Friday, 6 March 2015

India's daughter, India's shame

The gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in Delhi in December 2012 caused massive national and international outrage. How sad, therefore, that the Indian government has decided to ban the showing of an extraordinary television documentary about the case that was shown on BBC4 on Wednesday night.

Here was an opportunity for the government to urge the people of India to examine the ugly underbelly of their rapidly-changing country. Instead, ministers have decided to attack the BBC and have suggested that they might take legal action against it.  

One minister said the film was part of a "conspiracy to defame India." (The programme, made by British film-maker Leslee Udwin, is available to viewers in the UK on the BBC iPlayer until next Wednesday and on YouTube to viewers elsewhere.)

What a tragedy. The documentary is a sensitively-made and moving examination of an atrocious crime. (Warning: it contains some sequences that you may well find distressing.) It features a chilling interview with one of the men convicted of raping and murdering Jyoti, and also hears from some of the rapists' defence lawyers, and both of her parents.

The interviews demonstrate that the perpetrators and their lawyers hold views about the role of women in society that have no place anywhere, let alone in one of the world's most vibrant democracies.

One lawyer says: "In our culture, there is no place for a woman." Another says that if his own daughter or sister were to engage in "pre-marital activities", he would "put petrol on her and set her alight.”

But it also features interviews with women like Sheila Dixit, former Delhi chief minister, and Leila Seth, former chief justice, who speak passionately about the desperate need to educate more of India's people about the right of all women to equal opportunities. It shows the huge protest demonstrations, led by women, that followed Jyoti's murder. This is a film that shows the best, as well as the worst, of India.

India is not the only country in the world where ghastly crimes are committed against girls and women, and it is right that those of us who live in the "developed" world should acknowledge that. I probably don't need to remind you of the case of Elizabeth Fritzl, who emerged in 2008 after having been held captive by her father in an Austrian basement for 24 years, during which time he raped her repeatedly and she gave birth to seven of his children.

Or Fred and Rose West, the couple in Gloucester who raped, tortured and murdered at least 11 girls and women between 1967 and 1987. Or more recently, the appalling child abuse scandals in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere.

India is a country with a fabulously rich history and a cultural heritage that has given the world some of the most wonderful art, poetry and music. It has transformed itself at breathtaking speed into a thriving, globalised economy, in which millions of people can now lead lives their parents never even dreamt of.

But it is still, inevitably, a deeply divided society, and there are still many millions of Indians who have seen few benefits from the economic revolution and who resent the cultural changes that have come with it.

Jyoti Singh came from a modest background -- her father worked as a labourer at the airport -- but she had completed her medical studies and was on course to fulfil her ambition to become a doctor. She had been out with a male friend to see a movie when she was attacked, raped and killed on their way home.

"A decent girl wouldn't be roaming around at 9 o'clock at night," says one of the men convicted of her attack. "A girl is far more responsible for a rape than a boy. You can't clap with one hand. It takes two hands to clap."

"You are talking of a man and a woman as friends," says one of the defence lawyers. "Sorry, that doesn't have any place in our society. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman."

This is an India that won't disappear without a struggle, and it's a struggle that more and more of India's women are determined to wage. How sad that the country's political leaders seem unwilling to join them.

By the way, if you want to make sure that you don't miss any future posts on this blog, you can sign up to receive email alerts by entering your email address in the right-hand column of this page.


No comments: