The World Before Us

Nisha Pahuja
Posted March 31, 2014 from Canada

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

Comments 3

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  • Judyannet M
    Apr 02, 2014
    Apr 02, 2014


    How amazing to read such positive news of using art for social impact. I am especially glad that you chose to tell the story of women. In a recent discussion, somebody asked 'why women all the time?' and when two more people expressed the same opinion in different platforms I knew something is up. Women have finally shaken the yokes of tradition, culture and other retrogressive factors to create a force that has people asking 'why women'. This is why seeing you make this documentary is such good news to me and to the women be they community actors or those still held by those yokes.

    It is also eye opening to hear about the stark situation of girls being about in India in search of boys. In an ideal world every child regardless of gender would have a right to be born and to live the life that they decide, but that not being the case then we require people (women) of courage to rise and stand against such social ills. This documentary is one such way. We can only hope that it sparks a fire in people wherever they watch it and that they are influenced into action like you have done. Most importantly we hope that the very women who still go through such pains of having to let go a child simply because the society doesn't approve of its gender, have the courage to rise and challenge the society.

    This, as you pointed out will begin with the education of the girl child. In many ways, education becomes a tool that empowers not only girls but also boys in the society and they have the courage to question that which is wrong. This then is a call to all governments in all countries where some children are more equal than others to enact and implement policies that will right this wrong. However, we can't leave this duty to the governments alone, every member of society must rise and do their part. If we all do our part then everything is possible.

    That is why the work you are doing is especially very important; I can only hope that it brings forth positive social change. Aluta continua Nisha.

  • Leslie Stoupas
    Apr 07, 2014
    Apr 07, 2014

    Dear Nisha,

    Your work is very exciting and has the potential to change the lives of millions of girls and women, not only in India but anywhere that boys are more favored than girls. It must be a dream come true for your film to make it to India on these varied platforms. I am looking forward to viewing your film -- I am already inspired! Thank you for sharing the story of your journey to have this film seen so broadly. You are an excellent model of how to bring purpose and passion together in a creative way!

  • Julie Collura
    Apr 09, 2014
    Apr 09, 2014

    Nisha, Do you have any plans to screen the film in the US? I facilitate a World Pulse meetup group in Portland, OR, and I know the members would appreciate your film! Thank you, Julie