contemporary Indian culture promotes and encourages the decent treatment of women. That is the elephant in the room
The issue still remains unresolved just like in Saxe’s poem. We are still clinging on to our opinions of things and events; fighting like those blind men in the room with an elephant inside it.
And no one has any clearly defined agenda or road-map for the safety of daughters in India. Instead of shutting down a documentary, politicians and activists should spend time coming up with a constructive plan or road-map for women’s safety in the next five years. I have found nothing there. If there is a plan then I as a regular newspaper reading citizen of the country know nothing about it.
One-sided views create controversy, fights (also called debates by some) and sell newspapers, increase TV viewership and create trending on social media. Hannah Arendt once commented: “It is only when we allow different perspectives to come into view and when we try to understand and integrate those perspectives that we can then come towards some kind of ‘sanity’ (wholeness).”
The blind men (and women) of Indostan (mentioned in the ancient parables) are still alive and expounding on TV news channels. Let the elephant continue to be in the room while people argue endlessly about their prejudiced interpretations. This makes people watch more TV, see more advertisements, sell more products.
Media wants eyeballs – whatever be the reason – but does not want people to open their eyes.
Everyday millions of women are harassed in public places around the country. Rape is one of the many problems faced by women; harassment, touching, molestation, frotteurism, assault and battery in public places is an everyday occurrence for most women in India. Public places are no places for women to be.
Such harassment in public places is simply one manifestation of a larger problem of treating our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers poorly – of gender discrimination in general.
And this problem does not exist only in India. This is a global problem.
The issue of gender discrimination is a global issue. In the 2015 Oscar ceremony Patricia Arquette, one of the winners for best actor award, pleaded for wage equality in Hollywood. There have been various protests against harassment in the workplace. Rape has to be seen in the larger context of violence and discrimination against women. Everyday women around the world keep fighting and protesting for their basic human rights. Treat us like humans.
The documentary may not be well made or may even be intended for personal gain. However, the question to be asked is: Can it be used as a tool that helps us argue for women’s rights?
The question to ask is: Did India make any progress on making the country safer for daughters since the film was banned?
Rumi has used the blind elephant parable with a slight variation – the men in Rumi’s telling are not blind – but are made to feel and comment on an elephant in a darkened room. Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception and states “If each man had a candle and they went in together the differences would disappear.”
When will we come together and light the candles – not at a vigil for a gang-rape – but to throw light on our prejudices about women and change them for the sake of our daughters?
Why do our daughters have to say: “I am sorry. I gave you so much trouble.”
Did any of the rapists – India’s sons or the sons of any other country – apologize to their mothers or for that matter to any of India’s or the world’s daughters?
The treatment of the young woman in the bus in New Delhi is no different from the way in which educated couples in India abort female fetuses because they prefer a male child. Or why young girls drop out of school because of cultural and familial pressures, or women cannot defecate or urinate because there are no toilets in their urban slums, or pregnant women die in childbirth because of lack of contraception or more than 2/3rd of women who suffer from malnutrition, anemia or various deficiencies?
What those six men did to India’s daughter or what rich men in Hollywood do to celebrity actors is no different from what we as a collective (both men and women) are doing to Mother Earth?
How is the world raising its sons, who either in the garb of rapists or in business suits of corporate houses, continue to plunder and pillage – whether it be a victim on a bus in Delhi, a forest in the Amazon, a small country in Africa or any and every deal on Wall Street?
India’s Daughter – where an iron rod was inserted into her intestines through her vagina – suffered a fate similar to Mother Earth – burnt, mined, drilled, destroyed and left bleeding.
We are raping them all.
India – a country that teaches yoga to the world – needs to find its own balance and inner peace in order to create a living example for the world of how to treat one’s daughters.
Instead of craving eyeballs – India could lead the way and open the world’s eyes to the elephant in the room – gender discrimination.
Nirbhaya (the fearless) could inspire us to do that.
However, even if we were to achieve that state of gender equality – even then, the rape and death of a young woman called Jyoti can never be condoned. We have to live with and carry the cross of this tragedy. We have to remember so that we never forget to treat our daughters like humans.
I am looking for the day when we apologize: “We are sorry daughters. We gave you so much trouble.”
© Parababel, 2015