Should white women make documentaries about rape in India?

Is she insulting Indian feminists?
Is she insulting Indian feminists?
Image: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
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I am puzzled.

Five prominent Indian feminists including Urvashi Batalia wrote a letter to NDTV explaining why they objected to the BBC documentary India’s Daughter, and explaining why they believed it should not be shown.

On the one hand, this could be an attempt by these women to reassert control over the Indian conversation about rape and women’s rights, feeling that British filmmaker Leslee Udwin has taken it away from them with this film. That’s understandable, from an intersectional viewpoint, and also an anti-imperialist one. I can see the argument that a white woman has swooped in and made statements about India—“a sick culture”—that Indian feminists would find insulting.

Yet it’s not hard to see that the sick culture Udwin refers to is the rape culture that is actually sick and diseased. Should an Indian woman have made this documentary? Perhaps. Was it wrong for a British woman to do so? I don’t think so. I see the documentary not as a white woman making statements about India but chronicling a painful moment in Indian history that concerned the entire world, because rape culture is universal. (And it hasn’t just been Indian women who have been raped in India—a Japanese tourist was gang-raped for days last month, for example.)

On the other hand, the attempt to control the narrative still has strongly nationalistic tones. I find it hard to agree that this documentary sets back the advances Indian women have made against rape and sexualised violence; in fact it exposes the mindset they are fighting against. Underneath all the talk about India’s penal codes and laws, the feeling that India should not be shamed in the eyes of the world emerges quite clearly. Was Udwin really “reinforcing stereotypes” and going against India’s laws and constitution? Or was she exposing a mindset that still persists no matter how much Indian women fight against it? Would these feminists have objected had the movie been about Pakistan’s Mukhtaran Mai, who suffered a hideous gang-rape on this side of the border?

By showing the slum the rapists came from, it’s hard to gather that Udwin was making the assertion that all rapists are poor. Rather, she was trying to illustrate the extreme poverty and deprivation that fueled these rapists. That is vital information to understanding the assertion that the attack on Jyoti Singh (or Nirbhaya, her pseudonym) was seen as an attack on the new breed of Indian women who have aspirations and want to exercise their agency in a country that still thinks their place is in the home, locked up after dark.

I cannot buy the idea that this documentary would incite hate speech and violence against women. It portrays hate speech and violence against women, but nowhere does it make that hate speech or violence exemplary. Everyone’s reactions in India and abroad to the rapist and his lawyer’s statements about women have shown us already that these are abhorrent and ugly views. Yet we can’t deny that there are people who still harbour them, both in India and abroad.

Perhaps I would be offended if Udwin had come to Pakistan and made a documentary about Mukhtaran Mai and said that Pakistan has a “sick culture.” But I would be offended as a Pakistani. As a woman, I know better. Rape culture is sick. And in the end, I’m a strong believer in the phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  Anyone who shines a light on illness in my society is doing me a favor, our history with colonialism be damned. I don’t care who starts that conversation as long as I add my voice to it. And I’m not so insecure about “the white woman” to believe that her voice outweighs mine. I’ll shout her down if I have to.

As a writer, I also know that if you restrict yourself to creating art that concerns itself only with your corner of the world, you fail as an artist. Imagine if Nabokov had not written Lolita, set in America, or if Isak Dinsen had not written about Africa. What if Gauguin had gone to Tahiti but not painted there because he was culturally appropriating the Tahitian women? (Yes a documentary is art as much as a novel or a painting.) These days we’re extremely aware of cultural sensitivity and we know that the people from a certain culture are the ones best placed to talk about their experiences. But the role of the artist as outsider is, to me, sacrosanct, and sometimes outsiders can say things that insiders cannot, or won’t.

And what if E. M. Foster had been told he couldn’t write A Passage To India because Adela Quested was a white woman?

In the end, I want more conversation about sexual violence against women, not less. I want more voices, more perspectives, from all countries, from women of all backgrounds, and men, too, and trans men and trans women who suffer some of the worst sexual violence in silence. How will we learn anything if we restrict ourselves to the “appropriate” voices, the “appropriate” nationalities? The best conversations start with listening. And I’m willing to listen to anyone who cares enough to speak.

This post first appeared on A Season For Writers. We welcome your comments at