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Indian feminists, ‘India’s daughter’, and sexual violence: The issues at stake*


Today, on International Women’s Day I am proud to acknowledge the deeply contested terrain that we call feminism in India, in which no claim goes unchallenged, no issue is undisputed (and some might say, no good deed goes unpunished!) In which over the decades, every stand and every understanding on practically every issue, has been painfully rethought and reformulated in the face of intense questioning from newer claims and voices.

In the clamour of feminist responses both to Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’, as well  as to the Indian state’s crackdown on it, some themes have emerged that reflect profound fault lines in our (feminist) understanding – not so much of sexual violence itself – but of what to do about it; how to act upon the knowledge of widespread misogyny and pervasive masculinist violence; how to acknowledge that sexual violence cannot be understood except as refracted through prisms of caste, class, Indian state militarism and… a list that will inevitably end in ‘etc’ regardless of how long it is; and in this particular case, above all, what sorts of representations of sex and sexual violence will further our ethical ambitions, and what others will undo decades of work.

In what follows, I will try to uncover some of these themes, on the explicit understanding that I do not claim to have resolved any of the debates, nor even to have highlighted all of them. This is a partial, personal attempt to make sense of the recurring ideas in a tumult of intelligent, concerned and strongly articulated opinions, in the course of which I will of course, make my own views explicit too.

First, perhaps I should state immediately that I saw ‘India’s Daughter’ and liked it very much. This is just to get it out of the way, because my opinion on the film is irrelevant to my belief that freedom of speech and expression ought to be a value that feminists defend at all costs. I did not hold such a strong view on freedom of expression in an earlier decade, but I do now, at the beginning of the 21st century, when it has become increasingly clear that the silencing of uncomfortable voices, even unto murder, has become the preferred mode of snuffing out debate globally.

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