The Unbelongers

Two films look at the restrictions placed on women's mobility and choices in India

01 September 2012
Komita Dhanda relaxes in a park in a scene from Mera Apna Sheher.

IN INDIA, MEN AND WOMEN LIVE IN DIFFERENT WORLDS. Freedom for women, in public spaces or private, is conditional—making them an obvious minority, and easy targets for abuse. Women in India are heckled, raped, beaten, hunted, attacked with acid and killed for honour with a regularity that has now become unalarming. On June 13 this year, a Group of 20 survey rated India as the worst place to be a woman among the world’s biggest economies.

Exactly a month later, the country shuddered in horror at what seemed to be yet more proof: On July 13, the video of a mob molesting a 20-year-old girl in Guwahati as she came out of a pub was broadcast widely by national television channels and went viral on the web. Millions saw the girl beg for help as 20 men surrounded her, stripping, mauling, and turning back to look triumphantly into the camera of a local TV channel. It was reported later that the journalist whose cameraman shot the video had instigated the assault. The event triggered intense public outrage in a country that generally regards news of gender violence with detached horror; incidents in Mumbai (the New Year’s Eve attack, 2008) and Mangalore (the pub attack of 2009) make it clear that pretty much the only time Indians rise up against assaults on women is when the violence is caught on camera. Impassioned debates about public voyeurism, media ethics, and policy and administration failures followed, and were duly swept aside by political recriminations. The foreign media produced one damning report after another. An exhaustive article in The Guardian used the incident to nail the larger truth: “Most Indians know full well how tough life as a woman can be in the world’s biggest democracy, even 46 years after Indira Gandhi made history as the country’s first female prime minister in 1966. But here, caught on camera, was proof.”

Three days later, in another much-reported incident, this time from a village in UP situated only 80 km from Delhi, a khap panchayat restricted women under 40 from talking on cellphones or visiting local markets unaccompanied. Together, the two events made for uncanny irony: in India, crimes against women are commonly used as excuse to rein them in. Occurring within days of each other in very different parts of India, the two episodes also exposed myths about relative freedoms for women.

If neither a “pub-going” girl in urban Guwahati nor women in Asara village of UP have the basic liberty to move about at will, things were dire—a realisation uniformly noted. “Both mirror each other with disturbing neatness,” reported The Times of India on the two attacks. “Discomfort with women’s freedoms runs deep, and unites urban and rural areas alike,” went The New York Times. “In a very real sense, the Indian woman is, almost without exception, a second-class citizen,” commented Bloomberg. “The choice, if it can be called that, is between one kind of bondage and another,” said Frontline.

Mukesh Mullick, who left home after differences with family over a forced match, is now a full-time activist with All India Democratic Women’s Association, the women’s wing of the CPI (M).

Well before the two events overwhelmed public imagination, two documentary filmmakers had begun scrutinising versions of the bondage, focusing on the individual ways in which women are negotiating it. Screened at festivals last year and now available on order, their films show us the internal dynamics of control and dissent. Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City), directed by Sameera Jain, deals with the idea of Delhi as a highly gendered urban landscape, “where the gaze, the voice and the body are at all times under surveillance”; it sets out to find, through the daily lives and adventures of a set of women in Delhi, whether a woman in the city, as she moves between anxiety and comfort, can ever be free. Izzatnagri Ki Asabhya Betian (The Immoral Daughters in the Land of Honour), directed by Nakul Singh Sawhney, is the story of the women of North India’s Jat communities, who find themselves up against the might of the khap panchayats. Though the women in each of these films are seeking different freedoms (and the two films couldn’t be more differently executed), a common struggle prevails—against the brutalisation of social life.

Mera Apna Sheher tries to record, at a self-consciously indulgent pace, the essential conflict of being a woman in the city. The sheher under watch is Delhi, declared the most dangerous Indian city for women every time there is a survey or a rape. (A Jagori and UN survey found that 66 percent of Delhi’s women were molested between two and five times in 2010.) Some argue it is because the city is unplanned and physically difficult to police. Also blamed in public discussions and media debates is the tension between Delhi and its hinterland, and the new social fractures caused by the city’s rapid socioeconomic rise—which is not surprising, since women and class outsiders are known to evoke a similar unease in unequal societies. This March, a 23-year-old woman who worked at a pub in a Gurgaon mall was picked up from the street and raped by five men from a village in Rohtak in Haryana. The municipal administration of Gurgaon responded by suggesting that women not work after 8 pm, and that if they work in bars, they must not get “over friendly” with male customers, and should remain mindful of a dress code.

The notion of women under “multiple surveillance” is at the core of Mera Apna Sheher, which turns the idea upon itself to see what the everyday in Delhi reveals. Leading the quest, with a pen camera in her bag, is Komita Dhanda—an associate professor at Lady Irwin College, who is in the mood to loiter. “Unlike men, women are constantly looking for a sense of legitimacy to be in a public space,” Jain remarked during a press interaction.

Komita Dhanda stands at a pan shop in a scene from Mera Apna Sheher.

Starting out with more obvious public spaces like a tea stall, a corner cigarette-paan shop and a regular dhaba—places that are always crowded but generally off-bounds for a solo woman—Dhanda tries to melt in, to be one with the many, projecting an easy comfort in, and entitlement to, public spaces that are the domain of every middle-class, upper caste, young, able-bodied heterosexual man. Men’s reactions to her presence, recorded so unobtrusively that they seem incidental, range from passing amusement to jittery discomfort, tremors revealing the gender fault-lines beneath every level of the urban experience.

“The very presence of women in public in seen as transgressive and fraught with anxiety,” write academic Shilpa Pahadke, journalist Sameera Khan and architect Shilpa Ranade in Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, a book that shares with the film its central concern—women’s right to the city. “So long as women are able to convey the dominant narrative of gender—that they belong in private and not the public—they get conditional access to public space. To signal refusal to adhere to these codes often invites censures, sanctions and violence.” The book makes a spectacular case for women’s right to loiter, questioning why in India women must walk a straight line between one “sheltered” space and another. It dares readers to imagine an Indian city with street corners full of women. “A man may stop for a cigarette at a paanwalla or lounge on a park bench. He may stop to stare at the sea or drink cutting chai at a tea stall. He might even wander the streets late into the night. Women may not... She is either mad or bad or dangerous to society.”

The men in Mera Apna Sheher are constantly trying to make sense of Dhanda. She refuses to display any sign that she is either accidentally in a public space or is there out of a certain necessity: no hurried air, no tapping buttons on her mobile, no earphones, no files against the chest, no mangalsutra or sindoor. After completing the more elementary excursions, she decides to relax in a park—not exactly an unreasonable instinct. Sitting on the grass, she has a long phone conversation before she stretches out on her side, facing two men who are lying at a considerable distance, but close enough to be disconcerted. They start by ignoring her; then they try, visibly, to figure her out; finally they just sit up and stare at her, apparently with more bewilderment than sexual threat.

Jain has said in interviews that she and her team would often not monitor the camera, discovering some of the moments much later and being stunned by how well they captured the subtleties of gendered spaces.

Shieshpal Beniwal, a khap ideologue interviewed in Izzatnagri ki Asabhya Betian, blames the breakdown of traditional structures in Jat society on Western influences.

In a scene towards the end of the film, Dhanda invites the Delhi danger. She stands by a street at night, in a busy-looking part of Delhi, perhaps to catch a bus or hail an autorickshaw—or just to linger. What happens next is a daily hazard for any woman who walks on Delhi streets, or worse, stops. A passing car pulls up slightly ahead of Dhanda. She ignores it. The car reverses slightly. She stays indifferent. The car comes closer. She takes a few steps back. The car almost closes in on her before she walks away, laughing, towards the film crew. Delhi girls who are on their own frequently strategise their street behaviour: waiting only at bus stops, keeping a serious expression on their faces, never looking back at slowing cars. A failure to project respectable purpose and attitude could lead to the assumption that they are soliciting—which is not only a dangerous impression to convey, but is also a culpable offense in India.

The film also features as part of its quiet investigation a group of young women who have been trained to become professional drivers by the non-profit Azad Foundation. The camera trails Savita, who drives the car for a “madam”, and loves the freedoms the job makes possible for her, despite the inconveniences, such as having to walk long stretches to find a public toilet, and dealing with curt male parking attendants. She can zip through the empty road at India Gate at night, take a friend and go on unplanned long rides, socialise with other women drivers at parking lots, uncover the city’s little pleasures. She is fearless of the long distances, the numbing traffic, the crumbling overbridges, the roads full of rampaging men in their big cars. “At red lights, people really stare when they see a girl driving and a madam sitting at the back,” she says. “Some guys try to race with me, two on both sides, my car in the middle. So I just apply the brakes and stop. ‘Go race,’ I tell them in my mind. ‘I’ll just stay here. I don’t want a race.’” But Savita is fearful of walking in the dark to take a bus back home, of encountering a dangerous local hoodlum known by the moniker “don of Gautampuri”—she is unsure of her place in the city when she is not at the wheel.

Mera Apna Sheher looks at the urban experiences of women from modest backgrounds who have been trained as professional drivers by Azad Foundation.

Jain did not want to make an interview-based film or follow a cause-and-effect approach, or even have an agenda. The film is unapologetically unjudgemental and, on first viewing, appears poorly put together. But perhaps Jain, who has in the past focused on the ordinary rather than unique (her last film Portrait of Belonging was on a kite-maker in the old city of Delhi), wants to deny viewers the comfort of commentary or closure.

For a film about the tensions between women and the city, it can feel at some points too clean of dread to be powerful. In the car scene, for example, although the implication is clear, we don’t see the driver’s face. But the threat of aggression, if you look again, is never far from any situation. In the closing sequence, when Dhanda continues to sit on a sidewalk, playing with pebbles, her bag lying at her side, you fear for her, hoping the crew is not too far away.

Mera Apna Sheher does not look at the absence of wealthier women, although a small minority, from Delhi’s open spaces. What are the gender shifts at faux public places inhabited by them, like coffee shops and malls? Receiving men and women in comparable numbers, can a shopping mall be seen as a gendered landscape? The apparent freedom to come and go at will, comfort of being around women of similar backgrounds and the promise of personal space in the throng give the women a sense of liberation that the city never allows them. But how real is this bought-over freedom? It would have been interesting, although a logistical nightmare, to observe how gender dynamics play out inside malls where men, who dominate the service set-up—working in clothing stores, bars, cafés, restaurants—are expected to welcome the ‘customer’, and stay in the background. Does loitering in the mall amount to subverting the performance of gender roles? Or just exercising class privilege when such a reversal is possible?

In Delhi University student Geetika’s street play on khap panchayats, girls denounce the institution through gestures such as throwing down an elevated pagdi.

In ‘the land of honour’, it is not the outsider who threatens the movement of women but family and community—starting with paternal surveillance. Here, loving the wrong man is considered an even greater disgrace than being raped: the banishment of women from public spaces is not so much to save them from violation as to prevent their becoming attracted to unsuitable men. In Izzatnagri ki Asabhya Betiyaan, we witness how women attempt to flee from this control, some escaping not just regulations, but violent retribution. The narrative of resistance features a number of women waging personal battles—Mukesh Mullick from Rohtak, who resisted a forced marriage and now works for women’s rights; Geetika, a student at Delhi University who is preparing to stage her street play on khap panchayats in native Haryana (debating with herself whether to end the play as she wanted to, with girls toppling a pagdi that has been hung on lathis); Jagmati Sangwan, a leftist activist who has taken on powerful khap leaders by supporting and sheltering victims (a national volleyball player, she was enraged when a girl was raped to avenge her brother’s eloping with a girl); Anjali Chahal, a “city girl” from the Jat community trying to deconstruct the khap system through her MPhil thesis ( “Before you decide if you are going to defend or criticise, you have to do your research”—but it is the stories of those who have been left behind that stand out.

Seema, the sister of Manoj, who was killed with his wife Babli on a khap panchayat order, answers questions from the media about her court case against Babli’s relatives.

Like the story of Seema, a constable with the Haryana police. In 2007, Seema’s brother, Manoj, was ordered to be killed by the khap panchayat of Karora village for marrying Babli—a girl of the same village and clan and thereby considered, by the rules of the khap, a sibling. Though Manoj and Babli, on the run, had sought police protection, Babli’s relatives hunted them down with the help of the police and brutally murdered them. The two were beaten and dragged behind a moving car. Then the girl was poisoned and, as she died, the boy was strangled with a rope. Seema and her mother Chanderpal were the first in Haryana to go to court against honour killing. Five of Babli’s relatives were charged, including Gangaraj, a khap leader from the village.

Over the past five years, in which the court case has taken one dramatic twist after another, the family has endured the community’s persecution, which included a social and economic boycott enforced by the khap panchayat—“anyone who associates or trades with the family will be fined 25, 000 rupees and ostracised”. This meant that the mother and daughter had to travel to the next village to buy a clay pot to submerge Manoj and Babli’s ashes; that they were denied by their neighbours the right to purchase even basics like milk and fodder. Although the boycott was lifted by the state government, they continue to face the scorn and hostility of their village—and threats of violence from the men of the khap, who even sent a hired assassin to eliminate Seema.

A tall, thin girl with a long and determined face, Seema is now studying to be a magistrate and doesn’t intend to give up the case: “When a girl like Babli wants to lead her life as per her wishes, then their honour is threatened,” she says. “Traditions are put in place by people, not the other way around. So when people are inconvenienced by some traditions, why not change them?”

Her courage is inspiring. But it is also frightening, when a few minutes later you hear a ferocious khap leader, Pawanjit Banwala, roaring a response to questions from a news channel about the Manoj-Babli murder: “Rishton ko daghdar karne wale bakshe nahi jayenge, isse bhi kade kadam uthaye jayenge (Those who pollute relationships will not be spared. Even more ruthless steps will be taken)” “Will you go beyond murder?” asks the reporter. “You are concerned with murder when we have here sisters and brothers pleasuring themselves? Murder? No big deal,” he replies.

Gaurav Saini looks at photographs of wife Monika, whom he hasn’t seen in two years. Months after they married, Monika’s family members took her away with them by force.

The other story is of a man. Delhiite Gaurav Saini met Monika Dagar from Ghaziabad in an Internet chat room in 2007, when he was 23 and she was 19. “I lied to her, saying that I was the son of a rich industrialist and did little but spend my dad’s money the whole day,” says Gaurav, whose father is an idol maker. Aware that he was playing, Monika teased him back, saying she was a short, dark and fat girl who wore glasses and had boring, long hair. After more internet chats, phone conversations and a first meeting at Delhi’s Ansal Plaza, the two were irreversibly in love. After two years of an adventurous courtship, fuelled by secret visits and long phone calls, she ran away with Gaurav to Delhi, having escaped an oppressive family who wouldn’t let her go to college—even one exclusively for girls.

The last time Gaurav saw his wife Monika was in July 2009. Her family, with the help of the UP and Delhi police, tracked them down, sent him to jail for kidnapping a minor (though he produced evidence of her age) and took her back with them. They now tell Gaurav that Monika has died of illness. He is fighting a case against her family for abduction. He lives, he says, on a diet of hope: “One year, two years, five years, someday something will happen. She will come back one day, even if as an old woman.”

A male victim of patriarchy, Gaurav is a pathetic figure, quite literally. With dark circles and a tired slouch, he speaks of troubles that resemble those faced by the women: betrayal by the judiciary, failure or inaction by the police, defeat at the hands of men considerably more powerful, a fight against a system that has no concern for his wishes. His tragedy is somehow more tragic, though, because he doesn’t know who or what exactly he must blame. The girl’s family? The khap panchayat? Structures of social organisation?

Khap ideologues, on the other hand, don’t have that problem. “So who is responsible for the breakdown of societal norms?” asks Jai Singh Ahlawat, president of the Ahlawat khap. “Educated youth, whose brains don’t work; Dalits who want social equality; and immoral daughters who want equality in society, like animals.” Although several khap leaders in the film deny that their panchayats have ever passed murder edicts, not one sees any place in their society for women who defy their family’s slightest wish. They grow heated as they discuss the moral corruption they must protect against—caused, they say angrily, by education, TV, films and mobile phones. “Girls are talking to guys in the night on cellphones, while their parents don’t know. Aren’t these girls concerned about their purity? What kind of man will marry them?” Ahlawat demands to know.

This is far from the crudest remark spoken by a khap leader in this documentary; neither is Ahlawat the face of misogyny in a film that spills over with stories of chilling repression and liberating defiance. Being screened and watched widely, even as it awaits the elusive nod from the authorities in Haryana, Izzatnagri is an important film; it is not just the best work of reportage on the resistance to honour crimes in this country, but, like Mera Apna Sheher, it is also a nuanced take on the realities of being a woman in India, in a visual culture that is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of real women.

Snigdha Poonam  was previously  an editor at The Caravan. She has written for a number of publications, including the New York TImes, The Guardian and Granta.

Keywords: Komita Dhanda Mera Apna Sheher Izzatnagri Ki Asabhya Betiyan Sameera Jain Nakul Singh Sawhney