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  March 8, 2015

International Women's Day: How We Discuss Rape in India and the World

University of Cambridge Professor Priyamvada Gopal discusses the banning of film in India that highlights the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Indian student, but also critiques it for failing to connect sexual violence to other oppressive social practices
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Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

March 8 marks International Women's Day. And back in India's media spotlight is the story of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, who was gang raped by six men on a bus after she was coming home from seeing a film with a male friend. She's the main subject in the recently released BBC documentary film titled India's Daughter. And that film highlights the 2012 mass protests that erupted in India after the news of her rape and eventual tragic death sent shockwaves throughout Indian society.

Let's take a look at a clip from the trailer.


As you saw in that film, this is a topic that is causing such controversy in India. And the government has banned the film from being released, considering the film contains an interview with one of the rapists.

Now joining us to put this all into context is our guest, Priya Gopal. She's joining us from Cambridge, England, where she is a professor of English at the University of Cambridge. She recently wrote an article for The Guardian titled "Reducing Rape to a Generic Indian Male Mindset Fails Its Victims".

Thank you for joining us, Priya.


DESVARIEUX: So, Priya, what's at the root of this controversy?

GOPAL: The film has divided Indian feminists. There are feminists who I should say believe that the film is important inasmuch as it highlights and brings awareness to the issue of rape.

But there is also a substantial section of the women's movement in India and its leadership who believe that the timing of the film is problematic, given that the key interviewee, Mukesh Singh, who is one of the convicted rapists, is coming up for appeal. His appeal is being heard before the Supreme Court of India. And there is substantial concern that an interview by him and the inflammatory statements that he has made could prejudice a case that is still under review. And so there is a kind of legal anxiety there.

Prominent feminist lawyers have pointed out that women and women in India and the women's movement need the law and they need, in some sense, to abide by judicial processes in their own interests. And so, suspending them or diverting them in the interests of bringing awareness to an issue is questionable. And so there's a kind of feminist case for not abrogating or interfering with judicial processes.

The other issue that some feminists have raised is the question of the emphasis of the film, which is very heavily on what is described in the film as the mentality of men, and much more, I think, described in the interviews with the filmmaker in writeups about the global campaign that is going to be launched after International Women's Day, which is, again, emphasizing male mentality in a kind of generic--on a very general sense, and also is making a very problematic distinction for many feminists, including myself, between a savage and barbaric mentality that rapes and a modern mentality that is ostensibly free of rape.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. We actually have a clip from the filmmaker, Leslee Udwin. She comes out defending the film in an NDTV interview, and she explains why she decided to interview one of the rapists. Let's take a look at what she had to say.


LESLEE UDWIN, DIRECTOR, INDIA'S DAUGHTER: Why we must face up to this is because during these 31 hours the attitude that I understood and perceived in these men is: what's the big deal? Everyone's doing it. Why are they looking at us? Isn't that important for the public to know? Isn't it important for the public to know that these men have zero remorse?

Why do they feel it's acceptable? Because our society makes it acceptable, because when a girl is born, sweets aren't distributed at her birth. They're distributed at the birth of a boy. A boy is given a full glass of milk, a girl is given half a glass of milk. This is where the problem lies. You tell men that women are of no value, of course they're going to do what they want with her. Why not?


DESVARIEUX: Priya, do you think there's some truth to what she has to say, that Indian society doesn't value women the same way that they value men?

GOPAL: I think there's absolutely no doubt about that, that inasmuch as one can make generalizations, India has deeply misogynistic cultures and communities. And that is, in a sense, really to state the obvious.

Having said that, of course, rape culture is pervasive, misogyny is pervasive, sexism is pervasive. We have very high incidences of rape in countries such as Sweden and the United States and sexual violence.

So it seems to me that to simply stress mentality is to look for an easy answer to the question of how rape happens, in what context it happens, and how it's used.

So I don't think that any feminist that I know who has raised queries about the film is denying there is a problem with how women are treated in India, and indeed elsewhere.

The question is: is simply talking about a mindset really giving us a full and useful picture, really, of how rape functions in different contexts in India? I mean, I'm very reluctant to use the term India, because we're talking about different cultures, communities, urban contexts, rural contexts, costs, different milieus in which rape happens, and they happen for different reasons and in different ways.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let's talk about some of--give us more of a full picture, some of the systemic issues that you bring up in your recent Guardian article. You wrote, quote,

"Rape can be a perfectly modern weapon that is intimately connected to other systems of privilege, exploitation and inequality, including, in the Indian context, caste oppression, religious chauvinism, resource appropriation (...) and the vicious economic inequalities fostered by an unfettered capitalism prosperity that has yet to bring basic shelter and nourishment to millions."

It seems that you are making this connection between rape and economic oppression, essentially. How do you make that connection? And do you feel like that is a bit of a stretch?

GOPAL: Okay. Let me clarify one thing. When I made that connection, I was not saying that it's poor men who rape. In fact, one of my problems with the film and one of the problems other feminists have expressed with the film is that it actually ends up suggesting that it is poor men who rape because they're raised in slums and they're raised without education and they don't have any outlet, and so they rape. I mean, this is actually a problem with the film, that it doesn't show the diversity of the context in which rape happens, including, of course, by wealthy men, middle-class men, people in very high positions.

So I am not actually saying that if you are poor or you're deprived, you rape. What I'm saying is that in a context where there is deprivation, where there is caste violence, where there is whether a communal or interreligious tensions, rape functions differently as a weapon. Rape in all cases, no matter where it takes place in the world, is a weapon.

And we have to ask in what ways that weapon is used, who is using it. So, when caste privilege in India is exercised in villages, it is upper-caste men who often rape lower-caste/Dalit women, and that is a way of entrenching and asserting their privilege. Equally, there are men who are deeply disenfranchised by the system and in whose case class rage sometimes--and not only, but sometimes can take the form of exercising violence on the body of women seen to be Westernized or middle-class or privileged.

So I'm not making a simple causal connection. I'm saying that when we look at rape, we need to look at multiple causal factors, because if you don't do that, then all you're saying is, well, as long as you sort of tell people rape is a bad idea and it's not very modern and then they should stop doing it, they'll stop doing it.

To me the film is not offensive. It's a missed opportunity to talk about the multiple contexts in which rape takes place in India. And let us also remember it is used as a weapon against the bodies of minority women. It is used in the state of Kashmir by the Armed Forces, which have special impunity when it comes to crimes committed by them. It takes place in corporate workplaces. It is in some ways valorized in Indian cinema. It takes place in bedrooms. Marital rape is a problem.

So what I'm saying is, rather than actually find a monocausal answer in a kind of apparently ancient mentality, we need to look at the ways in which rape is very much a part of modern life, and we have to ask why.

I think the film's opposition between modern, educated people and atavistic, poor traditional men is not helpful.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Priya, let's switch gears a little bit and talk about how some Indian feminists have actually taken issue with the title of the film as well. It's called India's Daughter. And they've--other associated organizations, Daughters of India, for example, they're saying that women shouldn't be protected as rape victims because they're daughters or mothers, but rather because they're human beings. Is that wrong, to appeal to people's familial emotions? Doesn't this get people to connect more with the victim? What's your take?

GOPAL: The critique of this is quite specific. Men are often appealed to not rape or to not exercise sexual violence in their capacity as fathers and brothers. So, in India, very often when there is street harassment of women, a women might ask, don't you have a sister or a mother? And the point is that if one is critiquing and challenging a patriarchal mentality, then one doesn't solve that by appealing to patriarchal categories. The issue here is that you might not have a mother or a sister, you might not have a daughter, a woman might not see herself as a daughter, but she still has the right not to be raped.

The other point--and I want to connect this to the film again. You will recall that the shocking statements by the defense lawyers include saying that in our culture we don't allow daughters out of the house after 7:30 or 8:30, and if daughters are allowed out of the house, then they essentially have to take what's coming their way. And it seems to me that to continue the conversation about rape and women's bodies in the terms set down by patriarchy is self-limiting. And that, I think, is the nub of the problem that feminists have with the title of the film. And, indeed, young women, particularly young women in colleges and in the workplace today, do not necessarily see themselves as entitled to safety because they're daughters or sisters. They see themselves as entitled to safety because women, like men, are entitled to safety.

DESVARIEUX: Alright, Priya, let's turn the corner little bit and talk about solutions. What do you see as some real solutions in order to deal with some of these root issues at the heart of rape not only in India but on a global scale? What are some sort-term and long-term goals that people should be trying to fight for?

GOPAL: Well, again, as I said earlier, there is no magic bullet. It isn't just a question of mentalities and educating people and then making them realize rape is wrong and really shouldn't do it.

I think, then, as I said, rape has multiple causes, and so you have to situate a discussion about rape in a larger discussion about equality, fairness, rights, within which women, whether they're upper-class or whether they are working women or poor women, are entitled to rights as human beings.

Now, this is not to erase the specificity of gender violence. It's very specific, and sexual violence has to be looked at as what it is. But what I'm suggesting and I think what other feminists are suggesting is that the discussion has to take place in terms of other discussions. You know, what role does economics play? What role does education play? What are the different ideologies that go into diminishing women? What is being defined as modern?

I mean, one of the aspects of the film I found striking is that it seems to define modernity mainly in terms of acquiring a professional degree and being able to go to a workplace and earn a middle-class salary. And in that sense, the poor young woman, Nirbhaya, or Jyoti, was depicted as a kind of ideal victim, because she did all the right things by the book of modern, economically buoyant India.

But there is no such thing, as you and I know, as an ideal victim. Women are victimized in different contexts. And we need to pay attention contextually to what is going on. We need to--education is important. But so is a wider discussion about fairness and equality.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Priya Gopal, thank you so much for joining us.

GOPAL: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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