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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