Ten things I will have to do before I watch the BBC film on the Indian rapist

Mukesh Singh, convicted and sentenced to death for the 2012 gang rape of a woman in New Delhi, in a still from the BBC film "India's Daughter."
Mukesh Singh, convicted and sentenced to death for the 2012 gang rape of a woman in New Delhi, in a still from the BBC film “India’s Daughter.”

I was just about to click on the link to the BBC film featuring an interview with one of the gang rapists of an Indian student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. I have dodged the film for hours now, each time a social media post or an email or a news story about it has leapt out at me from diverse sources — from friends in India to Indian diaspora to Nicholas Kristof in the U.S.

My fingers hovered over the link and my body recoiled in the same instant. I read the headline on the article that said, “Delhi rapist says victim shouldn’t have fought back.” My eyes flew back to the comment posted with the Youtube link. It said, “Here. Watch it before they ban it.”

“No,” I said. “You don’t get it. There are these things I will have to do before I see anything of this film.”

I will first have to avert my eyes, and then peer into the picture of the face of this man, splashed big and loud across the page. I will have to steel myself against the confident set of his jaw and the look in his eyes – Hunter? Hunted? I will then feel another sensation – a primal tug of familiarity. His skin is the color of the men of my country, the men I grew up around. Where once this brown of his skin and the purple of his lips and the black of his eyes were the only colors I knew on humans, I now long to see these as I move in a sea of mostly white faces in my country of domicile and in its media. I will then have to kick and swim against the undertow of connection I feel with this man, even though the color of his eyes are the exact same color of those of my son.

Then I will let myself be awash in revulsion. In his interview, the man is reported as saying that the young woman he gang-raped and murdered had asked for it, because of her clothes, her choices, her fighting back.

Then I will fight back memories of different versions of this same message that rang around my friends and me as we were growing up. Even the most well intentioned of these messages from those who loved me and would have wanted more than anything in the world for me to have a proud life only served to shut me up from protesting against the hands of a neighbor man when I was a nine-year-old schoolgirl, or the lurching assault of my boss, the executive editor of India’s top newspaper, when I was 27. My school uniform, my work clothes, my status as child, my status as married woman, none of these gave me a message louder than Indian patriarchy’s deepest voice — don’t fight back; don’t draw attention; what could you have done to prevent this?

Then I will have to reorient my thoughts and feel sheer gratitude for Indian feminist Kavita Krishnan who has said it better than anyone else in this article, where she points out that naming the film “India’s Daughter” is as loathsomely patriarchal as the idea of demonizing rape as a peculiarly Indian problem requiring of a white savior (the BBC) is racist. “Yes,” I will say to her call to once again recognize rape culture as a global phenomenon. “Yes,” I will say, as I read today about another new documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” about rape on American campuses. In this film, frat boys chant, “No means yes; yes means anal.” I will feel an odd sense of comfort at shifting the glare away from my nation’s men and I will feel revulsion, then, at my own comfort. Did I just get comforted by the fact that rape is a global problem? And what does this mean for my son, who is at college? If I had raised him in India, would he have internalized a bit of the thinking of the men who raped that girl? Or, now, on his American campus, is he internalizing a bit of the thinking of the men who rape these girls? I have raised him well, I will tell myself. I have had these conversations with him. I will fight back the urge to call my son right away to ask him these questions now. And then I will feel the heaviness of knowing that I soon must ask, again. I owe it to that nine-year-old girl who jumped unafraid into an elevator. And I owe it to my son.

Then, the journalism and media professor in me will attempt to be heard over all that noise. I will bristle against the call by men in Indian government for the film to be banned. Some of them are outraged at how a BBC reporter, Leslee Udwin, got access to the rapist in Tihar jail. Others are alarmed that this film will tarnish India’s “honor” and tarnish India’s image across the globe at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is spotlighting its development and progress. I will fight for free speech and I will fight against censorship, no matter how much I want this film to just go away and no matter how much my friends across the world ask me – by posting links to the film on my Facebook timeline or cornering me in conversations – to explain my country to them.

Then I will have to sit down with the sinking feeling that few of my nation’s politicians are troubled by their own rhetoric of offering protections to women only if they are daughters and mothers and wives. What would they say about a woman like me, I wonder next. Would my country want me back? Would the men and women in India’s parliament see me as a success story or as a failed woman? If I were raped in my nation’s streets for my life’s choices, would each of those men and women fight for me? Or would they leave me on the streets for dead? After all, a judge ruled in a recent rape and murder case of a maid in India by her employer that the rape of a woman after a certain age could not be “rape,” because she was not of childbearing age. Then, I will wonder again whether I totally agree with Krishnan that it isn’t as if India is especially hostile to its women.

Then, I will weakly stick my neck out again to oppose the call for capital punishment for these rapists of my land. Some of my closest friends there are calling for a public hanging, for castrations, for vengeance. I will sneak a peek at the print interview with the filmmaker, in which she quotes the rapist as saying that an execution for him and a death sentence for rapists will only lead to more rape victims being murdered after their rapes. Contrary to the popular practice of letting the victim go because they know she won’t say a thing (India has a tortured history of few rapes being reported or, when reported, being recorded by the police), the new laws would only urge rapists to silence the victim by killing her after the deed is done, this rapist says.

Then I will fight back a fantasy of hanging these men with my own hands.

Then I will look at the little image of a hand on my laptop, its finger pointed, urging me to click on the link, which, as I now look, has also been sent out on a group email by the students of my alma mater in Bombay, where my all-female class in 1988  talked headily of feminism, forming a quiet sorority to struggle against patriarchy.

I will move my electronic finger away. “Tomorrow,” I will say to myself. And I will keep that date.

My closest friend here says I have a high tolerance for such stories in all their forms. “How could you go see American Sniper?” she asked me recently. “I think your work as a journalist has given you the stomach to bear witness to human evil.” Yes, I said. My work, amongst other things.

Then I will remind myself that I am not alone in my choice to wait a day or two before I steep myself in repugnance. I will think of my many sisters and friends — I will say their names out loud to myself as I sob – who are also recoiling wherever they are.

So, there are all these things I must do before I watch that video. Do you really need to know what I will do after?

You can watch the full BBC Storyville documentary “India’s Daughter” below.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you, Sonora, for a moving and thoughtful piece. I think it’s very important to highlight the fact that rape is not an “Indian” problem and I know you will face many people questioning you about “Indian culture” as it relates to sexual violence.

  2. Rape is not an Indian problem but rape in India is an Indian problem. How does one go about measuring what is a “reasonable” number of rapes? Do we factor in population, GDP or literacy rates? What is the margin of error in these statistics? Going by news reports if America can be said to have a race problem, then surely India can be said to have a rape problem by the same measure.

    What has changed recently that we see or hear more reports of rapes? Is it the 24 hour news channels? Are there more rapes being committed or just more being reported?

    On the other hand, what is the benefit of keeping rapists alive in prison? What is the hope here that causes women like yourself to speak out against capital punishment? Many of them end up in society again after their release. I cannot reconcile how you can recoil at this if you’re willing to forgo the opportunity to eliminate these fiends. What is the dream here that I cannot conjure?

    A ban does not achieve anything.. Just more negative PR for the Indian administration, but the sentiment behind the ban can only be expressed by calling for one. I absolutely don’t need to see or hear from criminals. That was the biggest error of judgement by the BBC & Udwin. Documentary filmmakers have many tricks up their sleeves to get “cooperation” & ” approval”.. I know of these having dabbled in the line of work myself. Do you honestly believe Udwin got the full hearted approval of the victim’s parents after telling them what the rapist said??

    Indian reaction can be likened to that of an Ostrich… By the same measure, Udwin and BBC can be likened to a wily fox.

    1. Dear sg,
      Thank you for your comment. I understand where you are coming from on so many of these issues. I also understand (and feel) the frustration. There are no easy answers. As for the capital punishment – the most fundamental reason for me is that I cannot condone a state-sanctioned murder while decrying the murder that the rapist commitment. In the end, it becomes humans killing humans. At a philosophical level, even though my thoughts are still inchoate on this, if and when these rapists are reintroduced to free society, how do we know which one may have turned his life around and been of benefit to humankind and which one would commit this crime again?
      As for the documentary, don’t even get me started on how many problems I had with it, including the ones you have mentioned.

      1. Thanks for your response, Sonora.

        I do understand that viewpoint on capital punishment having held it fiercely myself many years ago. I was heavily influenced by “my experiments with truth” & tried to inculcate ahimsa in thought word & deed. However looking at the level of violence in the world today & the loss of a shared sense of morality between people, one has to move quickly to protect at the least the very young & vulnerable from ideas such as “its ok to commit a crime .. You can always be accepted back into society”. Do we really need to depend on the newly found conscience of the incarcerated to guide society? I agree that for crimes such as theft or fraud, rehabilitation is the way forward… But it is unacceptable that a person who commits bodily harm to another should ever find a place in society again. The message we are giving the victims is… Yes you were raped but its not such a big deal after all. Your rapist just might end up being your neighbor twenty years from now. You will move on..be friends with him even.

        On another point, I see that it has now become a common trope to blame it all on patriarchal attitudes… The mere use of the word “patriarch” is now used only with a negative connotation. Why is this so? Are all the women speaking up against rape also implying that their fathers are responsible in some way for the attitude of rapists? Does that also mean they admit their mothers have no role in all this? What is really meant by patriarchal attitudes that everyone refers to in they context of rape anyway?

        I for one would love to stand up & speak for the great sacrifices made by fathers across India. I would even go so far as to argue that the breakdown of the patriarchal head in families contributes to the breakdown of discipline in society. Why are so many young Indian women equating strength & independence with external shows of wealth & lifestyle choices? A casual analysis of subjects that Hollywood churns out will reveal a yearning for the patriarch… So many characters with daddy issues. While Bollywood is now comfortable with parodying itself on the mother sentiment.. One cannot deny that the matriarch is still a celebrated aspect of society.

        I think it’s important to be very careful in choosing words when trying to construct the attitudes around rape. A father instructing his daughter on her sense of dressing does not automatically become evil personified. There is a value in parsing the good from the bad, and sharing that sense of judgement with your near and dear if not a larger group of people. If we are to all be left to interpreting our own sense of good and bad then why do we have a censor board? Or why have obscenity laws? Why decry rape? After all, someone has the right to think that violently forcing a woman is a good idea.

        Society cannot be built by rights. It can only be built by a shared sense of rights and wrongs. A man should lose his right to live after committing rape.

        Thanks again for a more sensitive handling of the subject than scores of others I came across.

  3. Thank you Sonora for putting words to my emotions. I have not been able to watch the movie yet and didn’t quite understand what was pulling me back. Being born and raised for 23 years in Mumbai, India and the rest 11 years in America, I want to say it loud that “India is no country for women”. And the sad part is it is not just men who do not respect women. It is women who don’t respect and care for other women.

    1. I know how you feel, Sweta. I have to keep reminding myself that apart from some of the biggest misogynists I know, India also has some of the best feminists I know. They’re working in the trenches and we’re working from here so we can all say something together. Keep the faith, although it’s so hard, isn’t it?

  4. I really wish you had not used a close up of the criminal’s face to accompany your article. It reminds me of TIME magazine’s decision to feature the Boston bomber’s face on their cover.. Or was it Rolling Stone? Those in the media need to stop giving such faces or names so much air time & screen space. For petty crimes that is a great strategy – to shame or expose their identity.. But this filmmaker’s integrity & judgement is undoubtedly at question when the parasite she interviewed reportedly feels no remorse or shame for the heinous act.

  5. I do thank you for writing this piece. I am angry and hurt at every little thing patriarchy has forced me into doing and I have not resisted or recoiled from since childhood. I feel i’m responsible for this mess I’m leaving my two daughters in. BUt i feel i’ve decided that enough is enough and that as a teacher I will be talking about these more and more than just teaching and finishing the portion in my classrooms. This is the only way I can do my bit. i will watch and I will write and talk. Thanks. Sharing.

    1. Thank YOU Nilakshi. You can’t imagine how profound it feels for a writer when someone feels moved to make a change based on our writing. I am so grateful to you.

  6. Well-written Sonora! I commend your ability to insist on never having blinkers on one’s eyes, even if it means doubting our loved ones.

  7. Thank you Sonora for penning such a thought provoking piece. Ever since the “Nirbhaya case” [as framed by the entire nation and media] has been in the reports, I feel the voice of masses is more about women safety than just Jyoti Singh. With a nation who has been a free and democratic republic for over six decades, has yet to put its law in place. And this has been exactly the driving force of the criminal motives lurching in the society. The entire process of putting a criminal on court proceedings is full of loopholes with hardly any hope for the victim. Even before appealing for justice, the victim has to first prove to the authorities that she has been raped. She has to keep going through the mental and emotional trauma, again and again and again and yet be stable and ‘just’ about her statements as to not harm the rapists image or social standing. After all he represents the patriarchal primary element of the society. This is the very support which has powered these filthy elements to be upfront and proud of their hideous act which they feel is an honorable way to keep the women of the society in their reigns and pose a reality check of societal norms for women. In Jyoti’s case, its not the man who justified his action, but the support he garnered from the fellow men and women across the nation that caused a shocking hollow within us. Are we women being too outrageous and modern to react to such crimes or too stupid and idiotic to raise our voices? Are we even heard? Or its just the chaos that we put up which will ultimately die a silent death. Is it wise enough to question about our maligning selves or just plain silly to not let suck out our souls without ‘cooperating’ to the ‘moral’ elements of our society? In the end, there would be only questions which will remain unanswered. Questions which would fade away as foolish rhetoric and forgotten beyond thoughts. Sorry, is all we would be able to say to ourselves for being ‘Daughters of India’.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comments, Nikita. I have found this to be the best way to deal with the kind of frustration that you (and thousands of women) are feeling – remind myself that protesting makes a difference, silence does not; remind myself that at the end of the day, whether the world listens to me or not, whether people change or not, I have to live with myself and I don’t live with a woman who didn’t speak up for the millionth time just because it was too many times; listen to Rabindranath Tagore’s “Jodi Tore Dak” for the millionth time. Keep fighting the good fight, Nikita.

  8. Your article is very thoughtful. I was born and raised in India and have recently moved to the US. I completely agree that rape is a GLOBAL issue. However, there is an inherent belief in India that if you are good then no evil will come to you. There is this culture where women are being blamed for whatever happens to them. I do not know a single girl during my school days who wasn’t molested(in public transport) or teased on the way to school. If a girl encounters these problems and shares them at home, the first advice would be to appear less attractive and not to be alone. There is less/no support to oppose, fight or filing a complaint. The society/home indirectly suppresses women to believe we cannot fight and also feeds in the thought that if something happens to the girl then it is a humiliation. I could say all this happened in my country but i have little or no idea what issues girls in the US face. Do you have any insight on how american parents react when their little girl encounters such situations(eve teasing/ getting molested)? For I believe, RAPE is a global issue but JUSTICE to the crime or how the victim is treated is a cultural thing.

  9. Yes it is deplorable that women are not safe in India and also that women can be assaulted on a college campus in US. Both are problems relating to women safety. Instead of comparing and deciding which is worse or which makes us feel better because we are “brown” and they are “white.” Does it really have to be a “Us” vs ” them” issue?Where is the harm in acknowledging both the problems and trying to find a solution for both. It just would make the world much better and safer place.

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