Opinion: ‘Section 375’ Did Not Deserve The Criticism It Received


“Section 375” And The Anatomy Of Consent

Many mainstream media platforms have been quick to pan the recently released Hindi courtroom drama Section 375 as being misogynistic and injudicious. Most of the criticism centres around the apparent sympathy that the makers show for the rape-accused filmmaker, Rahul Khurana and the final post-trial twist, which seems to indisputably establish that he was, after all, falsely accused and unfairly prosecuted.

Section 375 is a movie that tries to portray the problematic grey nature of sexual interactions that occur in seemingly progressive and gender-sensitive social circles. However, it refuses to present a simplistic tale of coercion and abuse. This aspect of the narrative makes the movie a brilliant attempt at pushing the boundaries of discussions on the murky realm of consent and sexual abuse in “modern” spaces.

The junior costume assistant Anjali Dangle’s police complaint accusing Rahul Khurana of rape acquires multiple dimensions of ambiguity when it comes to light that she has been having an affair with the accused. One of the biggest strengths of the movie is the intriguing use of unreliable narration where different versions of the rape are presented, making it difficult for the audience to separate fact from lies and conjecture, as the trial proceeds.

The element of unreliability also enables the movie makers to probe different shades of grey surrounding the rape allegation, without getting confined into boxes of right and wrong. This does not imply that the makers do not take an ethical stance (or take an unethical stance for that matter) on the act of abuse that the story narrates. It is established beyond doubt that the accused filmmaker is a man with an arrogant sense of entitlement and has scant respect for his female subordinates. He is shown as a habitual sexual predator who baits the young and vulnerable woman into conceding to have an unequal sexual relationship with him, humiliating and discarding her when she appears to overstep the boundaries he has set for her.

The plaintiff’s lawyer Hiral Mehta, convincingly argues that indirectly coercing a female subordinate to sleep with oneself is tantamount to rape. In this context, it is strongly implied that at the time of the alleged assault, the absence of physical violence or explicit lack of consent, is irrelevant, since the nature of sexual interaction between the accused and the victim was manipulative and exploitative, to begin with.

The movie admirably attempts to nuance the popular perception of sexual abuse by eschewing a narrative of unmitigated victimization and focuses on latent, subtle forms of manipulation that can get overlooked in the legal discourse on consent and rape.

By boldly and sensitively portraying the contradictory emotional pulls experienced by the victim, the movie opens up a discussion on the widely varying experience of abuse— that it is possible for the victim to get emotionally attached to the abuser (and vice versa); that the appearance of consent need not necessarily absolve the abuser of the offence. It is only by acknowledging the emotional complexity and complicity that the victim may experience while getting subjected to abuse that we can hope to finetune our legal vocabulary and laws to deliver justice and prevent victim blaming.

By keeping the narrative deliberately ambiguous, the movie abstains from giving clarity regarding the technicalities of the rape incident, a narratorial device which helps maintain the focus on the abuse of power by men in positions of privilege. According to many a critic, the movie’s unacceptable hubris lies in the climax where Anjali cryptically reveals to her lawyer that it wasn’t rape, but it was also nothing less than rape (a detail omitted in many reviews of the movie).

The tone set and sustained throughout the movie makes it difficult for the viewer to jump to the conclusion that it is unarguably a movie about the misuse of the anti-rape law. In a movie that makes it clear at the outset that the business of law is very different from the business of justice, the twist, in the end, can be seen as a masterstroke where the victim gets her justice despite an imperfect legal system that is ill-equipped to accommodate the multifarious present-day realities of consent in the context of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, while trying to present a rape trial in all its complexity, the movie succumbs to the risk of being misunderstood by viewers across the spectrum of opinion, prematurely shutting down a layered discussion on the dynamics of consent that the movie engages with.

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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