Watching Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter was a wake up call for me. The film, which is about the brutal gang rape and murder of Indian student Jyoti Singh in Delhi, concentrated on the attitudes towards women among lower and lower-middle class groups in India. Singh’s courage to rise above her lower socio-economic upbringing was a world apart from my upbringing as a diaspora Indian in Singapore.
Yet, the central attitudes explored in the film — that women are inferior to men, that they must be “protected and cherished,” and above all, should behave modestly or face consequences — were also a big part of the messages I received growing up among elite Indians in Singapore.
“In Our Culture, There Is No Place For A Woman”
“We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman,” says one of the defense lawyers, ML Sharma, in the film. Those words adequately sum up the fundamental attitude I’ve seen in my community across the world.
The film’s exploration of the challenges faced by men and women in poverty-stricken parts of Indian society is especially powerful. Many of the rapists’ families discussed the obstacles of bringing up their children in desperate conditions. The real heroes in my eyes were Jyoti’s parents Badri and Asha Singh.
Her parents battled poverty and challenged societal hurdles by selling land they had saved for their daughter’s wedding in order to pay for her education. They fought tradition and gender norms so that their daughter could achieve her dreams — the very same dreams that were so carelessly crushed by a group of drunk men intent on “teaching her a lesson” for daring to have dreams in the first place.
Film Narrowly Focuses on Misogyny of Poor
I am both inspired and energized by the film, but I am also disappointed at how the narrow focus made it appear that India’s rape epidemic and abhorrent misogyny only exist among the poorest and uneducated strata of society. I’ve already begun preparing myself for the media and social media responses on how poverty and backward attitudes fuel “India’s rape culture.”
Meryl Streep said at its New York premiere, the film “forces a look at the mindset that must be made to know it has no place in the civilized world.” Already, we’re operating among an “us versus them” mentality, where rapes in the Western world are treated as individual crimes that do not have any links to a Western mindset.
Nowhere will this haughtiness prevail more than within India’s and its diaspora’s middle and upper classes. Tucked safely away from the ills of the streets, where “their” women are allowed to be educated and independent, rich Indians will turn up their noses at the rural accents of the rapists and their families and the defense lawyers’ comical English.
“We’re not ‘those’ kinds of Indians,” they’ll exclaim, pointing to their English-speaking, Western-dressed daughters.
Society’s Upper Echelons Need To Confront Patriarchy
Yet, it’s these very upper echelons of Indian society — both in India and abroad — that must confront the patriarchal ideas they often propagate to their girls and women. Across all classes in South Asian societies, women are largely told their contributions are meaningless.
When people in my community have daughters, rich or poor, it’s often considered less of a celebration than the birth of sons. In multiple families, including my own, women of daughters are compelled to have more children until they can produce a son. Girls are still repeatedly told their life achievements are defined by whom they marry and how quickly they reproduce.
Like many of my friends, I was told primarily to look out for a “wealthy Indian boy” to marry by family members when I left for college. Again, the implicit message was no matter how well an Indian woman fares in her education or career, she will always be judged on the basis of her role as a wife, then mother. This well-meaning advice is dispensed as much by fathers, brothers and husbands, as it is by mothers, aunties and sisters.
While the practice of dowry is illegal in theory, wealthier Indians hold expectations that a bride will give ostentatious gifts to a man’s family, and that the bride’s family will foot the bill of an exorbitant wedding.
Sexual Violence in High Society’s Confines
Udwin’s film may shock those who didn’t hear details of the tragedy in 2012, but I followed the story closely. My biggest takeaway from the film was the reprehensible attitudes of the men who directly or indirectly blamed the victim for being a woman.
“It takes two hands to clap,” says Mukesh Singh, the convicted rapist interviewed for the film. “A girl is more responsible for rape than the boy.”
This view is not limited to lower classes in India. “I would argue that the middle and upper classes probably intensify these attitudes and have them play out in women’s lives in different ways,” says Professor Sonora Jha, associate professor of journalism and media studies at Seattle University.
A Chennai-based Save the Children study found the prevalence of sexual abuse in upper and middle classes to be proportionately higher than in lower and lower-middle classes. Jha, who was a journalist in India, says much of the sexual violence that occurs among the upper strata of society “doesn’t happen ‘in the streets,’ which is how the public often imagines rape to be — in a dark alley, by a brutal, ‘savage’ stranger.”
“Most of these rapes in India happen at the hands of relatives and friends and often within the ‘protected’ confines of home. As you can imagine, countless of these therefore go unreported,” she adds.
A separate survey among English-speaking women from upper and middle classes in India found that 76 percent of respondents had been sexually abused when they were children. About 30 percent were abused by someone they knew outside their family, while 40 percent of the abuses were committed by a family member such as an uncle, cousin, or older brother. In the US, according to the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, 41-61 percent of Asian women report experiencing intimate, physical and/or sexual, violence during their lifetime, higher than any other ethnic group.
Damaging Beliefs About An Indian Woman’s Place in Society
By the age of 21, many Indian — and diaspora Indian — women are compelled to look for a husband. And in a society that discourages dating and pre-marital sex, modern young women are often quickly married off to a “good match.” By no means are all marriages forced or ones that end in disaster, but the risks of putting women’s safety into the hands of men that could be violent, sexually abusive or harmful in other ways, are barely considered.
Among the middle and upper classes, this can be even more dangerous as the assumption that a man from a “good” family would never harm a woman persists. The society frowns upon divorce. Where domestic and sexual violence occur, it is common for even other women in the society to shame the victim.
I’ve repeatedly seen the ambitions of my brilliant, highly educated diaspora female friends thwarted because the burden of being a good wife and mother far outweighed any validation they received for their professional achievements. Educated, middle and upper class Indian women are strongly encouraged to stay out of the workforce due to traditional cultural expectations. Some of the best-educated women I know are financially dependent and unhappily married, but the alternative of being unmarried or divorced is just too shameful.
I’ve encountered wealthy Indians who promptly blame abused women, citing character flaws or immodest behavior. In contrast, I find Jyoti Singh’s illiterate parents so much more progressive for allowing the media to publish her name and not once blaming their daughter’s tragic fate on her choices or morals.
India’s Daughter has already sparked an international debate about how women are perceived in India. That is so necessary. But by concentrating so closely on one section of society, I hope the film doesn’t let the upper echelons get away without examining similar myths they often perpetuate in their own homes.
They may know how to carefully hide their misogynistic attitudes, unlike the men who were interviewed in the film. But the belief that Indian girls shouldn’t dare to dream exists far and wide across continents, socio-economic classes and religions.
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Ruchika Tulshyan is a Forbes writer on diversity and content strategist for a tech company. She is passionate about telling stories from a different point of view, and covering women’s leadership and Asia. She grew up in Singapore, and since then has lived in five cities across three continents. Ruchika spends her spare time eating, indulging in a newfound love for cooking (she’s told her palak paneer is stellar), and volunteering for Tasveer. Read her Forbes blog and connect with her on Twitter.