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The Big Questions “Humanist” Meryl Streep’s Support For ‘India’s Daughter’ Raises

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By Jason Jayology

‘India’s Daughter’ opened this week in New York City, receiving the affirmed support from one of the United States’ biggest celebrity feminists, who spoke on the film premiere’s panel, veteran Hollywood actor Meryl Streep. Not only did Streep, whose newest film is an account of the women who fought for women’s right to the ballot in England – ‘The Suffragette’, speak on the film alongside veteran feminist Gloria Steinem, but also went one step further to say, “I’m on the campaign now to get her nominated for best documentary,” speaking for the film’s director, Leslee Udwin.

meryl streep 1
Jyoti Singh’s death became the world’s tragedy, and a universal cry through which an entire planet identified with their own misogynistic, diverse, and common structural existences of a culture that belittles women to sexual objectification through the tragedy of rape culture. What all women know from their experiences with this culture, and sadly all women have experience with, is that we live in a violent, marginalizing, alienating, and exploitative patriarchal culture. Patriarchy unfolds into diverse weaponry that circulates through man’s insecurity targeting women building a pyramid scheme that leaves men at the core, and women of colour at the bottom. This weaponry is assembled in the steel sexism, the industrial sexual exploitation, the racism, of white supremacy, nationalism, caste based brutality, economic exploitation, and list goes on and on. These weapons ignite and execute a blanket of protection for a social order by siphoning the potential of women, into this artificial but intrinsic social order. It is important to mention this because the documentary, ‘India’s Daughter’ is a commentary on the role of India in upholding these structures in Indian society through the brutality which Jyoti Singh was subjected to. So the film is a challenge, or is supposed to be a challenge to the social order.

December 16th, when this blight of hyper-masculine violence left blood on the streets of Delhi, defying Gandhi’s maxim of ‘a few drops of dirt in the ocean,’ by transforming one woman’s blood into an ocean which awakened the world to the daily blood spilled by women all over the world, all of our hands became dirty. As Jyoti Singh took her last glance of this earth in a hospital bed in Singapore, Delhi erupted. The women of India, again, born out of a long line of history of women who refused to accept the social order of violence, shifted the tectonic plates into and earth-quaking global consciousness. This is also the subject of the film, the family of Jyoti, the rapists, the activists, and the society. ‘India’s Daughter’ put India on trial. Every institution had its day in the court of global public opinion. We saw you, every girl and every woman, as India’s daughters, whether or not society did. We translated the words on your posters, became better acquainted with your history, your iconography, your posters became our posters, your art electrified the currents that had become the revitalization of feminism into a massive inter-sectional movement, born out of our tears. So, for those of us who were invited to attend the premiere of India’s Daughter – which was very few activists, we had one question as the panel opened: Where are India’s daughters? Where are the women who were and have been fighting rape culture, sexual violence, caste violence, misogyny and patriarchy on the ground in India? Why is Meryl Streep, the feminist who announced last week that she is not really a feminist but a “humanist”, a word often confused for humanitarian but actually translates to atheist, speaking on the politics of this film? What is her connection to India? We all have to take an interest in one another to end rape culture, because misogyny and patriarchy have no respect for man-made boundaries, but this also requires working together with the people doing the actual fighting. Learning, sharing ideas, and knowing the politics. It means challenging the social institutions that protect the unnatural order of patriarchy.

As Meryl Streep’s film ‘The Suffragette’ opened in England last week, women activists took to the red carpet in protest, being pulled away by security for challenging the unnatural order of Hollywood’s racism. Why would women be protesting a film shedding light on women’s rights by a woman who was handpicked to speak to ‘India’s Daughter’? That’s because there isn’t a single woman of colour in ‘The Suffragette’. Now, some argue, there weren’t as many women of colour involved in the movement for English suffrage, which isn’t true, because many women of colour from India were involved in the English suffrage movement. Nonetheless, why would Hollywood produce a film without any women of colour, given the global climate of violence and the fight today of activists on the ground? How could Hollywood cast shadows over the laborious role that women of colour – Black, Hispanic, Latin(x), Trans, the diverse Asian women from various subcontinents, and indigenous women play in culminating knowledge today to a bloody and brutal reality, make a film specifically tailored to a not so all-white moment, but historically relevant moment in history, constructed on a plot line which would consist of an all white cast?

Because Hollywood is a misogynistic and racist institution that upholds patriarchy. Then why would they champion ‘India’s Daughter’ if they are misogynistic? Hollywood is interested in your rape culture, and perhaps the politics of it, because it doesn’t challenge or connect the dots to the social order of rape culture here. Have you ever heard of anyone in Hollywood saying, ‘I’m not doing this film till under-represented women from India have a place in Hollywood’?

So, when we went to the opening of ‘India’s Daughter’, and saw Meryl Streep as the host and panellist our question was: Where are the women who were fighting on the street? Where are the narratives of how India’s politics of nationalism compare to ours, so we can come together and dismantle our societies, leaning on one another…But that’s not the point. Notice, no one said, this movie is a cinematic time bomb aimed at the conscience of misogyny. “I’m on the campaign now to get her nominated for best documentary,” not ‘I am on the campaign to change the social order.’

We need to get together in a unity which discredits patriarchy, but unity requires us to do the listening, it requires hearing, learning histories and experiences, and not co-opting, the fight. In the creating of a culture the fire burns at the micro level and the smoke spreads. We have to avoid the reality of the fight being a utility of a complex market of an integrated economic system that commercially exploits everything it can through sophisticated public relations and marketing enjoined by a media who is catering to a demographic-sales point, while supporting the mirrors that mirage a confrontation not happening to placate to our anger, or worse deceive our will. This formula only dilutes the wisdom we have been inherited and are entrusted with from one another. The only way to break the culture of rape is to break the institutions that uphold rape culture, by every means necessary, and we can do that in this life existence. There is no easy way out but the reward will a new social order conceived by the courage and will of women, not one that breaks the will of women. It is time we ‘break the lock’ and unfold a future without rape culture.

You must be to comment.
  1. B

      That is why men die due to draconian laws, men work the most dangerous jobs, men die on jobs daily, men die in wars, men die due to dowry harassment, men make the majority of homeless, men are swindled out of life savings in alimony, men are thrust in the army, men die earlier than women, lifeboats are reserved for women, seats on buses are reserved for women, seats in colleges are reserved for women, metros have compartments reserved for women, special quotas in parliament for women, companies have seats reserved for women, men are ripped of their hard earned income in child support, men suffer from biased family courts, men suffer from domestic violence but the law turns a blind eye, men suffer from sexism, media only covers women’s issues, men suffer from joblessness, men are obliged to earn for women, men suffer from misandry, men have to pay lacs for girls jewellery during marriage, brothers spend a lifetime earning to get sisters married, boys are beaten in schools but girls get away with warnings, boys work all the menial jobs – labourers, cleaners, servants, drivers, construction workers, in lock factories, as mechanics, in restaurants, as street-vendors, at tea stalls, as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, woodcutters, rickshaw pullers, etc.

    1. R

      Does the writer deny that men face issues anywhere in this piece?

  2. Monistaf

    Culture, is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”. To say that we live in a “Rape culture” means that it is generally accepted in society and people believe that it is the norm. As far as I know, Rape has always been against the law in India and elsewhere. It is not accepted in society and neither is it the norm (approx 37000 reported incidents in 2014 for a population of 500 million women and girls, or 0.007% – NCRB.in). In fact, in India, you can be hanged, if convicted for rape. I am not sure where this author lives, but it is obvious, he / she is far removed from reality.

  3. Akhila

    You are being absolutely ridiculous. Meryl Streep along with the others have made it very clear that they want to advocate for gender equality anywhere in the world. Even in the United States. Who said it didn’t exist there? I saw the film, as I live in New York, and there was nothing offensive about it all. Why are Indians so upset when someone tries to say the truth? And no, I’m not a white, I’m Indian too, and I know everyone around the world wants freedom and dignity wherever they live. Don’t say its about national pride, because if you really cared about your country you would protect every citizen and their rights. By not caring you are the only ones embarrassing Indian society to the rest of the world. You need to first view the film(which I know is banned in India) and then be judgemental. This requires a lot of thought and introspection for real changes to occur. This isn’t only directed towards you, but too anyone with the attitudes as I explained above.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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