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Thought-provoking cinema on gender selection & rape


July 2016
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In Satyamev Jayate we learn – for those of us who didn’t know, including me – that finding out the sex of your child is illegal in all of India. I know that girls are not favored over boys in some parts of India, but I didn’t know that sex determination technologies are illegal: cell-free fetal DNA testing, chorionic villus sampling, amniocentesis or ultrasonography . In other countries, we take for granted and have the option to know the sex of our baby to prepare for his or her arrival: clothes, friends’ and family’s gifts via baby shower etc. And in Trinidad, with a 50 percent majority Indo-Muslim population – from India – that isn’t practiced; there is no law banning knowing the sex of your child. Whether it is a girl or boy the child is welcomed, and parents joke often that ‘once the child has 10 toes, and 10 fingers’ they are happy. That is not to say that boys aren’t shown or given more attention, but girls aren’t killed off or regretted. Nor are daughters walking price tags if they live. It comes as a big surprise then that in this 21st century, this IS a law elsewhere.

Why would there a need for such law?

In rural parts of India – Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu, Kashmir etc [Child Sex Ratio in India], female foeticide had become a huge problem. That’s not to say that in other urban parts of India or its diasporas that sons aren’t preferred over daughters nor that it was/is not a problem. But female foeticide had to be banned in 1994 in India.  The Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act law was only passed 22 years ago, but men and women had been killing fetuses in parts of India forever upon discovering that the child was a girl.  Matrubhoomi: Nation without Women [Manish Jha, 2003] is a stark exploration of this phenomenon.  In the film, female infanticide causes an entire village to be without females, and one father, brave enough to not kill his daughter – Kalki – raises her in hiding, learns to disguise her as a boy until she reaches puberty and can’t look like a boy anymore. But Kalki is discovered and married off for money to a young man who shares her with all of his brothers and single father – the subtext of the the film is Draupadi and the 5 Pandava brothers story in the Mahabharata, which is sacred for Hindus, but which the director also asks us to reflect on. The entire village in the film lusts after Kalki, and rapes her. It is brutally visual, and at times so repugnant that you must turn away from the screen, like a Gaspar Noe’s film with 15 minutes of brutal rape [Irreversible, 2002]. The sexual exploitation and subjugation of Kalki are far from entertaining, and forces us to watch unflinchingly at this barbaric socio-cultural gender discrimination. I cannot include a trailer, for the reality of this problem and the scenes of this film are too visually sickening: there isn’t one single redeeming moment in the film, and no saving grace for girls raped or killed off just because of their gender.

Nine years later, in 2012 Aamir Khan brought to light this issue of female foeticide in Satyamev Jayate because it has not disappeared with a 1994 law. This episode informed us of the reality of the act of pre-natal gender detection followed by foeticide cutting across class and cities, and we saw how mothers today, who want to keep their female child alive face torture and abuse at the hands of their families and others []. We also see how doctors blatantly flout the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Determination Techniques (PCPNDT) Act for monetary gains [].

In 2014, a short film Anamika: a short film dedicated to Women [Mahesh Madhu, 2014] shows the husband wanting a girl, but his wife, Anamika doesn’t. But she doesn’t want a girl for a very different reason. A reason that probably wasn’t considered at all into the making or enacting of the Prohibition of sex-selection law in 1994.

Anamika might not have been killed off as a foetus, but lived only to be raped as a child. She reaches adulthood and is having a baby, but wants to have a boy like a lot of first time traditional mothers in India and other traditional male dominated societies. But she only wants a boy because she thinks that uncles can’t rape boys; they can only rape girls. We see this not only in this film and Matrubhoomi, but also in Monsoon Wedding [Mira Nair, 2001]. And like Anamika, Ria in Monsoon Wedding grows up also keeping the silence of her rape, also by a close uncle. And although Naseeruddin Shah saves the film and day by cutting ties with his molester-brother over this sexual abuse scandal, a woman in the wedding party wonders why the scuttle over such a “small” matter [as sexual abuse]. Thankfully, this is a powerful subplot among all the festivities taking place in the film. But what is salient in the two films and in the two girls is that neither Ria nor Anamika told anyone they were raped as girls, because of women like this woman at the party. Sexual abuse is a shame only for the girl abused, and never for the males who rape. No one would believe the girls if they spoke, including doctors, police and often even their own families. Anamika – powerless then to do anything – does the only thing she could do-she wants to stop that cycle of silence and rape, because she believes that having a girl would repeat history, and the cycle of rape would continue. But, Anamika is trapped by laws: the anti-abortion laws set in place in 1971, and the Prohibition of sex-selection law in 1994. The film shows this ‘hopeless trap’ in which she finds herself not because the film’s intention is to break the law, or is advocating foeticide as in Matrubhoomi, but the real intent is for Anamika to prepare mentally like we do in the US, except that it will take more than a village to protect this girl from sexual predators.

Sex-selective abortion and rape are huge problems and a big crime, both of which we must fight with images and words since laws fail. Dowries drain families of monies they don’t have to marry their daughters so they prize sons instead. But even educated families would abort girls if they could according to one study of an Indian health care group Mamta Health Institute for Mother and Child[Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006]. And even though a law had already been passed some couples would pay $450.00 to find out the sex of their child, and others would stay inside the house to hide their pregnancies until they knew it was a boy [Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006]. The sex selection was so uneven in Punjab that the government pays families $11.20 a month for a girl in school [Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006] to encourage them not to get rid of girls but also to educate them. By taking initiative to make shorts on Pocket Films and Youtube etc young women and men are opening up dialogue to raise awareness because cinema – and social media – is an extremely powerful medium. Films can help change the way we see and look at something by evoking anger, rage, antipathy, disgust, revulsion, driving us to tears and the desire to act and do more than just view passively. Both self-made and commercial directors know that they have to become agents of change before Mother India ends up a mother to only sons, and not daughters, as Aamir Khan rightly suggests. They must continue making shorts, films and using social media because they know that cinema is a temple of desire, and by the same token, it can also provoke desire in people to act, to against women’s silence, against women’s abuse, and for women’s human rights. They know that if women are denied speech their experience cannot be known, their questions cannot be asked nor answered, and they cannot influence the course of their lives, nor of history.


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