The World Before Her, and the immigrant context

I have been following The World Before Her, Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja’s award-winning documentary, with an almost obsessive compulsion since its 2012 Tribeca Film Festival release.

Set against the political backdrop of the Hindu far right’s training camp for girls, juxtaposing that of the glamorous Miss India pageant, the film is a crucial documentation of (even in present day) just how society in India continues to restrict the freedom of its women.

This deleted scene of yet another Miss India hopeful, Tulsi Chaudhary, was posted on the film’s YouTube channel, shortly following its early June release in select cities across India.

This other, oppressed kind

Tulsi reminds me of so many of the suburban mohalla girls that on holiday trips, I got to know growing up—everything from the typical north Indian (state of Uttar Pradesh) drawl in her voice (coupled with intermittent words in English) to the lone short kurta over jeans, amidst contemporaries in chudidaar, struck chord upon chord.

I come from a family of incredibly resilient women who, three generations strong and throwing minority status (Muslim, also Shia) to the wind, have managed to carve out a place for their individual selves in post-independence India. 

Career, homemaking, or someplace in between, the choice defining their lives was eventually never that of their fathers, brothers, or husbands, but (not including external factors such as finances, health, etc.) their own.

Naturally then, I couldn’t relate to this other, oppressed kind—so different from the examples I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by. My understanding (at the time) of the absence of hope for anything bigger than the world within their vicinities, I found repulsive, and hence, wanted nothing to do with.

Free(er) in the first world

Immigration to Canada lead to the fashioning of an even broader set of wings, solidifying further, my status as a free (as can be) woman of colour in the prosperous metropolis of a first world nation—and drawing tighter perhaps, the horse blinders.

‘When you see the film, you see where both of them (documentary protagonists, Durga Vahini camp trainer Prachi Trivedi and Miss India contestant Ruhi Singh) are coming from, you see the world they are trying to escape,’ was how the film affected Indian filmmaker—celebrated principally for his independent workAnurag Kashyap, and also, how Tulsi affected me. 

Except that, in all past interaction, I had never indulged the likes of her long enough to grasp their breadth of perspective—perspective that thrived despite (to quote Pahuja in a post on Facebook) the ‘village that was too small to contain’ them.

Violence against women

Equal parts unsettled by the documentary, and in light of the Delhi gang rape later that year, I began commenting on the status of women in India. Little did I know how little it was that I actually did know.

In fact, my awareness of female foeticide in India—a vague knowledge base that (once) seemed distant somehow from my immediate circle—was nowhere near its approximately one million annual rate, as explained by gender activist Rita Banerji, who founded The 50 Million Missing Campaign in 2006.

And feoticide is just one aspect under the much larger, broad-spectrum human rights issue in India that is violence against women—this includes, in no particular order, (and to name only a few) the following.

Infanticide: compared to 2001, ‘nearly three million girls are missing’ as of 2011
Dowry-related murders: compared to 2011, the number of ‘deaths fell slightly, from 8,618 to 8,233’ in 2012
Domestic violence: compared to 99,135 in 2011, there was a significant increase in ‘cases of cruelty committed by husbands and theirs relatives’ with 106,527 in 2012
Sexual abuse: 24,923 cases of rape ‘reported across India in 2012’—note that forced marital sex does not fall under the category of rape, and hence, is not a punishable offence
Honour killing: 1,000 cases each year, and this ‘is considered an underestimate’ according to the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network

In this regard, both the 2012 annual report produced by the National Crime Records Bureau taking into account Government of India statistics (Chapter 5: Crime Against Women, pdf pages 211 to 228), and the 2013 query response requested from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada addressing honour crimes in India are particularly chilling reads.

Not to mention, the rampant, lesser-known savagery of acid attacks (underestimated at 225 cases reported between 2010 and 2012) and the resulting social discard of survivors in its aftermath.

The immigrant context

Immigrants of (east) Indian origin, still popularly referred to as NRI (non-resident Indian, although the official term now is OCI—overseas citizen of India), are often criticized for commenting unfavourably on the country they have (in most cases, by choice) left behind.

2011 World Cup celebrations, Toronto
In my experience, this transcends even to occasional displays of patriotism (hurtful comments on Facebook pictures posted of the national flag on Republic Day, etc.), but the heat is particularly on when instead of general commentary, the debate addresses concrete issues that continue to violate the fabric of an almost seventy-year-old democracy.

After all, is it not easier to dissect and conclude from afar than to actually coexist with said issues and try to engage the very society that is being held accountable?

I am surrounded by families, especially the women in these families, who have left India behind for greener pastures, ultimately choosing to stay because—and as I understand now—for many (a woman), India is still not free. 

Let alone the aforementioned basic human rights violations, concepts such as divorce, single parenthood as a result, and at times even specific career and sartorial choices are not exempt from social exclusion and discrimination—affecting eventually both safety and freedom of the female citizen.

The recourse, instead, becomes yearly trips to take in the occasional family wedding, explore different parts of the country, pair glowing poetry with DSLR counterparts upon return (because let’s face it, India is the most beautiful place in the world), and embody essentially what foreign tourists are often accused of—all the fun, none of the hassle.

Patriarchal hold overseas

But the picture gets bigger. Whether we respond to it or not, the patriarchal fate of women in India—especially in the wake of this year’s general election results—does not cease to desist. 

In a Google Hangout with SHEROES, a community for working women in India, Pahuja elaborates on how patriarchy ‘already exists within the system, but now it will become possibly more entrenched in government systems,’ and hence, in the ‘very structure of the country.’

This particular pre-existent condition, amongst others, is arguably something majority of the 233,0285 respondents who self-identified as east Indian (not including a significant portion of the 152,305 respondents who could fall under ‘similar ancestral background,’ but self-identified as Punjabi instead) in the 2011 census conducted across the ten Canadian provinces and three territories by the National Household Survey—over decades of immigration—carry over.

Referring to ‘those with roots in India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Asia,’ a 2008 youth survey conducted by Canadian current affairs magazine Maclean’s describes them as ‘more polite, honest and hard-working… but they are more conservative and religious, too,’ and appear to be, ‘following in their parents’ footsteps to some extent,’ ‘which raises an interesting paradox.’

Feature counterpart Heaven on Earth, a 2008 film about a young, Indian woman’s immigration to Canada into an abusive, arranged marriage (the nature of which even relatives living under the same roof purposely ignore) by Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, further demonstrates this carryover.

More recently, in an aptly titled Medium piece by journalist Sonia FaleiroWomen in India aren’t safe on Twitter either, the patriarchal sway of online harassment in being ‘blind to the humanity and individuality of women’ is explained as that of men ‘largely privileged,’ ‘many of whom live outside India and enjoy well-paying jobs.’

Taking it personally

Barring any references to self-identification, and speaking solely in tangible terms, I can stake rightful claim to at least each of the following boxes: human, woman (sex is female), Indian (land of birth), and Canadian (adopted land). 

So of course, it is personal. 

And it remains just as personal even if you take away all religious, cultural, professional, and physical identity because this is a human rights issue. Simply put, and as Pahuja makes it quite clear, ‘it is morally wrong to oppress somebody based on gender’—a fact that no longer (not that it should ever have been) remains a matter of ideological divide, but one for which as equals in the human race, each and every one of us is responsible.

How can it not be personal… when to at least be safe, in the year 2014, seems so basic a human right? 

Yet—taking into account just the figures listed in this piece alone—is denied to so many more than the alarming, under-reported total of four million, one hundred forty thousand, nine hundred and eight female victims of violence.

Shed light in darker corners

As outlined excellently in this media-watch article for Newslaundry by journalist Noopur Tiwari, activists in India—across both urban and rural fronts—have been consistently working towards combatting violence against women since as early as the Sixties.

So, I cannot predict how much (if at all) of a difference this literary attempt will make in the larger scheme of things, but the two screen captures below are reason enough for me to accelerate both the pace and scope of my efforts even further.

Ages thirteen and twenty-three respectively, and exhibiting a stark disparity in their perspective on violence against women, these are just two of the female members of my very large, very diverse extended family in India.

Especially as an immigrant, the identity crisis is perpetual—the elements of which, one is constantly exploring, in an attempt to be able to reconcile one day. My parents’ decision to uproot and rebuild in Canada was better opportunity, but particularly so, because they were aware of the (at times) almost disabling limitations in the absence of privilege—and hence—power that Indian society can place on the individual. 

Considering the momentum of this very society’s hunger for social reform now, however, I believe that slowly but steadily, their deciding factor is going through a very significant transformation.

There is much that I have been learning from both the film and filmmaker this whole while, but perhaps in these few lines, Pahuja brings it all together.

Speaking of being ‘a journalist’ (on having successfully materialized the film's release in India, despite initial dissent): when ‘you want to do something, you become very determined to make something happen—shed light in darker corners. We take that very seriously. You have to mobilize the middle classes because they are the ones with real power,’ and ‘you have to know what it is you are trying to do, and why.’

1 comment :

  1. It is a deep thought Wishfull Action Recourse aimed to enlight the oppressed segment of society .........Well written article inviting Middle Class Power to empower the marginalized