Image Screenshot via Petals in the Dust Instagram page
Violence against women is not a rare social phenomenon; it’s a sordid, and prevalent occurrence that exists everywhere on the globe today. Propagated through the vast inequalities that exist between men and women around the world, in its most severe form violence against women does not only contribute to global social and economic inequality, but can actually lead to “Gendercide,” the systematic killing of members of a specific sex. In countries like China and India, this is already happening, and those with female bodies, from infants to adults, are the victims.
Nyna Pais-Caputi, director and producer of the documentary film that addresses Gendercide in India, “Petals In The Dust: The Endangered Indian Girls” is working to change this. During the week of the film’s premier in the Bay Area, I had the opportunity to speak with Nyna about why she chose to make this film, and what she wants people to learn from it.
WYV: So, tell me a bit about what inspired you to make this film.
Nyna: “I moved to the United States in 2002, to study at the New York Film Academy, and I had always wanted to do a social justice documentary. I had originally wanted to do something on gun violence, maybe domestic abuse, but then my husband and I took to a trip to India because we wanted to adopt a child. The woman at the orphanage told us that there used to be a lake on the property where mothers would drown their infants upon discovering that they were girls. I was just shocked by this information, and so I began to research this epidemic, and learned that in the past century alone over fifty million girls have been eliminated from India’s population through infanticide, sex-selective abortions, dowry deaths and brutal gang rapes for the simple fact that they were female. I decided this was what I was going to make a film about.”
WYV: The film focuses on Infanticide, but also addresses Gendercide. Why did you choose to focus on both?
Nyna: The film was originally only going to focus only on infanticide, but I started to also focus on Gendercide because it represented more wholly the violence and fear that exists at every stage of life for women, not just what happens to them when they are infants. If they are not eliminated as fetuses, they still risk being killed as infants; if they survive infancy, they still are in danger of being sold or trafficked as young girls; and if they make it to become women, than they still face discrimination, are in constant danger of being raped, abused, having acid thrown at them, or even being murdered in the streets. It is a never-ending cycle of violence for women. I addressed Gendercide in India because the violence and fear of being murdered never goes away for women.
WYV: You’ve described your experience in interviews as not typical of most women’s in India, that your father made you feel “privileged to be a girl.” Do you think that this shaped your vantage point while making this film?
Nyna: Yes, well, my father always wanted four girls, but he ended up with just my brother and myself. I think what was really important was that he never made me feel less than my brother. He told me that I could do anything. He taught me everything; how to save money, how to invest, he taught my about physics and medicine. He was an engineer, and always wanted me to learn everything I could, including math and science. I also had a mother that was very supportive. This made a huge difference to me, and how I saw myself in the world. This gave me a different perspective in making the film, because I could see the distinction in how women were treated in other parts of the country.
WYV: Do you think that home life plays a large role in the progression of violence against women?
Nyna: Absolutely, it plays a huge role. We see in India that education of these issues is not working. Laws against these types of violence are not working. We need to focus on the next generation to teach them these things, but how can we expect children to take a gender studies class and learn from it if they are going home and being told that this is not true? We need to teach boys about the dangers of this patriarchal society, teach them about gender equality, and that they are not higher than a woman in society. We also need to teach girls to stand up for themselves. We need to teach girls that they deserve to have equal rights. We need to get boys and girls involved, but also the parents too. Everyone needs to play a role in the solution.
WYV: Did you find that religion had a strong influence on gendered violence?
Nyna: Not really. I really found that violence against women is linked to many things beyond religion, I found it present across many religions, and to me it seemed to be more deeply rooted in culture. Gendered violence really transcends religion, social status, class, and what region you live in. It is just present everywhere in India.
WYV: Was there anything particularly surprising that you earned while making this film?
Nyna: Yes, there were many things. I was really surprised to learn how prevalent serious violence and abuse are among all classes of women in India. You know, we imagine it as this terrible thing that happens in rural villages to illiterate women, but it is also happening in urban areas, in wealthy families, and to extremely educated women. It shocked me to interview educated, and extremely wealthy women who were still facing all these issues. I was also very surprised to see how many of these issues were prevalent in Indian communities outside of India, like Canada, and the U.S. Within in the Indian diaspora, we not only see things like rape, and domestic violence, but I also encountered deeply rooted patriarchal beliefs, even in the U.S. Women still had a desperate desire to give birth to sons, and if they gave birth to a girl, they would still be shamed, like, they must have done something wrong. I spoke with many organizations that work to stop gendered violence, and many of them repeated that this abuse often starts after a woman gives birth to a baby girl.
WYV: What do you want people to take away most from this film?
Nyna: I want this film to serve as many things, but I really want it to empower women and girls in India to speak up, talk about their experiences, and stand up for themselves. A lot of the stories in this film have happy endings, and I wanted to highlight these to show other girls in similar situations that you can do something about what you are going through, and I want to give them the courage to speak out about their experiences, and seek help. I also want people to really support the organizations that are featured in the documentary. The first step is to see the film. And then, I want people to host a screening in their community. There can be no progress if there is no discussion. But before the discussion can start, one must be aware of the issues.
Petals in The Dust: The Endangered Indian Girls will be have its final Bay Area premier at 7:00PM on Thursday, June 18 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets can be purchased online. If you cannot attend, you also have the option to host a screening at your school, community center, church, library or other location. Please follow this link for more details. Go to the film’s website and check out the partners, and organizations that are featured in the film. Many are in desperate need of your monetary support, or support through volunteering, and promotion on social media. There is no positive act too small, you can make a difference. Please support this film in any way possible, and remember, ending the cycle of gendered violence will require the participation of everyone – especially you.
Haley de Genova is a UC Berkeley graduate, where she studied Ethnic Studies and Human Rights. She is a legal assistant for a non-profit in SF, and in her free time enjoys hiking in the East Bay regional parks, local politics, fighting for human rights, and shark week. She resides in Oakland.