In light of the recent International Women’s Day and the release of the BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’, the debate on Indian women’s rights has resurfaced.
The documentary covered the incident and those related to the December 16th brutal gang-rape and subsequent death of 23 year old medical student, Jyoti Singh, by six men. The documentary succeeded in creating shock value with the disgraceful comments of the defense lawyers “Our culture [Indian] is the best culture, as there is no place for women” and one of the accused Mukesh Singh stating “a decent girl wouldn’t roam around past nine o’clock with a man.” The documentary portrayed the dichotomy present in modern Indian society- the struggle to balance and align the influence of Western liberal thinking and its fit into a culture that is deeply entrenched in patriarchal tradition. Jyoti’s parents represented the ‘new thinking’, spending money saved for marriage and the sale of their ancestral land on her higher education. Udwin was skillful in pitching the sides of Indian society, continuously flipping between the family of the victim and the accused. The contrast of views presented added to the ghastly difference of opinion in society.
The incident brought a discussion about gender inequality that was long overdue in India. With a skewed sex ratio and rampant sexual assault of women as an Indian, dare I say that when I heard about this, I was not surprised? The brutality no doubt was an outlier and deserved the national and international condemnation it received, but the crime itself was not shocking. It is said that a woman is raped every twenty minutes in India. It was a slap in the face to one the world’s strongest economies that its own society was still lagging behind in protecting more than half its population’s rights.
However, Indian citizens rose to the occasion and the attackers were arrested within days and a fast- tracked trial found the assailants all guilty and charged with the death penalty less than a year after the crime was committed. It was a speedy result that is rarely seen, even in Western countries.
However, to say that the fight for equality has just begun would be presumptuous as it begins as far back as 1972 with the Mathura custodial rape case. The rape of a Dalit girl by two policemen resulted in reform of the definition of consent in the Indian Penal code. The December 16th case of Jyoti Singh resulted in radical action taken by the judiciary of India. A three person commission led by Chief Justice of India J.S. Varma, recommended the expansion of the definition of sexual assault, the fast- tracking of rape cases, reform within the police force, and the suggestion for a Bill of Rights for women amongst others. There has been some major reform within India as well as a tremendous will of the youth to see this change through.
The incident raised the question of the challenges it is to be a modern day Indian woman. The societal backlash women face as well as the ingrained backward patriarchal mentality, although not as widespread as previous generations, me studying here is a testament to that, is something that many still women grapple to overcome. In recent days however, the Indian government has banned the showing of the documentary showing how quickly the country can regress back into its conservative norms. It has been argued that the viewing of the documentary gives a platform to the justification and reasoning behind the rapes. However, I see it as burying its head in the sand, unable to look at the mirror, and ignoring the problem, that India could be committing international suicide. Although there is a very long uphill battle, I remain hopeful for the rights of women in the country that I call home.