This is a race critical review of the BBC documentary India’s Daughter. It seeks to examine the orientalism inherent in this documentary’s focus on the anti-rape protests in Delhi and its recurrent emphasis on the need to “rescue” women in India. While I conclude that the film is an unacceptable racialized representation of Indian society, my views must in no way be construed as support for the Indian government’s undemocratic decision to ban the film.
Directed and produced by Leslee Udwin, India’s Daughter is a BBC-sponsored documentary that recounts the details of the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student, who was gang-raped by 5 men and a juvenile in a moving bus on the streets of Delhi on December 16, 2012. The documentary explores the issue of rape and violence against women in India using excerpts of interviews with the victim’s private tutor, her parents, Mukesh Singh (one of the six rapists), miscellaneous relatives of the rapists, the rapists’ defense lawyers, and a host of “experts.” While the documentary’s overview of this particular rape case is quite comprehensive, the documentary claims that the anti-rape protests of 2012—which immediately followed the news of the crime—were spontaneous and the first of their kind in India.
This, however, is factually incorrect. While the anti-rape protests of 2012 may have been a feminist awakening of sorts for the current generation of Indian youth, they were by no means the first such protests in India’s history. In the 1970s and 1980s, India witnessed a series of feminist protests in what is now known as the second wave of activism. Notable among these were the protests held in 1978, against the Supreme Court’s acquittal of two policemen who had raped Mathura, a young Dalit woman; in 1979 to demand an investigation into Tarvinder Kaur’s dowry harassment related suicide, and in 1987 against the sati1, of Roop Kanwar.
By presenting the anti-rape protests of 2012 as the first of their kind the documentary reproduces a colonial, orientalist discourse. In his study of Western conceptions of the Orient, Edward Said concluded that the West conceives of the Orient as an unchanging, timeless and primitive society. India’s Daughter reproduces this discourse by emphasizing the brutal nature of the Delhi rape case. The fact that the rapists pulled out the victim’s intestines and threw them out on the road is emphasized while the routineness of such barbarity, in Indian society, is subtly reinforced. In this way the documentary presents rape by men and the passive victimhood of women as the normative and respective functions of Indian masculinity and femininity. Against this backdrop of timeless and unchanging brutality, the anti-rape protests are construed as a historic moment; one that is seen to be breaking the timelessness of the Orient. To the filmmaker, the protests therefore seem a defining moment in India’s journey to modernity because they symbolize a dramatic push to embrace “progressive” Western gender relations.
As Radha S. Hegde has observed, this perception of the Orient as “unchanging” frames it in opposition to the “modern” West. This presents the West as the site of progressive gender relations, in stark contrast to a “backward” non-West. Such media representations of an exotically backward Orient, whose values dramatically oppose those of the “forward-looking” West—representations commonly found in films such as Slumdog Millionaire and A Passage to India, in addition to regular Western coverage of events in India—“reinforce a racialized civilizational discourse that reproduces old colonial logics of difference combined with postfeminist celebrity spectacle.”
This racialized representation is a direct product of the filmmaker’s white feminist perspective. As feminist scholars Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar have noted, white feminism often tends to stereotype men of color as inherently brutish and women of color as passive victims lacking agency and power. In doing so, white feminism constructs patriarchy as an exclusively backward, oriental vestige. What white feminism often ignores is that, historically, white hegemony and patriarchy have gone hand in hand. As Emer O’Toole notes, colonialists would often use evidence of sexism in the East to pacify Western feminists back home; implicitly suggesting that their situation was not all that bad. During the colonization of India, British colonists represented Indian women as oppressed and in need of saving in order to justify the Empire as a “social mission”; a discourse of benign colonialism that Gayatri Spivak summarized in the now famous trope of “white men seeking to save brown women from brown men.”
This documentary replicates this discourse by representing Indian men as inherently misogynist and patriarchal; implying that Indian women are all in need of saving. The filmmaker does this by presenting the abhorrently sexist views of the rapists and their defense lawyers as the general mindset of Indian men. The brutishness of the rapists is further highlighted when Leslee Udwin goes into excruciating detail to portray Jyoti Singh as “pure.” Implicit within this representation is a subtle emphasis on Jyoti’s western leanings. These are subtly fed to the viewer through seemingly irrelevant details such as the film she saw on the night of the crime (Life of Pi), her command over the English language, her decision to work in a call center to fund her studies, and her benevolent decision to buy a purse-snatching orphan a pair of jeans and a burger in an effort to reform him2. Jyoti’s hardworking nature and her desire to become an independent woman in her own right are also emphasized by the documentary to the point where it almost appears as if Jyoti’s claim to justice hinges on her ability to impress Western sensibilities. Against this background the documentary constructs the rape itself as a symbol of the way in which Indian men forcefully prohibit women from leading independent lives; due apparently to their inherently misogynist cultural values.
While Indian society abounds in unequal gender relations and while this certainly needs to be addressed, Udwin’s diagnosis of patriarchy as inherently Indian is racialized as it ignores its prevalence in the West. The documentary makes the same mistake when it explores the “culture and language of shame” associated with sexual violence in India. These problems are by no means unique to India. The same patriarchal tropes of victim blaming play out in the West as well. The Dominique Straus Kahn affair is a particularly stark reminder of how intense victim shaming3 can get, even in the “progressive” West. However, it must simultaneously be acknowledged that the Indian medical and judicial system is far from sympathetic to rape victims/survivors. In her ethnography of rape cases in India, Pratibha Baxi found the use of archaic medico-legal techniques such as the Two-Finger Test, the use of misogynist arguments such as the “Able Bodied Woman Argument” and other reductive debates around consent, the judicial apathy to the victim’s emotional stress while recounting the rape, and the purposeful use of humiliating questions, by defense lawyers, during cross-examination to shame and traumatize rape victims/survivors into silence, were fairly common and accepted.
Udwin’s claim regarding India’s rape statistics being exceptionally appalling is reflective of her one-dimensional treatment of the issue at hand. Udwin cites studies that have found that in India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes, while in Delhi, a woman is raped every 14 hours. Yet, as Emer O’Toole argues, high as the number of rape cases in India might be, these statistics seem less shocking when adjusted for India’s high population and compared with the West’s own statistics. While in Delhi 625 cases of rape are registered annually, this figure is 4 times lower than the 9509 cases annually registered in England and Wales, which has a population 3.5 times larger than Delhi. The documentary also criticizes India’s conviction rate in rape cases. Granted, India’s record of securing a conviction in just a quarter of its registered cases is abysmal, yet when compared with the USA—where only 24% of registered rape cases result in an arrest—this statistic seems more damning on the West than the East. The documentary, through an unverified statement by the victim’s mother, also claims that child marriage is legal in India. Astonishingly, neither Udwin nor her legion of “experts” bothers to correct this factually incorrect claim. The newly updated Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 explicitly prohibits marriage for women and men under the ages of 18 and 21, respectively. Child marriage, though secretly practiced in some parts of India, has been illegal since India’s independence.
The documentary also ignores the varying degrees of vulnerability experienced by women in Indian society. Women do not experience sexual violence monolithically, and various intersecting factors, such as caste and class, play a major role. The film sidesteps the issue of caste based sexual violence; that is, the case of upper caste men raping lower caste women as a product and method of reinforcing rigid caste hierarchies. These intersectional factors also directly impact the media’s tendency to emphasize certain rape cases while neglecting others, most often those in rural areas. Rape victims from the marginalized sections of society seldom receive any media attention, let alone justice. Interestingly, at one point in the documentary, a protestor is seen raising slogans demanding justice for Manorama Devi, Nilofer, Asiya, Soni Sori and other such rape victims and survivors whose cases the media has neglected. Yet the documentary tells us nothing about these women. In fact, any viewers unfamiliar with these names would not grasp the significance of these displays. And so ironically, even in a film about India’s daughters—like countless times before—the names of her daughters are once again lost in the wind...
India’s Daughter does not cover much ground at all. It ignores ongoing and past struggles for women’s rights in India and instead distorts the feminist struggle in India with a reductivist feminist analysis that reeks of white saviorism. While the filmmaker’s courage in analyzing violence against women in India is laudable, her racialized and orientalist approach to the issue is unacceptable. In her shallow analysis, Leslee Udwin only manages to touch the tip of the iceberg; albeit the racially constructed, orientalized tip of a very real iceberg. Ultimately, India’s Daughter, as opposed to breaking new ground, remains an example of the orientalist trope of “white people saving India’s daughters from India’s sons.”
1 The practice of sacrificial burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. In Roop Kanwar’s case, she was forcibly burnt on her husband’s pyre.
2 Most of these claims are made by her tutor Satendra. Interestingly, Avanindra Pandey, Jyoti’s friend and only witness to the crime, has publicly claimed that most of these facts are false. Pandey has claimed that the tutor was not as familiar with their lives as he claims to be. Regarding their choice of movie that night, Pandey has categorically claimed that Satendra’s claim is a lie. Please see Rathi, 2015 for further details.
3 Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss Kahn of sexual assault, was subjected to intense media scrutiny. The media subsequently unearthed her past and in the process, completely discredited her (Hegde, 2013: 93).
Amos, Valerie and Parmar, Pratibha. 2001. ‘Challenging Imperial Feminism’ in Kum-Kum Bhavnani (ed.) Feminism and Race. New York: Oxford University Press.
Baxi, Pratibha. 2014. Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India. New York: Oxford University Press.
Deo, N. 2012. Running From Elections: Indian Feminism and Electoral Politics. India Review, 11(1), 46-64. Retrieved on March 24, 2015 from Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.
Hegde, Radha S. 2014. ‘Gender, Media and Transnational Spaces’ in Cynthia Carter, Linda Steiner and Lisa McLaughlin (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Media and Gender. Oxon: Routledge.
O’Toole, Emer. (2013, January 1). Delhi gang-rape: Look westward in disgust. The Guardian. Retrieved on March 23, 2015
Rathi, Priyanka. (2015, March 10). Nirbhaya's friend, who was with her on the fateful night, calls 'India's Daughter' a fake film. IBNLive. Retrieved on March 27, 2015
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Sakhi. (2015, March 11). Our Response to “India’s Daughter”. Sakhi for South Asian Women. Retrieved on March 22, 2015
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2010. ‘“Can the Subaltern Speak?” revised edition, from the “History” chapter of Critique of Postcolonial Reason’ in Rosalind C. Morris (ed.) Can the Subaltern Speak? New York: Columbia University Press.
Feature Image via the Guardian.
Pranav Kohli is the co-founder of The Students’ Post and its editor for International Affairs and Lifestyle. He is currently pursuing an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity, Conflict from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Follow him on Twitter: @questing_kohl