Parallels between India’s sexism and America’s racism

Leslee Udwin’s recently-released documentary, “India’s Daughter,” interrogates the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh (a.k.a Nirbhaya) by six men on a bus in Delhi in 2012. The film is a reminder to the world that prejudice and cultural misogyny are still thriving today.

But the Indian government’s censorship of the the film, and subsequent investigations of those who screen it in the country, is problematic in its own right.

Ironically, and perhaps predictably, the ban only helped the documentary go viral.

As Aki Muthali, a Sri Lankan-born writer, noted in The Nation, the government’s justification for censoring the film entails “the vulgar belief that when a daughter is raped, the family’s ‘social status’ becomes spoiled — and such is the nauseating justification…for supporting censorship of the documentary.”

In other words, Indian politicians believe that India is the symbolic “family” in this analogy, and that Jyoti Singh is its “daughter.” Singh’s rape, therefore, “spoiled” India’s name and brought shame to the country, and is therefore subject to censorship. A conclusion that can only be drawn from the patriarchy embedded within Indian culture.

This patriarchal foundation has taken on an extreme form of sexism that is much more pronounced on the local level – where a majority of sexual assaults go untried, and policing is often part of the problem. In fact, according to a January article in the New York Times, of the more than 600 rapes reported in New Delhi in 2012 – and reported cases track far below the actual figure – only one had produced a conviction by 2014.

Citizens in Delhi, India protesting violence against women, via  Wikimedia Commons

Citizens in Delhi, India protesting violence against women, via Wikimedia Commons

But while it could be easy for an American observer to shake their head and move on to the next story, assuring themselves that we don’t institutionalize discrimination in that way, they’d be mistaken: Black Americans face the same form of racism within America’s local policing and legal systems as the sexism inflicted upon Indian women.

From “Stand Your Ground” legislation to grand juries being manipulated to allow cops to avoid trial, American society is currently organized in a way that systematically disadvantages black and brown citizens, and its criminal justice system is set up to keep it that way.

Like the story of Jyoti Singh, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri caught the imagination and mindset of the American public – and brought to light the willful ignorance that has allowed rampant prejudice to fester within this country, especially on a local level.

In a 2012 supplementary homicide report by the FBI, 31% of all victims killed by police during arrest are black, while blacks only make up 13% of the American population. And according to the Urban Institute, in Stand Your Ground states, white-on-black homicides are 354% more likely to be ruled as justifiable than white-on-white homicides.

In a recent New York Times article entitled, “What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter,” renowned ethics and gender theorist Judith Butler noted that:

When we are talking about racism, and anti-black racism in the United States, we have to remember that under slavery black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life, so the prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, more deserving of life and freedom…One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized.

With all the claims of progress and better race relations, bigotry in America is still alive and well – as witnessed by the recent video of the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma. More importantly however, what we still see today is that structural racism in America is embedded the cultural mindset of those who govern our municipalities – particularly amongst majority-white police forces and their majority-black constituents.

Unarmed killings and disproportionate incarceration rates are, therefore, analogous to the gang rape and victim-blaming that often goes unprosecuted in India.

But there is one major difference: Americans are, increasingly, exposed to these injustices – they get to see a militarized police force crack down on peaceful protesters in Ferguson. They can’t avoid video evidence of Eric Garner being choked to death. And publicity begets response: The Justice Department has now released the findings of its investigation in Ferguson officially condemning the culture of structural racism within the department. It doesn’t right the wrong, but it’s not nothing; our federal government has officially taken a stand against a case of gross injustice.

India, on the other hand, is clearly far from officially condemning the sexism that pervades its society, exemplified by the government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the corruption that sourced the misogynistic violence documented in India’s Daughter. The government’s censorship of the documentary allows it to avoid the hard, introspective look that the nation needs to take, leaving misogyny to remain buried in traditional thought.

Ultimately, India and its politicians must welcome criticism and accept their share of the blame for the failure to effectively prosecute sexual assault. Unfortunately, India’s government is trying to prevent the film from being seen by those in India who need to watch it the most — the families surviving in slums, the parents who selectively abort female fetuses and the men who do not equate the value of a woman’s life to their own.


Shawn S. Ghuman is a first-generation Indian American who's stuck in the gray area known as assimilation. A PR/business consultant by day, Shawn is continuously hanging out at the intersection of politics, economics and culture -- where he hopes to redefine what a minority is in America.

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7 Responses to “Parallels between India’s sexism and America’s racism”

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  2. Kano Malhotra says:

    Mr. Ghuman , without being disrespectful , let me inform you that your post is wrong in many areas. Firstly, the reason why government wanted to ban the documentary is because it portayed men belonging to poor background as potential rapists. They thought that the documentary would create a negative image of Indian men abroad which it did. Recently, an Indian student was rejected by a German University professor for being a citizen of a country that has a ”Rape Culture” .

    The fact is people living in other countries made a perception based on what they see in news and blogs. India is a country which has the most strick laws when it comes to rape and the reason why the media highlights it so much is because it instantly enrages the nation. During Nirbhaaya, the public outrage was so immense that the Government was pressured to take quick action and the culprits were brought to justice in less than a years time, something that does not even happen in the west. Our conscious was awakened way before she even made the documentary. The perception of rapist’s and others falling in this category does not equate to the perception of the men in general. While i do believe that there is a lot of work to be done by the government when it comes to rape, but lesslee udwin keeps preaching us that the men in india need to change and personally it is offending giving the fact that there are a good number of men who respect women in india. Statistically, UK has 20 times more cases ( Rate per Lakh Population) yet she chooses india for her documentary and screens it for celebrities. The other victim who was in the bus has clearly called the documentary fake.

    Internationally, a lot of people believed that white hate black in the US and that it will always be a country that is ruled by the white, but this paradigm changed when obama came into power. The reactions it garnered in the US alone was testimony to the fact that general public want blacks and whites to live in peace together.

  3. BeccaM says:

    I think possibly a stronger parallel could be drawn between institutionalized racism in America and the caste system which still prevails throughout most of India today, even though it is often not talked about. A situation wherein if a Brahmin or Kshatriya man is mugged, the police will treat him with dignity and do all they can to catch the perpetrators, but if a Dalit man has the same thing happen, he can expect to be treated with disdain or worse. (I know ‘dalit’ is supposedly not used officially anymore, but the people still use the term quite commonly. I know I heard it often enough.)

    With respect to rape, it is similar: A woman of Brahmin lineage has at least a chance of being taken seriously, but a woman of low birth? Forget it.

    It’s more that India has had a long history of cultural paternalism and an entrenched patriarchy, one which still hasn’t quite gotten over the idea that women are not property. Dowries are still quite commonplace and dowry-related domestic abuse and even homicides are not unheard of.

    This is why women are treated so badly in India, not just sexually, but professionally as well: Deep down in the Indian cultural psyche, they still think of women not as people but as property. Thus, a woman out on her own is seen by many men — who are rewarded for their aggressive machismo — as unattended property. In a way, the way women are treated in India is how the fundamentalist radical conservatives would remold America’s culture, with women as distinctly second-class citizens presumed to be the responsibility of a male family member — husband, father, oldest brother, etc.

    The flip side of this, of course, is you’ll usually encounter extreme indignation if you try to bring up the mistreatment of women, because these paternalistic attitudes carry through to a shame when there’s a failure to ‘take care’ of India’s women. Or more to the point, when attention is drawn to these failures.

    As far as racism goes though, when we consider the treatment of people at the hands of the police and authorities and even in terms of economic opportunities, America’s racism — with its roots in slavery — has much more in common with the Indian caste system. In both cases, a person is disadvantaged, oppressed and presumed to be less than others due solely to the circumstances of their birth and ancestry.

  4. 2karmanot says:

    Greetings Shawn! Excellent article.

  5. Bill_Perdue says:

    American racism is intractable and has its origins in the colonial period. Under the regimes of the Clintons, the Bushes and Obama Black Lives don’t Matter. The number of blacks and other people of color, many of them very young, who’ve been murdered by police is not counted by the FBI (for some unfathomable reason) but it’s probably in the hundreds per year. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/police-shootings-michael-brown-ferguson-black-men

    Cops are still beating, maiming and killing people of color at will while the Obama, Bush and Clinton regimes promote the creation of a police state. The prisons are full to overflowing with people of color. “Eric Holder and Barack Obama have shown themselves incapable of delivering elementary justice to Black people. Instead of indicting Trayvon Martin’s killer, the president invited the teenager’s parents to the White House for Black History Month. The nation’s two most powerful Black men get lots of love from African Americans but give nothing in return. “It is an awfully vicious cycle and people like the late Trayvon Martin pay the price.” Black Agenda Report

    Not one of these hundreds of killer cops are in jail.

    Income inequality based on ethnicity and skin color is a huge problem and according to the Pew Report “Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of Great Recession… The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Likewise, the wealth of white householdsm is now more than 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households, compared with nine times the wealth in 2010.” My underlining. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/

    This failure is due to the two right wing parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

  6. 2patricius2 says:

    Something to think about.

    Although I am not African American, I have lived and worked with African Americans for many years. I’ve heard white people condemn African Americans for crime, etc. What strikes me is that there seems to be a belief, on the part of some whites, that African Americans are more prone to crime, etc., than white people, and not as intelligent or motivated. And police who shoot black people and imprison black people at a higher rate than others in the population, and schools that suspend black students at a higher rate than other students are excused. “If only black people did what they are told, they would be safe,” is a common refrain.

    Such a belief justifies discrimination and forestalls looking at what is really going on and solving the real problems. The belief is that basically black people are a sub-human species who can’t control behavior and cause problems. If one were to understand that African Americans are not more prone to crime, and not less intelligent, and not less motivated than other groups in society, one would have to look at one’s own faulty beliefs and at the social structures that target and oppress African Americans.

    What happened in Ferguson is that the ugly underbelly of decades of discrimination was exposed. Until the system of racism is dealt with and done away with (and much of that will come not with just the change of laws and politicians, but with real dialogue and understanding between and among people), there will continue to be outbursts of unrest from the anger simmering below the surface.

    I have a lot of hope. We’ve come a long way in the last years. We can go a long way in the years ahead.

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    Everywhere it rears its ugly head, misogyny is the result of cults pushing marriage to insure male
    supremacy and the super exploitation of women. The socialist movement worldwide recently celebrated international Women’s Day but it has its roots in this country.

    “Not very long ago, in fact about ten years ago, the question of women’s equality, and the question of whether women could take part in government alongside men was being hotly debated. … Socialists in North America insisted upon their demands for the vote with particular persistence. On the 28th of February, 1909, the women socialists of the U.S.A. organized huge demonstrations and meetings all over the country demanding political rights for working women. This was the first “Woman’s Day”.
    https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/womens-day.htm

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