Free speech vs. women’s safety

Source Saudi Gazette (Editorial)

India is no stranger to violence against women, including domestic and sexual violence. In the capital city of New Delhi, sexual assaults against women take place every day and very often ends in rape. Latest statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau reveals that 33,707 rape cases were reported across India in 2013. This is a country where, according to officials figures, 93 women are raped every day. And yet the conviction rate for rape cases is abysmally low — 27.1 percent in 2013. Of the more than 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012, only one led to conviction.

Neither is India stranger to censorship or ban. “Satanic Verses” was banned in India long before the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. World famous Indian painter M. F. Hussein was charged with “hurting the sentiments of people” because of his nude portraits of Hindu deities. Death threats and hundreds of lawsuits sent him into exile in Qatar where he died in 2011. Every now and then, a film, book or publication is banned because some sections of the people find it offensive and the authorities, fearing a breakdown in law and order, take the easiest course of banning them.

But perhaps this is the first time that a debate on rape in India is overshadowed by arguments for and against free speech. At the center of the controversy is a documentary by a British filmmaker, Leslee Udwin, on the 2012 gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a Delhi student.

The BBC Storyville documentary, “India’s Daughter” was originally scheduled to be telecast on March 8, International Women’s Day, but due to the “intense level of interest” in the program, the BBC moved up the premier to Wednesday in the UK “to enable viewers to see this incredibly powerful documentary at the earliest opportunity.”

It seems Indian authorities are determined to give no opportunity at all to their people to see a documentary which they too find “incredibly powerful” but in a way that the BBC could not have contemplated. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting fears it might “incite violence against women.” So the courts have issued an injunction stopping it from being shown in India.

Meanwhile, the BBC has been served a legal notice by the authorities of the Tihar jail where Udwin interviewed Mukesh Singh, who along with the three others, is facing death penalty, for the gang-rape. She spoke to him 16 hours over three days. A fierce debate is going on as to how Udwin gained access to convicts inside an Indian prison.

There will be questions as to who gave permission to Udwin to meet Singh and under what conditions and whether she went beyond the limits, if any, imposed by the jail authorities.

But a larger question is whether an outright ban on the film is justified or enforceable and whether the ban exposes India to charges of violation of the free speech provisions of the constitution.

The film also includes extensive interviews with the victim’s parents, families of the convicts and their lawyers, interspersed with reconstruction of the incident. The British filmmaker may not be glorifying the rapist by giving him a platform to air his repugnant views on woman. What the rapist said may be the views of many men in India, as Anu Agha, a member of the upper house of Parliament, said. But by focusing on Mukesh Singh and highlighting his outrageous views on woman, the film insults the memories of Jyoti Singh and others who fall victims to male depredations.

All of them blame Jyoti Singh for what happened to her on that fateful night of Dec. 16. Didn’t she invite trouble by resisting the advances of Singh and others instead of surrendering to them? His defense lawyers express views that are even more shockingly misogynic.

While it is true that freedom of expression means the right to express or hear views you don’t agree with, there is a thin line separating free speech from loose talk. Going by the written excerpts released from the film, Udwin, a rape victim herself, seems to have blurred this line.

Whatever the ultimate fate of the film, it will keep alive the debate and public discourse about the condition of Indian women Jyoti Singh’s death inflamed. This is no small achievement. This debate should continue with renewed vigor if women everywhere are to feel safe and lead a life with with minimum of dignity.

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