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The Mass Media

The World Before Her: Inescapable Sexism in India

The World Before Her: Inescapable Sexism in India
The World Before Her: Inescapable Sexism in India



On Thursday, Feb. 7, the UMass Boston Film Series kicked off the Spring 2013 semester with the Boston premiere of Nisha Pahuja’s “The World Before Her,” followed by a Q&A session with the director.

A major blizzard was due to hit Boston the next day, and by the time the movie started, UMass Boston had already announced plans to close the campus on both Friday, Feb. 8, and Saturday, Feb. 9.The MBTA was due to be shut down by the next afternoon, and Logan Airport was in the process of cancelling most of its weekend flights.

Despite the weather, and perhaps because attendees were making an effort to squeeze in some fun before the storm left them trapped them inside, the event was packed. People filled every chair that could possibly fit in the UMass Boston ballroom, and some even stood in the aisles.

“The World Before Her” juxtaposes the experiences of two radically different groups of young women in India: the contestants in the Miss India beauty pageant and the girls attending the Hindu fundamentalist Durga Vahini camp during their school breaks.

The Miss India pageant is seen largely through the eyes of Ruhi Singh, a young woman from Jaipur whose supportive parents have helped her enter a series of beauty contests throughout India. The scenes in which Singh is shown with her doting family provide some relief for audiences watching the occasionally heartbreaking movie.

The Durga Vahini camp, into which no camera crew had ever been allowed, is presented by Prachi Trivedi, who has gone to many camps and now teaches younger girls to march in formation and use firearms. In one scene, Trivedi’s father discusses the many times he has beaten her, including one incident in which he branded her foot with a hot iron because he discovered that she had lied to him.

While Singh’s parents are more pleasant than Trivedi’s father, the film does not imply that the world of the Miss India contestants provides an escape from the oppression that women face in that country. The Durga Vahini footage, where teenage girls listen to speeches about their “natural weakness” and declarations that “every woman must be married by the time she is eighteen,” is distressing for many audiences.

While the conservative oppression present in the fundamentalist camp is destructive, so too is the more liberal brand of sexism espoused by the Miss India pageant.

Participants in Miss India are made to undergo cosmetic surgery, skin-lightening and other painful, unnecessary procedures. Pahuja records one contestant gently pleading with the surgeon not to add too much filler to her chin because she believes it will make her look old, another lying in a bed at the surgeon’s office, her face stoic, her legs writhing as the skin-lightener burns her face.

More than the physical pain involved in the contest, the Miss India finalists undergo a great deal of mental anguish. Most of them, including the eventual winner, Ankita Shorey, are deeply uncomfortable during the bikini contest. When they participate in a photo shoot in which they wear sheets over their heads and torsos, covering their faces and bodies while showing off their legs in bikinis and heels, Shorey wonders whether she has sacrificed her principals. Has she compromised herself in order to succeed?

Sexism in the movie is pervasive. It doesn’t matter whether you are conservative or liberal, a Hindu nationalist or a college-educated modernist, the message of the woman is incontrovertible: if you are a woman in India, you are subject to patriarchy. 

Pahuja’s portrayal of sexism as an inescapable fact of life for a wide spectrum of Indian women could easily leave audiences feeling helpless, but it does not. The movie comes across not as a bleak depiction of a hopeless situation, but as a snapshot of a society changing for the better, perhaps even a call to action.

The moral is not that life is terrible for women all over India and always will be; the moral is that nobody is satisfied with the current state of affairs and that India as a country is collectively making an important decision about how women will be treated in the future. That decision is the subject of the film, and Pahuja presents it with understanding and compassion for all parties.