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In 'To Kill a Tiger,' a father stands by his assaulted daughter. Oscar, stand by them.

It’s a universal truth, commonly unacknowledged, that there's an implicit set of rules women are conditioned to follow from a young age in order to remain safe. For centuries, we’ve been taught to adjust to a patriarchal society – in which we are not considered fundamentally equal – by changing our behavior or appearance to blend in, thwart unsolicited attention and avoid danger.

This is how it has been, but I refuse to believe this is how it must be.

As Oscars voting begins Thursday, I urge members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to consider the nominated documentary "To Kill a Tiger," which provides a stereoscopic view into the intersectional manifestations of sexual violence against women and girls in India.

The documentary follows Kiran, 13, and her family in their village over more than a year. The opening scene, filmed in 2017, features a close-up of Kiran braiding her hair with colorful ribbons while a voice-over describes how she had been sexually assaulted by three men after a family wedding – one of the assailants was her cousin.

"To Kill a Tiger," nominated for an Oscar for best documentary, follows Kiran, 13, and her family in a village in India after she had been sexually assaulted by three men in 2017. The film's website says it's about "a father whose love for his daughter forces a social reckoning that will reverberate for years to come."
"To Kill a Tiger," nominated for an Oscar for best documentary, follows Kiran, 13, and her family in a village in India after she had been sexually assaulted by three men in 2017. The film's website says it's about "a father whose love for his daughter forces a social reckoning that will reverberate for years to come."

A woman is raped every 16 minutes somewhere in India

Though legislation around women’s rights and sexual assault in India has progressed in the past decade – spurred on, in part, by horrifying high-profile cases that sparked worldwide outrage – checks and balances are seemingly nonexistent with an overarching culture change lagging behind.

In 2011, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, a woman was raped every 20 minutes in India. By 2021, this rate increased to a woman every 16 minutes with a total of 31,677 cases registered, or 87 cases a day.

According to the nongovernmental organization Equality Now, most cases are never officially reported due to attitudes toward police officers who had turned away survivors, bribery and corruption, intrusive medical examinations, pressure to compromise or settle cases, low conviction rates and lack of support services for survivors.

Perhaps this is why I was taken aback by the fact that in "To Kill a Tiger," Ranjit, a farmer, chose to support his daughter and filed a court case the very next day.

In the Oscar-nominated documentary "To Kill a Tiger," Ranjit, a farmer in India, chooses to support his daughter after she was sexually assaulted and filed a court case the very next day.
In the Oscar-nominated documentary "To Kill a Tiger," Ranjit, a farmer in India, chooses to support his daughter after she was sexually assaulted and filed a court case the very next day.

In an interview about her documentary, Emmy- and Oscar-nominated Indian Canadian director Nisha Pahuja told me: “If you think about the history of how change happens, there’s always that one person that’s willing to take a stand and speak the truth. That’s Ranjit. In his community, and even in India, there are so few men that actually will stand by their daughters. And here’s this man that did it.”

Meanwhile, Ranjit and his family experienced backlash from other village members for disrupting the peace and going against the status quo. What was fascinating, though not surprising, were the justifications that the villagers – both men and women – used to excuse the predators for their actions. It was almost as if they had blinders on: They didn’t want to see what they didn’t want to see.

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While most of the villagers were sympathetic – or at least seemed uncomfortable – by what had occurred, the majority thought that prosecution was unjust, that the village dynamics were in jeopardy, that the teen shouldn’t have been out past midnight, and that the easiest way to remove the “stain” on her was to marry her off to one of the men who assaulted her.

This type of groupthink is lethal if left unchecked, its adverse effects permeating for generations.

'I said I would kill the tiger'

At one point in the documentary, the female defense attorney representing the three accused men says in Hindi, “This isn’t the West. Here, I can’t even trust my own son,” implying that the onus is on village girls and women to keep themselves safe.

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Regarding such victim blaming that allows individuals to operate without fear of consequence, best-selling author Rupi Kaur told me, “The first thought shouldn’t be to defend the perpetrator, whether they’re a man or woman – the first thought should always be to ask the survivor what they need and hold the perpetrator responsible."

Kaur is among the executive producers of "To Kill a Tiger." Others include writer/actor Mindy Kaling, actor Dev Patel and surgeon/writer Atul Gawande.

“Unless men become increasingly involved, nothing is going to change,” added director Pahuja, who’s made a career out of advocating for gender parity and human rights. “For too long, as women, we’ve been carrying the burden of equality on our shoulders when we aren’t the problem. The issue is patriarchy and masculinity.”

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But to dismantle an entire system, there must be a revolution of consciousness – one where human beings recognize their individual roles in upholding a patriarchal society that tolerates sexual violence and oppresses women.

“In order to reduce sexual assault we all need to be a part of the conversation. We all live in a shared society, which means all members have to join the cause to stop the violence,” Kaur said. “How can we expect half the population to empathize with survivors if they’re not at the table discussing with us?”

Isha Sharma is a first-generation Indian American writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Isha Sharma is a first-generation Indian American writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

In the final minutes of "To Kill a Tiger," we witness the traumatized Kiran turn hopeful and her exhausted father in buoyant repose. Despite all odds, together, they’ve won: After a 14-month trial, the perpetrators were sentenced to 25 years in prison.

With a hint of pride and a glimmer of a smile, Ranjit states, “I said I would kill the tiger, and I did.”

In an Oscars’ race where large budget films regularly dominate, a rare cinematic triumph that showcases what happens when we believe in girls and women warrants center stage.

Isha Sharma, a first-generation Indian American writer based in New York City, is a Case Western Reserve University and Georgetown University graduate. Follow her on Instagram: @isha__sharma

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscar voters, stand with 'To Kill a Tiger' against sexual assault