Deconstructing 'India's Daughter' and what it means to be a woman

People light candles during a prayer ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape. (Amit Dave, Reuters)

People light candles during a prayer ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape. (Amit Dave, Reuters)

I marked International Women’s Day, which was on Sunday, by watching the documentary India’s Daughter, the unflinching take on the brutal Delhi rape in 2012 that shocked the world.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Delhi rape, it happened in December 2012 when a young physiotherapy student boarded a night bus in the Indian capital with a male friend after watching a movie. The vehicle turned out to be a rogue bus driven by a gang of violent men who were out to “have some fun” as one of them put it in the interviews. After beating her male friend, they took turns brutally raping the woman, biting her, violating her with a metal rod and throwing both out onto the streets. 

She died a few days later from her injuries. 

Her parents later revealed that her name was Jyoti Singh. It turned out to be a turning point for the country, which was rocked by protests over the rape, forcing the government to appoint a high level committee to address the issues the incident raised.

It wasn’t that easy to find the documentary, however. The Indian government banned its broadcast in the country, saying it would incite its citizens further. They also contended that one of the rapist’s shocking comments, on how the woman deserved it, was an affront to women. This is nonsensical, of course. In preventing your citizens from seeing the evil in their society, you prevent them from confronting it too.

Viewers got around it by watching it online, until the BBC, which commissioned the documentary, pulled online copies claiming copyright infringement. I managed to find one version online here, which will no doubt be taken down soon once the production house’s lawyers get to it.

I fear the documentary will sink into obscurity after this, and that perhaps not many South Africans have seen it. This is a tragedy as we need to reflect on the story of India’s Daughter and apply it to our own situation: where rape and violence against women is far worse than even in India.

So in the interest of keeping the story alive here are the most shocking or profound quotes from the story of a rape that stunned the world and changed a nation.

“We gave out sweets and everyone said: You’re celebrating as if it’s a boy. We said we’re equally happy having a boy or a girl.” 

Jyoti’s parents emerged as the true heroes in the documentary: poor, but incredibly progressive in their thinking. Her mother recalls how family members were surprised at how the family celebrated Jyoti’s birth. It was not a normal position. Later in the documentary former Indian chief justice, Leila Seth, notes that out of thousands of foetuses once found dumped in India, 98% of them were female. Jyoti’s father, who worked as a labourer at an airport, sold his ancestral land to finance her dream of becoming a doctor, refusing to educate her brothers and not her.

“A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy ... A boy and a girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing the wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good ... When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’, and only hit the boy.” 

Mukesh Singh (28), was the driver of the bus, gave an astonishing interview for the documentary while in prison. His comments were published before the documentary was aired, and was in part responsible for its banning, with people labelling him a monster for his statements and casual attitude to rape. But as one activist noticed what is most shocking is how ordinary he sounds, and how one can imagine thousands if not millions of other men thinking the same thing. Vilifying the perpetrators as monsters makes it seem like they’re an exception to the human race when they are not: if they were, rape would not be as common as it is.

“She had to work part-time to pay her hostel fees. So she worked night shifts at an international call center ... from 8pm until 4am. I asked her: how can you manage all this. She said: I have to and I can. She would sleep just three or four hours a night. She has big dreams, she wanted to help the poor, and build a hospital in her ancestral village. She used to always say: a girl can do anything.” 

Jyoti’s tutor and friend, who is named only as Satendra in the documentary, painted a picture of an extraordinary woman whose life was cut short. Later in the documentary he recalled how she compassionately responded to a beggar boy who tried to steal her purse, stopping a police officer from beating him.

“She said, ‘Mum, Dad, now you don’t have to worry any more ... Your little girl is a doctor. Now everything will be fine.’ It seems that God didn’t like this. He ended everything there.” 

Asha Singh, Jyoti’s mother, delivers one of the most heart-breaking lines of the documentary. We can only counter that it is mere men playing God who will try to end the life of a woman for daring to fulfill her potential.

“We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman,” said ML Sharma, defence lawyer for the men convicted of Jyoti’s rape and murder. 

A second defence lawyer, AP Singh, adds if his daughter or sister “engaged in pre-marital activities ... in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight”. The comments of the lawyers defending the accused are the most shocking. These are educated, professional men, proving that this is a cultural issue more than anything else. Thanks to the documentary, their remarks have garnered widespread attention – and censure. There has been pressure for the Bar Council of Delhi to possibly take disciplinary actions against both lawyers, but the process seems onerous and slanted to protect them. 

“Tell our comrades we will fight!” 

The footage of the thousands of protesters brimming with rage and hurt was the most poignant, after Jyoti’s parents. It was incredible to see a nation rise up like this and say: no more. Their government reacted predictably, with beatings, water cannons, tear gas and arrests but the protesters would not be deterred, eventually forcing the government’s hand in appointing a review committee. It did of course raise the vexing question of why South Africans, with so much more to fight in this regard, have never done the same on such a scale.

“The last thing that she said to me she took my hands in hers and kissed them and said, Sorry mummy, I have caused you so much trouble. I am sorry. The sound of her breathing stopped, and the lines on the monitor flattened.” 

Jyoti’s last words are devastating and echoes the pressure on women to apologise for their presence. If anything the Delhi rape and the documentary teaches us that violent crime against women doesn’t just blossom out of nowhere. It is nourished in the soil of casual sexism. Every time a system or society diminishes a women, or doesn’t enable her to take up leadership positions, we allow women to be devalued and considered voiceless and without agency. When that happens it is a short step away to treating her like an object to be used up and thrown out as Jyoti was. This is why we must fight sexism at every level. This is why we must do so much more here in South Africa.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Laudium, Pretoria, learned her trade at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, spent a spell in Cape Town as an online journalist, and now loves living in Jozi. Her interests are broad but include a focus on politics and multi-platform storytelling. Read more from Verashni Pillay


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