India’s Western problem

The BBC's recent India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman documentary follows a familiar pattern when it comes to Western reporting on violence against women in India says Asiya Islam

, 20 July 2013

Content note: Contains non-graphic references to acts of violence against women, with some links containing further details.

When a young student was raped and murdered in New Delhi, India, in December 2012, a wave of protests gripped the country. Simultaneously, perhaps for the first time, the international community sat up and started talking about sexual violence in India. The discussion quickly veered towards India’s ‘woman problem’ – blame was placed on Indian culture, tradition and values for horrific (and ‘non-horrific’) crimes against women in the country. At that point, I found myself facing the dilemma of either siding with or refusing to participate in the problematic culture-specific criticism of violence against women in India.

I was faced with that choice again when I recently watched India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman, a BBC Three documentary on violence against women in India, made in the wake of the uproar following the rape and murder of the Delhi student. Presenter, Radha Bedi says, “As a young British Indian and journalist, I wanted to go to India to uncover the reality of life for women there, six months after a young medical student was brutally gang-raped on board a bus in the Indian capital Delhi.” I am not convinced that a brief stint making a documentary in a country, even one you are familiar with, could “uncover the reality of life for women there”.

Though Radha has spoken to many people, including her own friends and family in India, as well as women who have been victims of gendered violence, the radius of the documentary is limited to Delhi and Punjab, except for one case of a woman who was molested and stripped in Guwahati in north-east India. This is not to say that Radha should have gone all over India but it would have helped if the documentary was then not sensationally titled India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman.

There seems to be an appetite in the West for stories of horrific violence from the ‘developing world’ but little demand to see what people within those countries are doing to counter social injustice and inequality

There is also an element of writing and speaking for a particular audience. BBC is not available to watch in India, so the main audience of the documentary is British residents. Some situations portrayed seem to be not exactly invented, but definitely exaggerated. When Radha goes to a market in Delhi, she is warned by her friend to keep her arms folded over her chest because men are walking around groping women. While I don’t want to deny experiences of women being sexually harassed on the streets of India, I have to say that I have been to those markets and I haven’t felt the need to cover or protect my breasts.

Risking being called a cynic, I think there is an element here of “This is what our audience would want to hear, so this is what we’re going to say.” There seems to be a growing appetite in the West for stories of horrific violence and tragedies from the ‘developing world’ but little demand to see what people within those countries are doing, as a collective, to counter social injustice and inequality.

This is evident in Radha’s documentary too. Though she talks to a few individuals who are fighting back, I am very surprised by her lack of interaction with the protesters of January 2013. There is an interview with a woman from the UN, who vaguely suggests that Indian culture needs to change, without indicating how, but none with, say, Kavitha Krishnan, who has been involved in working on the ground level in India against violence against women.

There is, however, some good journalism, particularly in the story Radha covers on acid attacks in India, and I wish there could be a more in-depth account of that. Acid attacks are a very particular form of violence against women in India and are facilitated by the lack of regulation on the sale of acid. I think we all need to hear about it more, with a view to campaigning to regulate the sale of acid as well as to recognise acid attack as a gendered crime and punish it accordingly.

The other point that has stuck with me is Radha’s repeated assertion of her good fortune for having been brought up in the UK

One particularly disappointing aspect of this programme is the unnecessarily long air time given to the lawyer defending two of the accused in the Delhi student rape and murder case. This lawyer has been known to say unacceptable things (including that no respectable woman would ever be raped) but has been widely criticised (and ridiculed) in India. It is therefore surprising that his view is portrayed in the documentary as the general opinion in India!

The other point that has stuck with me is Radha’s repeated assertion of her good fortune for having been brought up in the UK. Not only is expression of such a sentiment insensitive, but it also glosses over the harassment and violence women face in the UK. Such minimisation has already been highlighted in the discussion following the Delhi rape case of December 2012.

India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman certainly seems to have been made with the good intention of highlighting violence against women in India. I don’t want to undermine the work and effort that must have gone into it (especially because it’s not very often that mainstream TV channels screen documentaries on gender issues), but I would say it is a case of more of the same. Violence against women in India is not a new issue; nor, sadly, was the rape and murder of the Delhi student. What is new is the international attention it’s getting.

However, such international attention comes with its own set of problems. The global community’s judgement that India has a ‘woman problem’ not only ‘others’ sexual violence but also undermines resistance within the country. As a feminist, I’m uncomfortable with criticising those who are highlighting the issue, but I’m also uncomfortable with the dynamics of the Western world passing judgement without challenging gendered violence on an international level.

Image description:

Members of Praja Rajakiya Vedike (PRV), Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum (KSMF), Eastern Fare Music Foundation (EFMF) and other Bangalore organisations protesting outside Bangalore Town Hall on Sunday, 30 December 2012, demanding justice for the 23-year-old student who died the day before.

The most visible placard (at the front) is purple with white writing and reads “Freedom Miles” (first line, larger typeface), “together in freedom without fear” (second line, smaller typeface), “walk talk sing on every street (third line, smaller typeface) and “stop violence against women” (fourth line, medium typeface).

By Jim Ankan, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Asiya is The F-Word’s features editor. She writes when she’s angry. Follow her on twitter – @asiyaislam

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