In Search of Mother India and Her Lost Daughters

Editor’s Note: This piece is co-authored by Meghna Basu and Jiya Pandya.

Leslee Udwin’s India is a crude one. Its outlines are scribbled with Oxfordian platitudes and sensationalized conversations, cherry-picked interviewees and clichéd panoramas of India’s poor. Udwin interviews the disturbingly misogynistic lawyers defending India’s most hated men, but ignores the lawyers fighting against them. She interviews middle-class Indian women picketing on the streets for greater gender rights, yet omits any coverage of judicial and legislative reform. She interviews the rapist, the victim’s parents, and many others involved in the administrative proceedings of the legal case that followed the rape, but does not, however, speak to any other Indian women—women who work, who raise children alone and who serve in various bureaucratic systems. Udwin’s film thus extravagantly parades itself as the story of “India’s Daughter” despite its almost ignorant distance from reality: after all, does Udwin really know who India’s daughter is? Does anyone?

We cannot claim to have teased out ‘India’ from the many complex layers and intricate webs of identity that form the land. From the rolling hills of Kashmir to the bustling urban metropolis of Mumbai; the Tamils of the South to the Punjabis of the North; and from religious fundamentalists howling political diatribes into a loudspeaker to the college students howling the very opposite into colourful bustling crowds at gay rights parades—India’s limitless contradictions are just as jarring as they are unifying.

In trying to understand this cacophony of mismatched Indian identities, it is easy to forget that India is a young country. Despite being built upon a thousand-year-old civilization, the Indian Republic as the united federation of states it is today is just under 70 years old and therefore faces similar identity crises to many other new nations (such as Singapore, South Africa or the new Balkan states). Even the fundamental political foundations upon which India is built are shaky: the nation’s founding doctrines of democracy, secularism, and free speech (put together by an elite educated in Britain and who were in many ways separated from the Indian masses) are being increasingly challenged today by government censorship, religious fundamentalism, and a soft but growing discourse on the merits of authoritarian rule. Having been built upon an increasingly teetering national foundation, this notion of an Indian identity—‘What is an Indian’—is a common question and has been answered in many conflicting ways. Today, more and more Indians are asking a similar question, each with precariously different answers: What makes an Indian woman?

We think the answer to this question lies in its uncertainty. There are two (if not more) Indias tugging at one another today, and in this struggle there are many Indians, and many Indian women. India as a nation is deeply rooted in spirituality: ‘Indian secularism’ is indeed unique in its public celebration and accommodation of religion (as opposed to the banishment of religious faith to the private home, which is what would otherwise be considered ‘secular’ in many Western traditions). Therefore there has been (and continues to be) a tension between traditionalism and modernity in Indian society: a constant pull between the extremes. Alongside ‘Ms. India’ contests starring bikini-clad women who are advocating for sexual liberation and the abandonment of domesticity, there also sit female teachers in religious schools extolling the virtues of virginity and domesticity for all women on the basis of religious purity (see The World Before Her). We therefore see that in one India, women are marginalised and stymied from empowering themselves by any and all sectors of society. Today, women make up only 27% of the workforce and only 12% of parliamentarians. On average, 92 Indian women are estimated to be raped every day, with one raped every 32 minutes. Over 40% of Indian women face domestic violence at the hands of their husbands or partners, and 92% suffer from gynaecological problems. Female infanticide (indicative of the lack of worth parents put on girls) remains a frighteningly common reality: statisticians estimate that up to eight million fetuses have been aborted in the past decade in India.

There exists another India as well. An India where the Girl-to-Boy enrollment ratio in primary school is more than 90%, and where the same ratio in tertiary education is over 70%. There exists an India where women can start up their own cab companies, run and operated entirely by women to ensure women’s safety. There exists an India where despite there being dismal involvement of women in the national labour force, the proportion of working women in urban cities has increased from 11.9% in 2001 to 15.4% in 2011. There exists an India where women may not work extensively in formal corporations and systems, but do increasingly work in NGOs or as ad-hoc domestic labour: work that often does not get picked up by statisticians, but which sustains a livelihood and independence for women nonetheless. There exists an India where a woman can be one of the most seminal Prime Ministers of the nation’s lifetime, and where women can travel from villages to international sports competitions and win on the global stage.

It is easy to watch Udwin’s film and dismiss India as a nation of rapists; a nation where women are so wildly dehumanized that they become treated as objects of sexual pleasure for any and all men. This is, no doubt, part of the problem. Misogyny is in many ways ingrained in our societies, both in India and globally, and is a large factor in making the Indian nation unsafe for women. Weaknesses in law enforcement and judicial efficiency also play a role, as do socio-economic and educational gaps. Yet, it is important to note that as a new and growing republic, India is a nation in flux: with millions of its citizens moving from villages to cities, the entire nation’s people are searching for their place in a rapidly growing economy. Slowly but surely, women are finding their place too—not only through paid employment, but through stronger representation in the media, through the provision of public services to their communities, and through increasingly asserting themselves in everyday life. And yet, the girl standing in a bikini on the stage of her Ms. India pageant stands, awkwardly shifting as she thinks of her mother in a salwar making dinner for her at home. The woman teaching droves of students about the value of domesticity and devotion to the family desperately seeks power, empowerment, and independence to spread her message.

What makes an ‘Indian Woman’, then? Nirbhaya, Udwin’s immortalized ‘India’s Daughter’, was a medical student from a lower-middle class family, out for a movie with a male friend late at night. She was assaulted because she had the audacity to stand up to her attackers. She, like millions of other Indian women in all segments of society, was not just the victim of decades of patriarchal society—she was also a combatant against it. This duplicity of identity is a grey area that both Udwin and India need to accept in order to best fight the battle for India’s daughters against misogyny, patriarchy, and violence: the complex interplay of both these identities together are what makes India’s Daughter. And even then we can’t definitively say that we have answered the question, can i buy lasix over the counter because India is still trying to answer it for herself.

Photo – AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal