Because We Are Girls: Bollywood Rape Culture and Female Disempowerment

by

Alexandra Dalangin

Faatimah Saleji

  1. Introduction

Sexual abuse. It is a repulsive global issue that has yet to be resolved as the number of unjust cases continues to rise, permanently affecting the lives of many in the process. It leaves physical and mental scars most prominently on women and girls which result in health complications, a loss of trust, and a sense of panic that burdens their ability to grow on a more emotional level. Filmmakers tend to shy away from creating films centered around sexual abuse as it is a highly sensitive topic that is labeled as “uncomfortable” and “distressing” to portray, especially when mainstream Hollywood box office hits are popularized amongst the moviegoing audience. While the conversation about sexual abuse is slowly becoming normalized in the media, women, and girls in particular are still hesitant to speak out on their experiences due to their fear of being judged or shamed for doing so. Recent advances in cinema have captivated the vitality and empowerment of women, due to belittling misogynistic ideologies that have and still exist in every possible aspect. When looking at the role of the often weak, powerless, and naive women, the film industry, primarily seen in Bollywood, has promoted rape culture and misogynistic ideologies. For too long, films have seen powerful men torment women making them seem less than, which has glorified prevalent views on the recurring issue to the audience.

The 2019 documentary Because We Are Girls, directed by Baljit Sangra, takes a glimpse of the heartbreaking story of Indo-Canadian sisters Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana Pooni, and the unfortunate events that had led up to this film. The three sisters had kept their unconsented repetitive sexual abuse incidents a secret for decades before finally reaching out for help in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to convict the perpetrator, their older male cousin, for his wrongdoings. The film begins with an insight into the three sisters’ childhoods, their fascination for Bollywood films, followed by detailing the sisters’ sexual abuse experiences and subsequently concluding with the day of the verdict in court. Because We Are Girls exemplifies how much Bollywood films can shape ideals and become a viewpoint for many, including as a prominent medium in demonstrating misogyny and promoting rape culture. Baljit Sangra illustrates the eternal impacts generated by sexual abuse and the Pooni sisters’ courage to speak out and disclose to their conservative Punjabi family the crime committed by their very own.

This essay disputes the meaning of double standards between men and women about the impact it has on sexual abuse as evident in the film which emphasizes the struggle of survivors to come forward and recount their experiences with sexual abuse. Firstly, this essay will explain the stigma surrounding sexual abuse as the three sisters reveal their reasoning behind keeping their sexual abuse stories a secret for decades. Secondly, it will analyze how the director highlights the teachings of Indian films adhered to the image of women being weak and inferior to men and how the theme of misogyny is translated through Bollywood, which creates a lack of fear of consequences on predators. Also, this essay explores how Sangra uses stock footage as an effective technique to underline how much of Indian cinema has promoted rape culture that is predominantly translated to the ideologies of their audience. Finally, it will detail the important role sexual consent plays in sexual abuse court cases which the film approaches from the viewpoint of both the perpetrator and the victim. 

Because We Are Girls, Baljit Sangra, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

2. The Stigma Surrounding Sexual Abuse: The Inferiority of Women Through the Lens of Baljit Sangra

Women, especially in the media, generally fit the box of obeying men no matter how crudely they are being treated. The use of narration in the film is executed by Sangra in a way that integrates the visuals of the three sisters experiencing what appears to be a normal life with the audio of spoken words that resonate with the internal, emotional battle they are facing. Middle sister Jeeti reiterates the harsh truth about what being born a girl means in Indian culture as she exclaims, “We are daughters. We are not wanted anyways. Since we were little girls, he made us feel that we were not wanted” (Because We Are Girls 1:00:54). The narration during this part of the film focuses on providing the audience with a representation of how girls as young as Jeeti’s daughter are taught that they are already at a disadvantage in life simply due to their sex at birth. 

Sangra also uses casual dialogue between family members to describe the time when the daughters asked their mother if they remember when community members said she would be blessed in return for her service. Their mother states, “Yes, I used to do a lot of service and they say I would get blessed. Then in 1976 Jesse [their brother] was born” (Because We Are Girls 22:19). It is said that an Indian family is considered complete when a son is born, alluding to the idea that being born female is unfavorable and not as highly celebrated which further contributes to the notion of women as the inferior sex.

Moreover, the film deconstructs the sisters’ reasonings behind not coming forward about their sexual abuse incidents through the minimal use of complex camerawork and Mise en Scene that gives the audience a sense of authenticity and vulnerability as shown by the sisters as well as their family members. The majority of the film’s scenes take place within the sisters’ homes without any added props, costumes, or extreme camera angles which adds a more personal atmosphere, bringing rise to key elements such as in-depth interviews that intensify the sisters’ initial confusion of why this is happening to them and what they need to do about it. Jeeti first realized what was happening to her in grade 9 where she explains in an interview, “You’re trying to process this as you can, treat it as whatever he feels what he’s saying it is… But you don’t even realize you’re being victimized, or you have been” (Because We Are Girls 35:43). 

A study that analyzes the history behind sexual harassment in the United States, the European Union, and Germany notes that the American public heard about how allegations of sexual harassment could threaten a man’s career whereas the German public learned about sexual harassment through the perspective of the perpetrator (Lang 8). Jeeti in particular felt weary in telling anyone about what happened as she expresses, “I thought about telling my dad and I thought, “Well, I don’t wanna get punished for what he did”. I didn’t know what it was that he had done, but I knew, I was gonna get in trouble” (Because We Are Girls 26:32). The stigma that surrounds sexual abuse deteriorates the confidence of women and girls to share their experiences and stand up to the individuals who committed a wrongful, disgraceful crime against them. This socially reflective film continuously sheds light on the familial impact of child sexual abuse as shown when Salakshana’s daughter breaks down crying after expressing in an interview that she feels as though her mother was not able to properly care for her due to her past experiences. Kira, Jeeti, and Salakshana Pooni also risked destroying the family dynamic they had with their parents upon confessing that their cousin pursued them sexually but ultimately decided to tell their story to set an example for their daughters and young girls around the world.

3. Creating lack of empowerment in Bollywood female characters

Many films produced by the Indian film industry have created an ideology of the “perfect women”, which is often represented through a supporting character, that takes on the role of the love interest (Struble and Barath, 314 ). This type of female portrayal is seen through characters who typically obtain a nurturing aura and come off as submissive and frail. They lack often the ability to have room for argument or thoughts of their own. This form of inaccuracy in films further creates inequality rooted in the minds of people, due to the misleading impression of the interest and capabilities of females. This inequality has resulted in arising questions dealing with gender stereotyping, and the misinterpretation that is viewed by the public, creating an imbalance within society. Because We Are Girls emulates how unrealistic ideologies were portrayed in films. This is shown in the documentary when the sisters discuss how Bollywood movies had shaped unrealistic ideals in their lives. Sangra incorporates film clips from Bollywood movies where women are bowing down to men and touching their feet to gain forgiveness and represent the man in a superior and oppressive position. One of the sisters’ shares how growing up constantly watching this repetitive type of film has influenced her perception of how women acted around men, saying “ I also learned the submissive part, that women do have to bow down to men” (Because We are Girls, 10:32).  

The Indian film industry reaches millions of people around the world. In countries where Indian films are particularly popular, movies and their actors are very much idolized and adored, however, it is a crucial responsibility for these films to transcend the true female identity, rather than misrepresentation. The lack of female empowerment that is predominant in the Indian film industry can be attributed to the lack of female filmmakers. According to a 2017 report by the Geena Davis Institute, it was examined that only “one in ten directors in Bollywood are women.” The male perspective immensely controls how female characters are portrayed, which is often prevailed through gender biases and age-old stereotypes.

4. Sangra’s demonstration of sexual assault in Indian film

Sangra alludes to the fact that the Indian film industry contributes and is partially to blame for instigating acts of sexual assault against women due to its narratives. In the film, cut shots of vital scenes from classic Indian films are shown. Sangra uses these scenes to show sexual violence portrayed in movies where women are always powerless in comparison to men. The film clips that are used demonstrate how rather than men fearing for the consequences of their actions, the women await forgiveness, to the point where they cannot live without it. Jeeti states that these ideas get “instilled inside you very young” ( Because We Are Girls, 11:14), exemplifying how the Bollywood films she grew up watching taught her to fear getting shunned, due to the vile actions of men. This teaches viewers and men especially, that there is a lack of consequences when committing acts of sexual assault. Indian culture has taught to women stay quiet rather than speak up for themselves. Many Indian women, including the sisters from the film, feared to speak out to their families, believing that it was their fault, rather than the rapist. Growing up, they have constantly been treated as an object. They were taught a mentality that women must be submissive. The predominant “male gaze” has been endorsed across Bollywood films.

Women are constantly seen as objects in Indian culture. A particular concern seen in Bollywood films that promotes this ideology is the infamous sexually proactive dance numbers (Dutta, D., & Sircar, 3). It is common for these performances to entail a group of men surrounding a single woman. Although these performances act as a source of entertainment, they are rather disrespectful in the sense that these men look at women for their bodies, in almost perverted and twisted ways. This further alludes to the way Indian cinema makes women appear as objects, rather than resilient women. As Bollywood films become more modernized, this is a pattern that does not seem to die, rather it has become more predominant. 

5. Portrayals of Misogyny in Bollywood Films

Because We Are Girls exemplifies how misogyny is promoted through Indian films. Misogyny is defined as “hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against women” (Merriam Webster). The vile hatred against women promotes violence and sexual assault and is translated through the documentary. In the documentary when Jeeti is telling her story on her sexual assault experience, Sangra uses archival footage of old films, demonstrating acts of sexual abuse against women. In these shots, women are seen being tormented by men who are visibly angry or in an intoxicated state. They take their aggression out on the women in their lives by resorting to violence (Because We Are Girls, 36:52). This sequence in particular uses quick camera movements which creates a form of momentum, and action. This camera motion adds key impacts to the scene and depicts the abuser’s momentum. The fast pace of the scene with the fast-paced music helps to place the audience in Jeeti’s situation when she tells her story over the scene.

However Indian film is still notorious for promoting misogynistic ideologies among their viewers. This is seen through popular Bollywood music which normalizes misogyny by singing about rape. A recent example of this is when Punjabi rapper Yo-Yo Honey Singh sang about raping women alone at night, and referring them as “cunts” in his song “Main Hoon Balaatkari”, which translates to “ I am a rapist” (Dutta, Debolina, and Oishik Sircar, 293). Rather than Singh’s position as a public figure coming into question, his music was praised, and he remains to have a platform as a successful Bollywood artist. This is an issue because rather than creating a solution to the very prevalent concern, figures in the industry who are transcended as heroes and idolized, are only contributing to the problem. Although he remains to be a prominent figure in the industry, many people disagree with him for obvious reasons. The wake of modernization and feminism in Bollywood has marked political differences in the misogynistic ideologies which are immensely seen (Dutta, Debolina, and Oishik Sircar, 294). Misogynistic ideas have prevented people from refraining from glorifying hatred against women and rather made it an overriding trend in the industry.

6. Understanding Sexual Consent in Because We Are Girls

Sexual consent is often misinterpreted in both adult and child sexual abuse cases because the victim is usually in a state of panic and confusion at the time of the act, therefore leading to hazy recollections of what exactly was said or done. A paper that examines sexual decision-making explains that nonverbal, nonresistant sexual consent may be mistaken as the victim giving the perpetrator permission to pursue them when in reality the victim does not have the sexual assertiveness to say no (Darden, Marie C. et al. 221-222). At only eleven years old, Jeeti did not know how to react to the situation, more importantly taking into account that the perpetrator is considered part of her extended family and did not want to rebel against her family’s values. A study about prosecuting child sexual abuse explains this in further detail by stating that the prosecution process is difficult in a way where if the child has a close relationship with the perpetrator, it increases the chances of them reluctantly cooperating and keeping their mouth shut (Cross, Theodore P. et al. 437). It is important to understand that most children have not yet grasped the concept of sexual abuse let alone sexual consent because it is considered taboo in their family conversations as revealed by Mr. and Mrs. Pooni who were hesitant in discussing the topic with their family in fear of what others would think of them.  

The candid conversation that took place nearing the end of the film was filled with tension as Jeeti confesses that she felt her parents were not emotionally there for her and did not do anything to prevent further incidents. In a world where sexual consent is still foreign territory for both parents and children, it is most crucial for all members to comprehend the meaning of this term and ensure open lines of communication are available in the event of an incident. Jeeti emphasizes this to her daughters in the waiting room at the Supreme Court as she advises her daughters, “I want you to know, there’s nothing ever in your life that you need to be afraid of. There’s no system, no person, that you can’t stand up against” (Because We Are Girls 57:59). This is undoubtedly one of the most powerful lines in the film as it encompasses the true meaning behind believing in oneself and never backing down from justice.

7. Conclusion

Although Indian Cinema has seen a recent wake in feminism, an overriding issue that needs to be fixed is how these films promote rape culture to their audience. The rich culture and beauty behind Bollywood are prominent, however, so is the weak portrayal of women. Sangra addresses how women are less than, and how this misrepresentation transcends on viewers, no matter the age. In addition to this, Sangra alludes to the fact that Bollywood is to blame for its portrayal of sexual assault. Women are constantly objectified and are wary of the “male gaze”. In society, women should not have to face consequences when men cannot control themselves. Finally, the misogynistic ideologies which are presented in Bollywood are very much prevalent to this day. We see women being tormented by men, and yet this type of entertainment is not only idolized but also normalized. Indian film is common and viewed by millions across the world for the classical and vibrant films produced. However, these misleading portrayals of women contribute to the violence towards them. The sisters in Sangra’s Because We are Girls were some of the millions who have been affected by crimes of sexual assault. The Bollywood industry shaped much of their lives and especially the negatives that came along their journey. Thus, this film has shed light on the political concerns regarding sexual abuse, predominantly within Indian culture. Bollywood must progress towards changing its forms of entertainment and portrayals to effectively address the ongoing issue regarding sexual assault, by not contributing to the problem. It is most evident that the film Because We Are Girls provides a broadened perspective on the impact of double standards on sexual abuse. The stories of Kira, Jeeti, and Salakshana Pooni give rise to the permanent repercussions of sexual abuse within the family and cultural life that are highly underrated in the film industry but as a result, encourages the flow of conversation about the trauma and feelings of anxiety that women and girls may not feel comfortable talking about so openly. This film brings awareness to the importance of giving all individuals, regardless of their gender, the opportunity to empower one another and never feel afraid to express their hardships with family as well as with society. 

8. Works Cited

Because We Are Girls. Directed by Sangra, Baljit, National Film Board, 2019. https://www.nfb.ca/film/because-we-are-girls/

Cross, Theodore P., Jones, Lisa M., Lippert, Tonya, Walsh, Wendy A. “Prosecuting Child Sexual Abuse: The Importance of Evidence Type.” Crime and Delinquency, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 436-454, doi: 10.1177/0011128708320484.

Darden, Marie C., Ehman, Anandi C., Gross, Alan M., Lair, Elicia C. “Sexual Compliance: Examining the Relationships Among Sexual Want, Sexual Consent, and Sexual Assertiveness.” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 23 no. 1, 2018;2019, pp. 220-235, doi: 10.1007/s12119-018-9551-1.

Dutta, Debolina, and Oishik Sircar. “India’s Winter of Discontent: Some Feminist Dilemmas in the Wake of a Rape.” Feminist Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2013, pp. 293–306. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23719318. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Lang, Sabine. The Politics of Sexual Harassment. A Comparative Study of the United States, the European Union, and Germany – by Kathrin S. Zippel. vol. 69, Blackwell Publishing Inc, Maiden, USA, 2007, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00560.x.

Struble, Jessica, and Barath M Josiam. “Renegotiating Gender through Dress in Bollywood: The New Indian Woman.” Ingenta Connect, Intellect, 1 Oct. 2016, https://www-ingentaconnect-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/content/intellect/fspc/2016/00000003/00000003/art00004;jsessionid=16kbws2kanj2w.x-ic-live-03#  Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

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