Women’s Day Special: India’s Daughter and Rape Culture in South Asia

Talking about women’s rights and sexual harassment has never been easy in South Asia, and the recent controversy in India highlights this fact. Last Thursday morning (evening in India and Pakistan), Leslee Udwin’s documentary on the Jyoti Singh (Nirbhaya) rape case – India’s Daughter – went viral on the Internet, as the BBC released the film on YouTube. The airing of the film has been blocked in India by a Delhi court on grounds of the case’s being sub judice and for fear that the content of film (particularly the interview with one of the convicts, Mukesh) could “create law and order problems” for the country.

Nonetheless, many Internet-savvy Indians and non-Indians have by now watched the film and are reacting to it: “horrific, appalling, sick” are some of the responses from outraged audiences. Caught in the volley of should-be-banned and should-not-be-banned, India’s Daughter brings back the debate on rape culture and human security, particularly women’s security.

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The aftermath of 16 December 2012 in India was a social upheaval. The topic of rape – a hitherto victim-shaming taboo topic – was brought into public discourse like never before, as one of the interviewees in the documentary points out. While on one hand Indian society seems to be on the cusp of serious self-introspection, heinous rapes and other violent crimes against women continue unabated.

A society with desperate forces of resistance to change needs a constant reminder that the revolution is to be an ongoing one – and not just a fleeting moment in our recent history. While it is certainly true that the case remains sub judice, to accuse the documentary of inciting public anger is to miss the point entirely. It was public outrage that led to the urgent setting up of the Justice Verma Committee whose report re-scripted rape and sexual assault-related laws in India. In preparation for the Committee’s report, suggestions poured in from all corners of Indian civil society, including women’s rights movements, students, and intellectuals. We can recall the 2011 anti-corruption movement in India and the “common man’s” victory in the 2015 Delhi elections were emotion-based responses and a sign of progress, after all.

So why not get emotional about this? Has any change come devoid of emotion, let alone social change? This exact attitude – asking not to get emotional while calling for justice – has helped rape culture and violence against women to flourish in many societies around the world, including in India and in Pakistan.

Does the documentary provide a platform for the convict to tell his side of the story? To Mukesh it would have appeared so (perhaps this being the reason why he agreed to give the interview in the first place). Even then, India’s Daughter does not make a case for the convicts. The documentary is about the lives of those who lived the horrible incident in December 2012 and its aftermath – Jyoti, Jyoti’s parents Badri Singh and Asha Singh, the convicts Mukesh and others – the documentary gives the world a chance to see how they and the public reacted. What India’s Daughter does is show us the abhorrent anti-women attitudes of power-assertive men. We see these men, robed in lawyer’s cloaks, the alleged vanguards of justice, intellectualize a virulent sexist and violent perspective towards women. The statements of the convict and the defence lawyers are a slap in the face of a civilized society. Udwin’s documentary makes that slap keenly felt.

This is not India’s problem alone. In the wake of high-profile rape cases in Pakistan, there are the inevitable voices defending the rapists and shaming the victims. Honour killings abound, with little political consensus willing to tackle the gross narrative that allows for violence to continue. In a way, our societies have become textbook examples of rape culture. From the very beginning, as Jyoti’s mother points out in the documentary, whole neighborhoods rejoice at the birth of a son – it is curious when families do so for a girl. For large swaths of Pakistan and India, even today, education is meant for the son and the daughter’s role is in the home, in the kitchen, caring for the family – anything outside of this is improper. A girl shouldn’t be outside her home with friends – if she is, the apologists say, the rape is her own fault, a consequence of her immorality. It is this perverse idea that masquerades as intellect that is our biggest challenge to overcome.


Jyoti’s case resonated with people across the subcontinent because of who she was – a symbol of a progressing nation. She came from a poor family, but because of access to education and opportunities, coupled with her loyalty to family and remarkable work ethic, was able to chart a career path for herself. India and Pakistan’s economic progress has allowed more people the chance to pursue their dreams, and they are doing so in droves. Young people are moving to the cities, pursuing higher education, and enjoying recreational activities such as going with friends to a movie. Jyoti’s story could have been anyone’s story. Any one of us could have been Jyoti.

Rapes have happened since, and will continue to unless this narrative that oppresses women is successfully challenged. In our homes and neighborhoods, in our schools and universities, in our temples and mosques, the idea of equality must be underscored. We all have this responsibility, leadership in particular. The authors of this piece feel strongly about matters of national security from their vantage points of Islamabad and New Delhi, and agree that certainly no one is secure when our populations are under such daily threats.

South Asia will not progress until all its people are given due protection and opportunity. To do that requires engaging in conversations, not condemning important documentaries that raise vital questions about our culture.


Image 1: Sam Panthaky-AFP, Getty

Image 2: Sajjad Hussain-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Culture, Human Security, India, Internal Security, Pakistan, Politics, Security

Tanvi Kulkarni

Tanvi Kulkarni teaches Defence and Strategic Studies at the Savitribai Phule Pune University in India. She has a PhD in Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her thesis examines why states in a nuclear dyad negotiate nuclear confidence-building measures (NCBMs). Tanvi completed her M.Phil in Diplomacy and Disarmament in August 2014, and for her dissertation, she worked on tracing the evolution of the ideas of Credible Minimum Deterrence and No First Use in India's nuclear doctrine and policy. She researches and writes on nuclear politics, national security, and strategic issues. She was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow in 2015. Tanvi has previously worked with the the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi and the Chaophraya Track II Dialogue.

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Sana Ali

Ms. Sana Ali holds a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in International Relations (concentrating in Strategic Studies) and International Economics. Ms. Ali has previously served as an aide to Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Ambassador Sherry Rehman at the Embassy of Pakistan, in Washington, DC, maintaining a strong focus on internal and regional security issues. She serves on the Board of Directors of Marshall Direct Fund, a non-profit dedicated to education efforts and the empowerment of women in the Pakistani economy. Ms. Ali currently is the Editor of leading Pakistani newspaper, The Daily Times.

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6 thoughts on “Women’s Day Special: India’s Daughter and Rape Culture in South Asia

  1. More power to you for raising voice against such crimes, however, I believe you (and others) have missed the subliminal point here:
    1. Leslee Udwin, in one of her interviews’ to NDTV, mentioned that she undertook this as a research project, a study of sorts. Does interviewing 3-4 rapists, constitute a study? What path breaking revelation did the documentary share? If BBC was so serious about this topic, they should rather have funded a research program in an Indian University.

    2. Re-read the notice appearing on this video on youtube – “This video contains content from bbc, who has blocked it on copyright grounds”. If this was meant to educate the masses, why do they want to block it on grounds of copyright infringement? Doesn’t then, it involve a commercial angle, making profits out of our misery? Here is something of interest – http://qz.com/357437/now-nobody-can-watch-the-controversial-bbc-documentary-indias-daughter/

    Frankly, I don’t believe that banning anything on internet works, so, all this brouhaha is futile.

  2. Shail,

    I just read this: http://m.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/indias-daughters-the-ban-that-actually-isnt/article6975342.ece/ and I thought, “What rubbish, it still looks like a ban to me”! The kind of censorship proposed to make the film available to viewers robs the point of the story. Anyway, beyond the issues of broadcasting, copyrights and the I&B Ministry-BBC- Youtube tussle (but thanks for sharing the link), Sana and I are trying to get to a larger, and in our opinion, a vital debate – not talking about rape works in favour of a rape culture.

    Now to the specific questions in your comment 1:
    Does interviewing 3-4 rapists, constitute a study? – Of course. Interviewing a single rapist can constitute a profound psychological and sociological study.

    What path breaking revelation did the documentary share? – Besides the already known brutality of the rape, none at all. And that’s the painful part. It is painful and infuriating to watch that we live with those far-too-common views about women in our societies – narratives which are used to assault and rape a woman and then to blame and shame her too. These are the un-stunning revelations in the film that move us and we hope that they will move our societies toward a determined change.

    ‘If BBC was so serious about this topic, they should rather have funded a research program in an Indian University’ – that’s a good idea to propose to the BBC. But more importantly, if we are very serious about fighting the rape culture in our countries/ societies we should talk about it openly. We shouldn’t be waiting for a BBC documentary to ‘educate the masses’. Films and works of art can nonetheless be used as tools to drive a point.

  3. Ms. Tanvi, I do hope that you set aside emotions and try to read my comments from a logical perspective:

    1. I believe you are mistaken when you say that we don’t openly talk about the problem of rape & gender inequality. The media, especially after Nirbhaya incident has been quite vocal and even our current Prime Minister talked about equal rights for girl child on his Independence day speech (ref: Beti bachao, beti parhao abhiyaan). Hence, this documentary did not pioneer the effort in raising the collective conscience of our society, so let’s not give it, an undue credit.

    2. While there have actually been studies done to research the rape psychology, which suggest that sexual urges are the primary cause, I believe that the jury is still out. Eventually, it might also be affected by a cultural context, and for India, it might be a misogynist mindset, however, I still maintain that interview of 4 rapists doesn’t pass off as a scientific study.

    3. Had she openly admitted that it’s a commercial venture, I would not have been debating this with you. However, making money out of someone’s misery and then portraying all the males of a country to have a specific mindset is a horrible thing to do. There is also a report that the interviewed rapist was paid Rs. 40,000/- for the interview. (Not sure if it’s confirmed news though)

    Let me reiterate, more power to you for raising voice against such heinous crimes, however, I’m clearly doubting the intention behind Leslee’s motivation to make this documentary. I’m not criticising the message conveyed though.

  4. Finally something sane coming straight out of the book of erudition. The fact is Tanvi and Sana, the assertion that blocking content considered to be a platform for perpetrators of rape is actually an excuse to deviate from a reality check that both India and Pakistan have endemic narratives which demonize women whenever such heinous acts are committed. I ask all thee who question Leslee’s documentary, which is a master piece in every way, the following question below.

    Political motivations aside. Western conspiracy to paint India as a vile, vicious state which preys on vulnerable women aside. Why was a vacuum provided in the first place? About a couple of days after this ‘ British Raj Video’ was released, a six year old girl was assaulted in Ahmedabad, yet the liberators of colonialism, continue to cry victim over a documentary which highlights the suffering of a poor soul? If this is held as it is, then Mukesh’s claim that ‘ she asked for it’, should also be accepted at face value.

    I came across a placard from a woman in Delhi which read ‘ Kapde Nae Soch Badlo’, straight after the incident. The poor lady was naive though ‘ sobs’ she forgot about the mindset which needs changed. So, the placard should really read ‘ soch say pehlay, akal badlo’.

    But alas cruel fate!! I wonder whether George Fernandes and his kin would nod his head in approval or simply cuss in oblivion.


  5. @ Shail : When we say talking openly about rape we also mean the need to remove social taboos and fears, the legal hassles and the ‘justice-delayed’ systems which prohibit rapes from getting reported. As for gender equality initiatives, what fighting a rape culture really needs is ‘bete ko parhao – beti ko bachao’, no? Pioneering or not, profiteering or not, what the film shows is not fabricated fiction.

    PS: I tend to get very brief when I am not-emotional and logical, as opposed to when I’m emotional and logical. Also, thanks! Do join us in raising a voice against rape culture.

    @ Humzah: Thank you. Only if all the placarding would actually help change mindsets. We should probably start with text-books.

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