17/12/12. The news of the horrific gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in India’s capital city, Delhi, captured the imagination of a nation. Protesters, both men and women, filled the streets to demonstrate their solidarity and anger at such assaults. They continued there for over a month, despite increasing police violence, leading to the formation of a judicial committee to investigate the ways in which gender-based assaults could be tackled. The planned broadcast of India’s Daughter on International Women’s Day in March of this year, a documentary focusing on the story of Jyoti Singh, brought the issue into the spotlight again, garnering great media attention and was even banned in India before it could air.
It was in this context that the Oxford Indian Society decided to host a panel to discuss gender-based violence in India. The choice of panellists ensured a variety of educated and interesting perspectives: Leslee Udwin, the director of India’s Daughter; Dr Clarinda Still, an anthropologist in South Asian Studies, who provided a deeper social and political background to the issues of gender violence, and Dr Devaki Jain, a prominent Indian feminist, one of the those who protested in 2012 but also an objector to Udwin’s documentary.
The passion of all the panellists and the audience was extremely apparent. Udwin, in particular, said that the film was very much a personal journey. She related a childhood story where she argued vehemently against the Shacharit, a prayer in which Jewish men thank God for not being born a woman, with the religious head of her school, leading to her immediate expulsion. Udwin then revealed that she was sexually assaulted at the age of 17 and had herself not told anyone for several decade. Dr Jain and some of the audience members had protested themselves and so were greatly politically involved.
The controversial topic of the banning of the film and the objections to it raised by Dr Devaki Jain and other Indian feminists were the cause of much heated debate. Jain agreed that India should not have banned the documentary and there should be a space for such material to be aired, which would enable a coherent and informed discussion. Both Jain and Udwin defended the right of free speech and said that it was a core principle of feminism. Jain said that she would fight for the repealing of the ban, despite also explaining some of many objections she had to the film, such as its demonstration of white and also potentially colonial biases. Indeed Udwin said that it was not the film which was portraying India badly, but the ban, which had greatly harmed India’s image on the international stage. Yet, Udwin was quick to say that she had received many emails from men indicating that the film had helped to demonstrate the problems with their own views even though they would never consider hurting a woman. Indeed, how many times have you heard someone ask, “What was she wearing?” or say “she was drunk/sleeps around” blaming and even implicating the victim in the crime.
Jain took issue with the narrow focus of the documentary which suggested that gender violence was exclusive to India and also neglected the actions of protesters as well as the Indian feminist movement. Udwin argued that the very nature of film is to look at the specific. The audience also had a chance to see the actual end of India’s Daughter which had been edited out in the BBC version, the one which was later leaked, that lists global sexual violence statistics. At this point the lecture theatre was utterly silent, apart from a few shocked gasps, as the audience were confronted by the realities of such violence on an international scale.
The motivations behind gender-based violence were also explored. Dr Clarinda Still was the first to touch on this, arguing that sexual violence, towards both men and women, is perpetrated in order to demonstrate power. She brought in the example of dalit women, who are at the bottom of the caste system and are stereotyped as promiscuous and therefore “fair game”, in contrast to middle-class Indian women, who are themselves restrained by the concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘respectability’. Yet, India also has a high rate of female infanticide, which would indicate that women are not seen as equal to men. Whether or not Indian culture promotes gender-based violence is still a highly contentious subject.
The solution to gender-based violence was, for the most part, an area on which the three panellists agreed. Still argued that the dismantling of the caste system might lead to the destruction of the traditional foundations of ‘honour’ and ‘power. Udwin explained that she was working on an education initiative with the UN in order to create a global curriculum which could tackle the notion of gender from the age of three or four. Indeed she revealed that there had been plans to disseminate her film throughout the Indian countryside, to those who did not have access to the Internet, which was prevented by the ban. Jain said that the Indian feminist movement was extremely strong and that they would continue to fight for women’s rights in all areas as well as noting their excellent work in working as part of the LGBTQIA+ campaign in India.
The whole experience was inspiring and invigorating with the audience arguably having as much educated input in the discussion as the panellists. The conversations encompassed many themes concerning gender and identity, challenging not only India’s record on gender violence but its astonishing global prevalence.