Last week’s documentary screening of Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her, co-hosted by Montreal’s South Asian Youth (SAY) Collective and the Bhoomi Project, brought together dozens of community members and university students to discuss the negotiation of women’s identities in twenty-first century India.
The film contrasts the journeys of two groups of women in India – those competing in the 2011 Miss India pageant, and those serving in leadership roles in the Hindu nationalist Durga Vahini camps. It focuses on the experiences of two women: Prachi, a Durga Vahini leader who wishes to devote her life completely to the Hindu movement but whose parents want her to get married and have kids. The other is Ruhi, who is striving to win the title of Miss India and describes her stress about achieving her ambitions. The film explores how both of these women’s situations have shaped their dreams and ambitions, as well as their worldview.
Emina Ghajizai, a U3 Arts student, organized the screening along with Mehar Gujral, a recent Arts graduate, and Harleen Bhogal, coordinator of youth programming at the South Asian Women’s Community Centre. The three are members of the SAY Collective, which frequently hosts film screenings on topics relevant to women and people of colour.
Following the screening, Bhogal, Ghajizai, and Gujral led a discussion of the film. Bhogal emphasized that the debrief was intended to discuss the social issues addressed in the film or to share any reactions the viewers may have had, rather than to merely critique the film direction.
The audience reflected on the contrast between the experiences of the women in the two settings of the film: the Durga Vahini camp and the Miss India pageant.
“[The film] takes the perspective of the women and each of their dreams and aspirations – the worlds they are born into – to look at how they are being exploited and whether they realize what they have gotten themselves into,” Ghajizai said. “We’re talking about how different the same woman would be if born into a different world. It shows how women are competing to succeed in these worlds and the dreams and aspirations they have as a result.”
The World Before Her also highlights the roles of the girls’ parents on the dreams and ambitions of their daughters. Both of them strive to live up to their families’ expectations while negotiating their own identities.
Gujral explained that “in the beginning you don’t understand why one of these girls wants to be Miss India or a Hindu nationalist, but you see that their parents’ aspirations for them are so important, which is a reflection of Indian society, and other societies in the world where what your parents want for you is so important.”
Shaista Asmi, a U3 Arts and Science student who participated in the discussion, echoed this view, saying that “both Ruhi and Prachi are reiterated as being creations or products of their parents. It is relatable, feeling so obligated to your parents and fulfilling their wishes.”
Although patriarchy manifests itself differently in the two settings, the audience agreed that the women in each setting are oppressed by a system that has demanded their adherence to a certain lifestyle or a standard of beauty, in exchange for parental approval and societal acceptance.
“We talked about how each of these women are shaped by the environment that they’ve grown up in and how they’re just trying to achieve what they can with the resources they have,” Gujral said.
The film raised a multitude of questions for the attendees, specifically around the negotiation of women’s identities within a patriarchal context.
“No matter what women want, it’s in this male dominated society,” Bhogal said. “So what would women want in a non-male dominated society?”
“It’s essential to ask these questions and talk about them,” Ghajizai said. “We wanted to bring together people and have them talk about it.”