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Debotri Dhar
An Indian Abroad

Debotri Dhar is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

India’s Daughter and the white feminist’s burden

Western feminist rhetoric often makes generalisations about ‘uncivilised’ ‘Third World’ cultures.

Filmmaker Leslee Udwin, director of the documentary India’s Daughter, speaks during a press conference in New Delhi on 3 March 2015. PTI

A star-studded setting in New York last month saw the US premiere of India's Daughter, British filmmaker Leslee Udwin's controversial documentary that has been banned in India. Hollywood actor Meryl Streep led a candle lighting ceremony. This is one of several high profile screenings of the documentary in the United States, another recent one being at Harvard University's prestigious South Asia Institute. It should come as no surprise that the ban has generated as much global interest as the documentary itself, with many intellectuals and celebrities abroad rallying behind the filmmaker's cause.

A noble cause it is: a bold exposé of the misogyny of an alleged rapist (in the brutal Nirbhaya gang rape case), who blames the victim for "inviting" her own rape by being out late at night, saying she would have lived had she quietly submitted to the sexual assault instead of trying to fight back. As problematic are the extremely conservative views expressed in the documentary by some (middle class, "educated") lawyers. Feminists have long argued that, rather than the rape victims, it is the rapists and those condoning rape who should be named and shamed; from that perspective alone, the documentary deserves to be screened. That said, there are at least two larger critiques that merit consideration.

First, some notable Indian feminists have expressed procedural concerns surrounding the filming of the documentary. It has been argued that, since the defendant's appeal against the death sentence is still pending before the Supreme Court, airing the documentary amounts to contempt of the Indian judicial system, apart from raising concerns about journalistic ethics. In academic research, the ethical guidelines for interviewing human subjects are very strict in the US in that all necessary permissions must be obtained, and details of economic and other incentives as well as potential social and psychological impact be approved by an Institutional Review Board. While the guidelines in case of journalism seem more blurry, it is perfectly reasonable for a sovereign nation to have protocols in place when it comes to granting foreign nationals access to high security prisons. (A human rights paradigm might allow for ethical appeals to bypass a country's domestic law in case of a travesty of justice, but that is certainly not the issue here.) One doubts it is any different in the US and the UK. Why then, one wonders, should a "Third World" country be denied its sovereignty, its legal due process?

This is closely linked to a second critique, and concerns "discursive colonisation," a provocative phrase coined by feminist theorist Chandra Mohanty to describe western feminism's paternalistic representations of "Third World" women. This, along with the related theme of cultural essentialism, often comes up for discussion in a course I am currently teaching in the US, on transnational feminisms. The idea is that much like colonial discourses — and harking back to "the white man's burden" that once saturated British Parliamentary debates and missionary propaganda — western feminist rhetoric in postcolonial times often makes problematic, essentialist generalisations about "Third World" cultures to depict them as entirely uncivilised. As one British scholar had put it in the 1800s, "The daughters of India are unwelcomed at their birth, untaught in childhood, enslaved when married, and unlamented at their death." Hence the very name of the documentary — conflating a single female body with the entire body politic — along with frequent use of the word "un/civilised" and blasé generalisations about India's "sick society" in the filmmaker's alleged rhetoric make one decidedly uneasy.

Rape is a global issue. India can hardly claim monopoly over victim-blaming in cases of rape, and feminists are struggling, transnationally, with how to address the conservative mindset of societies. But the romance of "transnational feminism" masks entrenched inequalities; when did a country in the Global South last organise a candle-lighting ceremony to honour "England's daughter" when sexual assault occurred in that country? As a speaker at conferences, I often feel frustrated at the unwillingness of some white forums to reflect on their own agendas and omissions. However, none of this justifies the ban. India is gaining global notoriety as a land of censorship — books, art, food and films. Bans create sharp divides. We must craft more sophisticated ways of dealing with disagreement.

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