How is it that we so readily tolerate the intolerable?
In the satisfaction of our comfortable existence in the midst of this relative privilege – what will it take for us to understand better and then to reject outright the sheer brutal horror that is violence against women. The toxic commandeering of the body of the woman as a site for domination, for control, for exploitation, for confinement.
When India’s Daughter, this powerful documentary that confronts with the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, the Indian medical student attacked attacked by a group of men on a private bus while on her way home, was first to be screened in its country of origin – India – the authorities imposed a ban on its screening.
That screening was to take place on 8 March 2015. And would have been aired too on TV channels round the world. However, a court stay order prohibiting the broadcast was sought and granted to the India police. Disturbingly Venkaiah Naidu, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, pronounced his support for the ban denouncing the film as an "international conspiracy to defame India”.
What he failed to do was to denounce violence against women as a scourge on the very integrity and dignity of the country itself. A crime it seems not in its doing but in the story of it being done.
This powerful documentary draws our gaze to the scourge of sexual violence in India and makes visible some of its social and structural causes, including widely held misogynistic views about women. It is thus a vehicle for our mobilization to demand change for women and for girls.
But it challenges also our comfortable ideas about what needs to change. It is not easy watching or easy listening. It is disturbing to hear derogatory and misogynistic – hateful – speech about victims of sexual violence and about the place of women and girls in general.
And yet, we need to step up. To face hatred of women square on. Around the world, gender discriminatory social norms and stereotypes, not only breed discrimination, fuel violence, deliver impunity for perpetrators and stigma for survivors - they lead to a normalization of the intolerable so that even law and its judicial officers become hate’s apologists.
If we are successfully to expose hate, challenge perceptions, unsettle fixed opinion, change hearts and minds, the media role is key. And of course, this is true for and in India and far beyond.
- In Auckland, New Zealand, when a 13 year old girl reported to police that she had been raped by three young men, they asked her: “What were you wearing?” Only after a media exposé was vigorous action was taken by the authorities
- In Kenya, a 16-year-old girl was gang-raped then thrown into a pit latrine, breaking her back. The police response? Rather than prosecute the perpetrators they ordered the men instead to cut the grass around the police station as punishment. Only the subsequent and too rare outpouring of public indignation and a petition signed by 1.4 million people prompted action by the Chief Justice of Kenya.
- In Colombia, a 35 year-old woman was found half naked and with signs of torture on her body – the victim of rape perpetrated in a Bogota park. She did not have the chance to become a survivor - later dying of her injuries. The perpetrator was arrested only once thousands of people marched the streets demanding justice for Rosa.
If I may, the great photographer and essayist Susan Sontag cautioned us that pictures/film/images may confront – even transfix us - but they may also “anesthetize". She suggested that perhaps the only people with the right to look upon images of suffering are those who are willing to do something to alleviate it. The rest of us are made but voyeurs.
Perhaps it is pornography in that sense then to gaze upon images of suffering but then do nothing about that which you have seen. Tonight our gaze – as we regard this provocative file - must not be the gaze of either the sedated or the transfixed.
India’s daughter undoubtedly is intended to spark in us a desire for change. But the making of this documentary into a platform of action is not in the hands of the film maker but in those of us who watching it choose not to become mere voyeurs.