After watching India’s Daughter, a BBC documentary based on the Delhi gang rape of a 23-year-old woman, I am struggling to contain feelings of debilitating disappointment and bitter frustration. The gruesome details of this disgusting act perpetrated by at least five men and one juvenile have caused some women to retreat into their own shadows. Perhaps that is the safest manifestation of a woman: no tempting curves to entice the male gaze; just an obedient afterthought that literally follows a man’s every move without question. Shadows cannot talk back, nor do they pose resistance — an action which one of the rapists claimed a woman should never exhibit when being raped, as if rape is a certainty in a woman’s life.
While the gory details of Jyoti Singh’s gang rape incite feelings of painful hopelessness, we cannot surrender the fact that her story has illuminated the path for other women trapped in misogyny. Her parents discuss how “Jyoti” translates into “light” in English, and she brought light into their lives as well as others who crossed her path. Although the global community did not know Jyoti when she was brought into the world, we are all witnesses to the fact that she continues to bring light long after her departure. Jyoti has not only illuminated the horrific identities of her rapists, but her story also sheds light on the centuries of patriarchy and chauvinism manifested in the members of the gang that raped her.
Just listen to the sexist viewpoints of M.L. Sharma and A.K. Singh, the defense attorneys of the rapists, and it will be obvious why, as a result of severe sexual and physical violence, women are becoming comfortable with the idea of a male-free world. While Sharma states, “In Indian culture, there is no place for a woman…”, Singh echoes similar chauvinist sentiments by stating that he would set his own daughter on fire if she were taking part in premarital affairs.
The viewpoints of these two men are not at all a representation of South Asian men; instead, their perspective is the consequence of decades of male-centered rhetoric which still exists as a strong undercurrent. As South Asian women, we are not shaming our culture or identity by protesting these hateful words, nor are we claiming that all men are like the rapists or their defense attorneys. Instead, we are making a collective effort to identify why it is detrimental to society as a whole when individuals like M.L Sharma and A.P. Singh hold such a demeaning opinion of women and advocate that women should accept this disrespectful perspective.
Jyoti’s gang rape was so vicious that her entrails were stripped from her body and discarded like trash. These men justified violating her body turn by turn, and yet people still cannot get past the fact that it is these men who deserve the shame, not the women demanding respect for Jyoti and others like her. Until a country like India can own its sinners as much as its saints, female bodies will continue to be desecrated in the public and private sphere, by uneducated and educated people who surrender to the misogynistic culture. Instead of using her story to set a precedent, the Indian government decided to ban any showings of India’s Daughter. It is regressions like these and an unwillingness to raise awareness about the frightening number of rapes that leads to a division between male and female members of a community. This fact is not just true for the daughters of India, but for daughters of the world.
There is a group of women who have suffered so badly from the actions of men within their community that they formed a village exclusive to women. What is troubling, though, is that many people attribute the success of this women-only collective to the absence of men — not to the presence of strong-willed women. It is true that the Umoja women’s village in Kenya was born from the reality of physical violence and sexual assault against women. Nevertheless, it has grown into a personified vision of the phrase, “enough is enough.” Enough women were silenced; enough aggressors went unpunished.
It is the bond of sisterhood among these women that has elevated their self-worth beyond a level their aggressors can reach. This foundation of principles to stand up and speak out against the evils that occur against not only oneself, but also one’s fellow sister in womanhood, is what has made the Umoja village well built inside and out.
The solution is not to dream of a male-free world — that would be an injustice to the dutiful fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons who value our minds and contributions. The solution is to ask ourselves what we will and will not stand for. If one woman is willing to accept an abusive partner who spits obscenities and disregards any respect for her, then this conveys that her self-respect equals waste and should she should be treated as such. We want to be treated with respect but we do not respect ourselves enough to demand it from men who have a corrupt definition of “love.”
We want to pave a positive path for fellow young women, but we are not going to get there while one of us allows another human to speak to us with vulgar and abusive language while convincing ourselves that it’s not abuse until it becomes physical. When it does become physical, we try to reason that it’s not a problem until it happens more than once. Why do we have to convince others that verbal or emotional abuse is abuse nonetheless? In addition, if you are a female and are aware that your brother or son is abusing another woman, avoid making excuses in favor of him by shifting the blame on the victim. Essentially, it is time to shout a collective “enough” to those individuals who constantly take advantage of second chances and kind hearts, and to those who are complicit in allowing such behavior to be overlooked.
If we want to be closer to living in a world where women are not exploited, we have to assert that kindness does not equal weakness. We must redefine our self-worth. Our experience is more meaningful than the few individuals who view female bodies as only a gateway to fulfilling their own desires. We must be invested in our cause enough to reject the ideas that women do not have a place in a certain cultures, or that we belong in the shadows. Using Jyoti’s strength as an inspiration, we can unite on the premise that we are all entitled to opportunities and meaningful experiences as daughters of this world, no matter where we reside.
Photo by Barbara A. White