Hi my name is Nisha Pahuja and I am a documentary filmmaker based in both Toronto and Bombay. I completed a documentary film called The World Before Her which won best feature at Tribeca Film Festival and at Hot Docs Film Festival in 2012. The World Before Her looks at two extreme choices and worlds that young women opt for—on the one hand there’s the Miss India pageant and on the other the Durga Vahini, a fundamentalist boot camp for girls. And though the worlds and the women seem like polar opposites they are actually more similar and therefore much more complex than first meets the eye. And I think that has been the strength of the film.
In my 20s I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be and I'm sure like some of us here, I was torn between art and creating and wanting to do good, to make a difference in people's lives. Finding documentary was a revelation for me because it meant I could do both.
But it wasn't until this film that I saw how powerful documentary can be as a tool for change. And it was the women in the film who taught me that.
Both sides seem to live in polarized spaces and superficially they do, but in a deeper sense they don't at all. The women, whether they were beauty pageant contestants or Hindu Nationalists weren’t modern vs traditional they were as complex as the country they live in and like all of us, they contained multitudes. The one thing they all had in common was this: the need to redefine what an India woman IS. And when I realized this all of my prejudices about pageants and extremists—NOT EXTREMISM went out the window and I knew I needed a different paradigm. Suddenly what I thought was “other” or wrong or immoral was really just a reflection of my own narrow and simplistic way of looking at the world. The story had taught the story teller (that’s me) that I needed to see differently.
I have now begun an ambitious 6-month campaign to screen the film in schools, universities, villages, cities and theatres nation-wide. The impetus behind the campaign is to change the mindsets of people and how they regard girls and women in India.
In the pursuit of sons, 750,000 girls are aborted every year in India. The number of girls killed at birth is not known.
If we can engage with people at a grassroots level to bring about awareness and dialogue about female feticide, there is a good chance that people begin to understand the impact that gendercide can have on a community as a whole, where women are regarded as unwanted. Our intention is to use the film as a tool to share stories, have a starting point for dialogue and allow people to connect with the lives and circumstances of the women in the film.
For a large part of the campaign we want to focus on creating an online movement around women’s rights in India. We have screenings scheduled in universities, schools and libraries but also on television and through online platforms. The result has been a massive wave of attention and dialogue on the issues raised in the film. Our audience on social media grows everyday and a large part of what we do is communicating with people on topics such as gendercide, communal violence and the impact both can have on the status of women in India today.
To answer the first question, what challenges keep women in our community from logging on online – the simple answer is the lack of a right to education. (Despite the Right to Education Act being passed in India in 2009 which theoretically means that boys and girls should have an equal right to education.)
According to the article in The Guardian, ‘Why girls are still missing out on the education they need’, “Of the out-of-school children in 2008, 62% were girls; they make up two-thirds of illiterate 15-24 year olds”. Since the rate of literacy and the rate of internet knowledge and usage are very much related, the first step in getting more girls and women using the internet as a tool has got to be ensuring that the rates at which they are being educated increases drastically.
In order for spaces such as local libraries to be more accessible for girls and women, we need to first ensure that these public spaces are indeed ‘safe’ for them in two main ways. Firstly, physical public spaces need to become safer for women where we develop a zero tolerance policy for any kind of sexual harassment and have enough reliable resources for women to fall back on if they feel unsafe in a particular place. Secondly, learning spaces such as libraries need to allow accommodate for a conducive learning environment for girls where resources and tools are more readily available for women to encourage and foster their learning online.
To make the internet more accessible to women in the communities where we plan on travelling with the film along with other women’s rights activists, we want to begin by laying the groundwork to encourage and rally for girls education. Our ultimate aim would be to use the internet as a tool so that girls and women in certain communities can connect to the stories, struggles and victories of women’s rights movements and initiatives all over the world. The idea would be to connect women in one area with women in another, who are working on and towards the same goals. Mimicking strategies and initiatives from the global community to foster and nourish women’s rights movements would enable women to have a larger impact online and further their own education and understanding of mass communication tools.
Lastly, we cannot achieve higher rates of female education and encourage their use and knowledge of the internet until certain gender biases are addressed and eradicated. For lower-middle class familes to those living near the poverty line, choosing to educate their boys over their girls seems to be the common choice. It is common practice to spedn money to get boys educated and this is also a significant challenge to overcome in terms of getting more girls into schools.
I have extremely high hopes that the movement that we are building around The World Before Her can make a substantial impact in the area of women’s rights in India. My team and I have been very lucky with this film—we’ve shown it at over 125 film festivals and we’ve won a number of awards including Tribeca, Hot Docs and Michael Moore’s festival in Traverse City. We finished the film in 2012 and have traveled all over the world with it.
It’s been an incredible journey but in many ways it feels that the most important chapter is just beginning because I am finally bringing this film, back to its starting point. India. And I can't tell you how excited and moved I am by this next and most important phase of the film's life.WWW: Women Weave the Web