Imagine you are a twelve year old girl living in India, who has just been given permission to attend a summer camp. This is a very big deal, as your parents don’t let you go anywhere on your own and you must be home before 7 pm every evening. You cannot wait to get away.
Life is difficult at the camp as you must wake up at 5 am everyday, but the day ahead is packed with fun activities: They teach you karate kicks, chops and other ways to scare off opponents. You learn camp songs. You make friends with the other girls at the camp, who aren’t very different from you. The adults give you talks on values and Indian culture.
Sounds harmless, until you realise that you are at a training camp run by Durga Vahini, the female wing of right-wing organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The songs are about marking “your forehead with blood” and welcoming “your enemy with bullets”. The opponents are both abroad (Pakistanis) and at home (Muslims and Christians). Your values and culture are to embrace your natural weakness as women, marry early and to avoid pursuing a career for the sake of your ego.
This is the Durga Vahini camp, as captured in Nisha Pahuja’s documentary “The World Before Her”.
You may have heard of The World Before Her before. It has been screened at numerous film festivals since 2012. It has won over 19 awards and distinctions, including the Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Best Canadian Feature at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival in 2012. It was featured on the Guardian website last year.
Despite its success, filmmakers were unable to find a distributor in India due to the film’s controversial content. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds that would allow it to be screened in India.
The campaign was successful and as a result, the film will be shown in universities, colleges and high schools, cinemas in 6 cities, on the internet and in areas of high female infanticide across Punjab, Delhi, UP, Rajashtan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. You can read about it here.
The World Before Her captures the two extremes available for women in modern Indian society. At the Durga Vahini camp, you have young girls being trained in patriarchal Hindu traditions and culture. At the Femina Miss India contest, you have 20 “modern” Indian women who must also go through rigorous training on how best to present their bodies to be judged.
There are plenty of horrifying moments on both ends (SPOILER ALERT).
The organisers of the Femina Miss India contest give a masterclass on how to objectify of female bodies. The women are made to walk the ramp in cloaks that cover their faces and bodies, so that judges can rate their legs without any distractions. Apparently, this has always been the dream of some poor asshole (a man, duh). Plastic surgery is seen as a “do or die” option.
At the Durga Vahini camp, young girls are taught to fire guns and how to response if attacked. The enemies are not rabid men prowling on the streets and at home, rather anyone who is seen as attacking Hinduism.
You empathise with the sufferers at both camps. Durga Vahini member Prachi Trivedi is ambitious, hard-working and ready to die for the Parishad and its ideals…but she is being whipped (literally) into shape by her orthodox father who says a woman is not complete until she is married with children.
The Miss India contestants are ambitious too. For many, winning the contest is a ticket out of their Tier II hometowns, where opportunities are low. For all, it is a gateway into Bollywood, which is a real option for women who aren’t privileged to a university education, or women who aspire to support themselves and their parents. The sad thing is that this is an opportunity available only to women who meet a narrowly defined set of beauty ideals. Although the contestants attend diction and confidence building sessions, the well-versed ones from metropolitan cities have a far better chance at succeeding.
The World Before Her raises questions about the state of female empowerment in Indian society today. It is also a revealing portrait of the victims and perpetrators of India’s patriarchal society.
The Durga Vahini camp builds the confidence of its participants by teaching them self defence and and discipline. This can be greatly empowering in a society where girls are consistently told or shown that they are the weaker sex. Certainly, it teaches them more than what they would learn from watching sexist Bollywood movies. But this comes at a great risk of radicalising young women, who then may then go onto instil such beliefs onto future generations.
In a place where women are being beaten out of pubs, it is great to see the Miss India contestants taking control of their bodies and breaking taboos about how an Indian woman should dress and behave. At the same time, by linking female success to beauty, they send the wrong message to young girls and risk eroding their body image.
The World Before Her is a courageous initiative by the filmmakers, and we must vote with our feet to support it. Watch it, if only to see the unprecedented access to the Durga Vahini camps.
The film is available on Netflix in the US and can be downloaded on iTunes. In India, the film has been released in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Pune and is releasing in Hyderabad soon. Updates can be found on the Facebook page.