They dragged her body to the back of the bus. Turn by turn, six men brutally raped her, gagged and assaulted her with an iron rod, reached inside of her and pulled out something long: her intestines.
It was the 16th of December in 2012. 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh of Delhi, India was the victim of a savage gang rape. She boarded a private bus en route home from seeing Life of Pi at a south Delhi cinema with her male friend Awindra Pratap Pandey before starting her internship. Her body was thrown from the moving bus. She survived—for a few days. Singh died in a Singapore hospital about two weeks later due to sustained injuries to her internal organs.
On most days, Indian newspapers report new but not uncommon atrocities—a 10-month-old raped by a neighbor in Delhi, an 18-month-old raped and abandoned on the streets in Calcutta, a 14-year-old raped and murdered in a police station in Uttar Pradesh, a husband facilitating his own wife’s gang rape in Howrah, a 65-year-old grandmother raped in Kharagpur.
But as details of Singh’s gang rape were publicly disseminated, transfixing a country in the throes of revulsion, unprecedented protests erupted.
Prosecutors sentenced the convicted men—all but the juvenile—to death, calling the crime “a case of extreme depravity.” One of the men hanged himself. Nonetheless, the disturbing regularity of rape is an incendiary subject in India, provoking the ire of civilians, both men and women, across the nation.
While rape statistics are often skewed, according to the National Crime Record Bureau, a woman in India is raped every 20 minutes, about a third of whom are minors and almost all of whom fall victim to someone they know—a parent, relative or neighbor.
Reported rapes have surged nearly 900 percent in the same year that Singh was attacked, and the numbers continue to rise. Though the number of arrests stand at about four people per hour, the number of convictions is widely disproportionate.
The capital of New Delhi has long been maligned as the rape epicenter of India and, by 2015, Delhi was officially considered the “rape capital.” In Delhi alone, registered rape cases increased by 131 percent in the year following Singh’s death.
Public reaction peaks when a gruesome crime infiltrates the mainstream media, and often ebbs after a period of sustained vociferous condemnation across social media and an occasional candlelit march.
But protests following Singh’s case did not subside.
British filmmaker and human rights activist Leslee Udwin reignited a hunger for change surrounding Singh’s fatal case with her controversial but revolutionary documentary, India’s Daughter. The film’s planned telecast was set for March 8th to coincide with International Women’s Day, but when excerpts of the film, which included an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted of the rape and murder, were broadcasted, a court stay order prohibiting the broadcast was obtained by the Indian police. The film was banned in India.
Opposition to Udwin’s work in India is arguably the product of misogynist cultural traditions and misplaced national pride. Udwin was recently voted by the NY Times the 2nd Most Impactful Woman of 2015, after Hillary Clinton.
The Decision to Film and Execution of India’s Daughter
Udwin said she’d been through a multitude of reincarnations in her lifetime—from actress, to producer, to director to human rights activist. She had never made a film about women before, and this particular case compelled her to do so.
A rape survivor herself, Udwin argues that to take statistics seriously is a complete misnomer. Instead of the numbers, she aimed to focus on both a culture inculcated with misogynist beliefs and the resiliency of the Indian people to change those beliefs.
She knows that many rapes go unreported and that many are stopped at the police stations when prices are negotiated to drop charges. And, regardless, she argues that it’s not okay to claim that one country is above another just because they rape less women. A single rape is ruthless.
“The other thing [about my experience] was that I was so convinced he was going to murder me that after he raped me, when he didn’t and I managed to get away from there, I was so relieved that I had gotten away with my life. That was my great terror during the rape, that he was going to kill me. So to some ridiculous degree, the actual rape for me at that time paled into a secondary horror because I got away with my life,” she said. “So I can understand how underreported rape is.”
But it wasn’t immediately upon seeing reports of Singh’s gang rape case that Udwin knew she wanted to make a documentary about it.
“Obviously my stomach turned at the detail—you know, her intestines being ripped out of her body—but we’ve heard about gruesome rapes again and again and again. This isn’t a one-off intensive brutality,” she said. “What was utterly a one-off and unique about this case was what then unfolded from the day after the gang rape was reported, and over the next month and a half: the protests, the response of ordinary people to that particular rape. I was over-awed by that response. I had never seen a mass protest of that intensity and of the long-lasting tenacity and courage.”
On the 23rd of December, the government cracked down with a veracity and misguided lunacy on innocent civilians holding placards in a civil society crying for change, Udwin explained—in a very peaceful manner.
“That’s when I stopped. That’s when it hit me that I had to do something about this—because, I had actually, in some measure, fallen in love with those protestors…I wanted to join the protestors and making a film about this issue was my way of joining,” she said.
Udwin was determined to make a film that didn’t mutter the same one-liner from virtually every news report: “A 23-year-old medical student was gang raped.” There was more to this case than that. Who was Jyoti Singh? Why were the protestors so perturbed by this particular case in a sea of grotesque crimes? And, most importantly, why do rapists do it?
“I wanted to know what her dreams and aspirations were. I wanted to know what she would have done had she been allowed to live and had her life not been snatched away. Who she was. What she felt about men, rape, gender. I wanted to know everything I could about her,” Udwin said. “Because they’re always quick to blamed the raped and not the rapists. That is the culture; it very strongly restricts women’s movements. So the mere fact that she was out after dark, allowed them to sort of label her a ‘slut,’ someone who was asking for it. That fueled me, too.”
Udwin added that she was also determined to interview the rapists, but not without practice.
“In order to change them, we have to know why they do what they do. We have to understand them. We have to get into those heads and find out why they do this, what their backgrounds are, what motivates this. So that we can have some insight into how we change them…I was very careful to leave in positive things they said, as well, even if they were the so-called villains, because no one is all black and white,” she explained. “I was very likely, I thought, to possibly even physically assault one of them. That’s what I feared the most. And because of that fear, I actually practiced on other rapists first, because I knew that I needed the best possible interviews from the men involved in this case. One of the rapists that I practiced on had raped a five-year-old girl. It was very difficult. The bizarre thing is…I interviewed seven rapists for 31 hours; there wasn’t one second in the 31 hours in which I felt anger. It was just not appropriate to feel because it was so absolutely dead clear that these men had been programmed to think as they thought. They had no other way of being, given how they had been brought up, given where they had been brought up, given what they had seen—their mothers beaten by their fathers.”
Udwin said that the media oftentimes distances the general public from men who commit crimes of rape by describing them as mere psychopaths or animals.
The bizarre thing is…I interviewed seven rapists for 31 hours; there wasn’t one second in the 31 hours in which I felt anger.
“If they’re psychopaths and animals, they’re just one-offs; they’re just rotten apples in a barrel. The hanging sentence speaks to that because it fools us into believing that once we’ve dealt with these guys and hanged them, we’re free of them. Of course there are more and no body would say they’re the only ones, but the impression you get it that we’re slowly ridding society of this and it’s a total lie. It’s a total mirage, because we are the ones who are teaching them to think. We are the ones. It is our barrel that is rotten, and they’re not the rotten apples in it,” she said.
Rape is the Product of Deeply Entrenched Cultural Implications
The language of the modesty of women and how they ought to behave was revised in the Indian law and constitution as a result of Singh’s case, but traditional beliefs nonetheless prevail.
“In many homes, they celebrate when a boy is born. But when a girl is born, people don’t rejoice as much. We gave out sweets and everyone said, ‘You’re celebrating as if it’s a boy.’ So we said we’re equally happy having a girl. We sold our ancestral land to pay her [school] fees,” said Asha Singh, Jyoti’s mother. Her father, Badri, acknowledged that his brothers were displeased with their decision to waste their money on a girl.
The birth of a girl in deemed burdensome because of the tradition of dowey.
“You have to give the family [money] that you’re going to hand your girl over to—and it’s preordained from her birth…It’s a business transaction, almost. When a boy child is born, it’s traditional to hand out sweets…That doesn’t happen when a girl is born. They tell them better luck next time,” Udwin explained. “A girl’s place is in the home, house-making and housekeeping, taking care of the children. That isn’t very different from our culture. There are big echoes of that in ours. In place to place, the details differ, but the essential patriarchy and subordination of women is the same,” Udwin said.
A society that teaches boy there are good girls and bad girls, coupled with the suppression of natural sexual instincts—since sex before marriage and the public display of affection are taboo in India—exacerbates rape culture.
“You need to dehumanize a human being, you need to see them as having little or no value in order to murder them if you’re committing genocide against them, or behead them if they’re of the wrong religion or if you’re going to gang rape them,” Udwin said.
One of the rapists, Mukesh Singh, who lived in Ravidas Camp in RK Puram, a semi slum in New Delhi, justified to Udwin that girls are simply unequal.
“Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 percent of girls are good,” he said. “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night.”
ML Sharma, a defense lawyer for the rapists, was filmed saying that women are more precious than diamonds and should not be on the streets “just like food.”
He said, “If you put your diamond in the street, certainly the dog will take it out. You can’t stop it. You are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry, that doesn’t have any place in our society. A woman means, I immediately put the sex in his eyes. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.”
Likewise, AP Sing, another defense lawyer for the rapists told Udwin, “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”
The Solution: Teaching Empathy at a Young Age
“The solution lies in education, but a very particular form of education,” Udwin explained. “There was a certain point when I was looking at all the seven rapists I had interviewed, and looking for the common threads between them, the first that struck me between the eyes was that six of the seven men hadn’t finish secondary school. I thought that was very significant until I interviewed their lawyers. The lawyers were worse than they were, and the lawyers, of course, had the highest degrees of education. That is when I realized that, actually, it wasn’t access to education that was relevant here.”
Udwin found that the very-educated and the uneducated shared the same prejudices. What she came to realize in reviewing the progress we’ve made in neuroscience and understanding how the brain functions, is that we need education that teaches empathy from childhood.
“At a very, very young age the brain is cognitively modifiable—attitudes and behaviors can change. It’s a window between the ages of three and five; that’s what neuroscience tells us. When you think about what it is we are teaching our children, and where all of our effort and energy is going in our education systems, it’s all about numeracy and literacy; it’s all about preparing them for skills and jobs and success of a certain kind. Nowhere are we responsibly imparting values to our children at the age when it matters.”
As a world, we are not intervening as responsibly as we should, Udwin argues. Instead of enacting preventative measures, we’re reacting to the fall out, bandaging the wounds.
“We’re plowing our efforts and energies into rape crisis centers and how to deal with the perpetrators—all of this is about dealing with it after attacks. There is an absolutely cast-iron way of preventing it: by teaching these values and teaching equality. No one is doing it.”
It’s all about numeracy and literacy; it’s all about preparing them for skills and jobs and success of a certain kind. Nowhere are we responsibly imparting values to our children at the age when it matters.
Now a human rights activist, Udwin got on a plane last May and visited the UN Human Rights office in New York. There, she started a series of conversations and is now advising them on a global curriculum that would bring a new subject to the national curricula of world schools.
“I have been traveling the world since then, meeting with education ministers and getting their commitment to doing this. I have constituted a committee of experts with top, top visionaries and brains in the world on social, emotional learning, empathy and cognitive modifiability. We’ve put together a curriculum…to teach them empathy and, more importantly, to have them practice empathy. It’s not just something you can learn and then know. It’s something you have to experience,” she explained.
The committee has already begun drawing up the curriculum and plans to finish it by the end of this year. In 2017, Sri Lanka will pilot it, with possible pilot schools in the US, UK and Scotland, as well. Adopting countries will then follow; twenty-seven have already said they’d join in.
“The only hope is to start afresh with clean minds and imbue the right values so that they can then lead a life that is empowered, that has a voice, that cares about others, that’s compassionate, that’s empathetic, and you create advocates of human rights by educating people about human rights,” Udwin said.