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.
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.

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