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Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Documentary on Delhi gang-rape should be welcomed, not banned

I do not have the gift of prescience that everybody outraged by the documentary that nobody in India has actually seen seems to possess in such abundance. Now that the film in question, India’s Daughter, has officially been banned, I’m going to just have to wait to watch it online.

For all I know, the BBC4 film by Leslee Udwin might be completely preachy, completely over-the-top, completely leave-me-cold flat. But the choice to watch or not should have been mine. But in what is fast becoming a distressing trend in 21st century India, the government has once again stepped in with a ban.

“This affects tourism," Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Meenakshi Lekhi said in Parliament.

“There is a conspiracy to defame India," parliamentary affairs minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said.

Comments made in the film are “highly derogatory and an affront to the dignity of women," said home minister Rajnath Singh, who added that the government would investigate why and how permission was given to BBC. Meanwhile, the government has obtained a stay on the telecast of the film from a Delhi court while the Delhi police has registered a case for creating “a situation of tension and fear among women in society". BBC has gone ahead with the telecast in the UK.

Let’s be clear. Tourism is affected, India is defamed and the dignity of women is assaulted everyday not so much by a film but the fact of continuing violence against women.

Despite tougher laws, there is a 69% increase over the past decade in crimes against women including molestation, rape and domestic violence. The brutal gang-rape and murder of a 28-year-old woman in Rohtak early this year was reported minus the outrage of the 2012 protests. We need to ask how and why 44% college students in modern India responded to a recent survey by agreeing that women have “no choice" but to accept a certain degree of violence. We need to understand why our sex ratio in the 0-6-year-old age group is the lowest in six decades.

These are facts that shame any civilized society. These are facts that should be red flag issues. But how do we even begin to start dismantling these horrific statistics unless we first try and understand the culture that allows them to thrive?

To those who bore witness to the unprecedented public anger in the days following the gang-rape and subsequent death of a young physiotherapy student in December 2012, the overwhelming question has always been: What next?

Protests on the street, signature campaigns, changing the law, that was the easy part. But as anyone who grapples with patriarchy knows, changing mindsets is far, far harder.

But how do you change mindsets unless you know what that mindset is?

This is why we need to watch Udwin’s film. The one-hour-long film reportedly includes a nine-minute interview with one of the rapists as well as interviews with two defence lawyers.

“You can’t clap with one hand—it takes two hands," Mukesh Singh, one of the six men convicted for rape and facing a death sentence, reportedly told Udwin. “A decent girl won’t roam around at night. A girl is more responsible for rape than a boy….she should just be silent and allow the rape."

The excerpts led to predictable and understandable outrage almost as soon as they were published. Equally reprehensible were statements apparently made by the two defence lawyers, M.L. Sharma and A.P. Singh. Singh in fact goes so far as to state that if his daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital sex he would “in front of my entire family…put petrol on her and set her alight."

But reprehensible or not, let’s not kid ourselves that these are exceptional views. In the days following the December protests (and even before), we’ve heard some astounding comments from a variety of politicians, university heads, religious cult figures, police chiefs and your average garden-variety misogynist. Boys will be boys; women should not be “adventurous"; girls should not venture out alone; skirts as school uniforms will cause a sexual upheaval; and good heavens, all this out-of-control violence would be easily controlled if only we’d ban chow mein. Each statement brings with it a torrent of protest on social media and elsewhere. And the statements made in the documentary fit part of that pattern.

There are interesting and valid questions being raised in the debate on Leslee Udwin’s film. How will an interview with the convicted rapist affect the outcome of his appeal against the death sentence currently stuck in the Supreme Court for over a year? How did a foreign film-maker get access and permission to interview the rapist? Is there an element of media rivalry when one news channel openly flails another for “voyeurism". Were media ethics violated?

But none of these should detract from the main crux of the debate, which is tackling misogyny and ending a culture of rape. The main crux is acknowledging that there is a certain mindset that allows violence against women to flourish with impunity.

Much of the objection to India’s Daughter centres around a misplaced jingoism. Who are “they" to preach to us? Would we have been somewhat less outraged if the producers had been Indian? In Parliament, some MPs were exercised (without any sense of irony) over an apparent loss-of-face.

Weren’t Indian men being demonized (no, only some)? Why don’t foreign film-makers make films about “their" rapes (they do)? Weren’t there more reported rapes in the US than in India (yes, so?)?

Those whose national pride is wounded by the fact of a foreigner (and incidentally, a rape survivor) claiming to make a documentary that exposes an ugly truth might want to consider that the fight against patriarchy is a global fight that knows no borders. Violence against women is the conversation across the world from North Kivu to Washington DC. In June last year, 1,700 delegates from 123 countries met to discuss how to end sexual violence in conflict. In the US, the government is cracking down on an apparent epidemic of campus sexual assault. Everywhere, women and men, like us, are saying: Enough.

We lit a fire in December 2012. We started a conversation. Every bit that adds to that conversation, every scrap that leads us to think, every effort to end violence should be welcomed. Not banned.

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