When it comes to the misfortunes of others, we have very short memories. The cases of atrocities against women do not even get adequate media coverage — it’s like everybody wakes up when there is a particularly horrific incident like Nirbhaya or the Kathua rape, and then descends into outrage fatigue.
If a woman complains of sexual harassment at the workplace, she is not taken seriously; if a girl raises an alarm about a stalker, she is often told to stop making a fuss; if an actress speaks up about indecent propositions, she is just seeking publicity; there is still a legal debate on whether marital rape needs to be criminalised.
The story of #Shout
In a society where patriarchy is a dominant force and gender inequality is embedded in the culture, is there hope for women? Vinta Nanda has made a documentary, #Shout (produced by Gayatri Gill, Rahul and Siddharth Kumar Tiwary of One Life Studios) for which she and her crew travelled across the country over 40 days — from Jammu to Rajasthan, Manipur to Punjab and Haryana, Chennai and Kochi, Delhi and Mumbai — interviewing a wide range of people to draw a disturbing map of violence against women that exists in spite of the gains of the feminist movement, periodic upgrades in the law and more the recent #MeToo movement. Shockingly, after all the outpouring of rage and anguish over sexual harassment, just 159 cases were actually registered. Even with the promise of support of other women — if not the tardy legal system — women do not fight back because they have no hope of getting justice.
Still, the Mathura rape case, the Bhanwari Devi rape case and other landmark lawsuits, led to significant changes in rape laws and the introduction of more stringent laws against workplace harassment.
Among the many that Vinta Nanda spoke to for the feature-length documentary, two faces leap out — Bhanwari Devi and Bant Singh, for their extraordinary courage against crushing odds.
Bhanwari Devi was a saathin, a grassroots social worker appointed by the government. In 1992, when she tried to prevent a child marriage in a higher caste family, she was raped by five men of that clan in retaliation. Unlike other poor, lower caste women, who would have been intimated, Bhanwari Devi, with the support of her husband, filed a complaint. Along with the nightmare of injustice — the men being acquitted, because how could a husband watch his wife being raped; how could upper caste men rape a low caste woman? — there was an uproar in the national and international media.
The fearless and outspoken Bhanwari
Along with the indignity she had to suffer at the lands of the police and courts, Bhanwari and her family were ostracised by the villagers, including those of her own caste. She remained fearless and outspoken. Later, she got some compensation from the government and several awards. More importantly — though it was no help to her — women’s activists including the feminist group Vishakha along with others, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India, and that resulted in what has come to be known as the Vishakha Guidelines. The landmark judgement in 1997, by a three-judge bench (including Justice Sujata Manohar, one of the few female judges back then, interviewed in the film), provided guidelines on dealing with workplace harassment.
Today, Bhanwari Devi, still speaks strongly against the ordeal she went through. The main question she raises is that she was an employee of the Rajasthan government, why was she not given support by the authorities? Still, for one such spotlit story there are thousands of others that go unreported, the perpetrators remain unpunished.
The other heart-rending story is that of Bant Singh, a poor Dalit labourer and folk singer from Mansa in Punjab. His minor daughter was raped by some powerful men in 2000, and he took them to court. As writer Nirupama Dutt who wrote the book, The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage, a landlord’s son raping a Dalit girl is like a rite of passage, nobody even winces. The trial did culminate in life sentences for three of the accused, which by itself was a miracle in a caste-ridden country.
Then, Bant Singh was attacked, savagely beaten with iron rods and ended up losing both his arms and a leg. When interviewed today, he still projects courage and optimism, proud that he fought bravely. “They can cut off my limbs but they can’t silence my tongue,” he says.
Then, there are the parents of Asifa, the little girl from Kathua who was raped, tortured and brutally killed, who talk about their agony, the nuns from Kerala who talk about sexual harassment by a bishop, who was later acquitted; Urvashi Butalia, feminist and chronicler of the stories of women’s suffering during the Partition; Sabita Lahkar from Assam, a journalist who alleged sexual harassment by her editor and Sahitya Akademi award winner Homen Borgohain; the Manipuri women who protested against rape and violence by the men in the armed forces and for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act .
Our Film industry
There are young women from the film industry, who spoke out against the lewd behavior of Sajid Khan, singer Chinmayi Sriprada who accused lyricist Vairamuthu of harassment — neither man suffered any long term consequences for their actions; neither did any of the other producers, directors, composers who exploited female (and male) showbiz aspirants. There are the brave ones who talk about how all religions allow the submission of women — there is mention of the long fight against the practice of stopping menstruating women from entering temples.
Women in Delhi talking about how they have to walk on the streets with caution, because of the fear of groping; young poet Amy Singh (whose work is used in the film) talking of gangs of goons circling a women’s hostel, jeering at the women to come out and take their freedom.
Vinta Nanda does not work with a checklist, so there may be some omissions, but then the count of episodes of gender-based discrimination is depressingly long and beyond the scope of a single documentary.
In spite of the bleakness of the situation, Nanda (her cinematographer Shanti Bhushan Roy, and editor Puloma Pal), take breathers for song, peaceful landscapes and bursts of energy.
Hope comes in the form of women, who may not be aware of the long and bitter battle feminists fought so that they could have education, careers, a degree of freedom and a voice to express their thoughts, but are willing to join the fight for gender justice. And there are men who stand by them, not because they want to be heroes, but because it is the right thing to do. Films like #Shout (tagline: Be Fierce, Be Fabulous) show us that we can no longer turn away saying that one tragedy in a distant place does not concern us, because then we become part of the void of silence.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author
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