The World Before Her: Duelling Ideas of Indian Womanhood

March 16, 2022

Still from
The World Before Her
Ella Hardy

"As much as I love and I respect my culture, I think of myself as a very modern young girl, and I want freedom," Ruhi Singh declares in the opening scenes of Director Nisha Pahuja’s thought-provoking film ‘The World Before Her’. The film documents two opposing worlds: in one Ruhi vies for the coveted title of ‘Miss India’, in the other, Hindu nationalist and drill sergeant Prachi Trivedi trains girls to resist the influence of the West.

The documentary gives an exclusive insight into the world of Hindu nationalist training camps, called Durga Vahini. In one of them, we find Prachi Trivedi, a young woman prepared to do whatever it takes to protect Hindu culture against outside influence. "I don't like those girlish type girls speaking all nonsense. Even if she's not physically strong she should be mentally mature,” says Prachi. Yet the contradictions for Prachi loom large. Combat training defies traditional gender roles and Prachi’s father demands that she follow the traditional path of marriage and family: "I don't know what she wants and it's not important. Marriage is her duty" he says.

Meanwhile, in Bombay, Ruhi Singh prepares for her debut at Miss India 2011. She portrays herself as a modern Indian woman, able to enjoy her youth and achieve her dreams of winning the beauty pageant. However she appears sure that all roads lead to marriage: "So right now, I just want to enjoy my age and whatever I can achieve I will achieve”. Ruhi’s mother supports her daughter’s move to the city as she says the women of her native Rajasthan are generally poor and forced to stay in the home. Yet even in Bombay, a world away from the Durga Vahini training camp, the ‘bikini round’ of the Miss India pageant is held behind closed doors after threats from Hindu extremists. 

While India has made significant progress on gender equality legislation, issues such as child marriage, violence against women and femicide remain a reality of life. Researchers have projected that because of the cultural preference for boys over girls, female births in India will fall short by 6.8 million from 2017 to 2030. It is clear that the problem of femicide shapes the lives of many Indian women. Prachi argues that her father’s abusive behavior is justified because “He has given me birth. Knowing that I am a girl child he let me live.” Former Miss India Pooja Chopra also details how her mother left her father after he insisted that she kill Pooja, being the second girl born into the family.

The film’s two case studies suggest that freedoms for women in India are conditional. While some avenues such as the beauty industry can offer women power on par with men, the pressure to marry and follow a traditional path remains high. For Prachi, her path is predestined; “You have to live this life. You have to get married. When you get married you're going to give birth to children and this generation is going to get good teachings from us...But being a girl you can't do anything so I have to.” For Ruhi, making her parents proud is paramount. “If they created me it's my duty to work as hard as possible…you've not just added some waste into the environment, it's something worthwhile."

‘The World Before Her’ is part of THE WHY Foundation’s ‘Film of the Month’, available for free on YouTube for the month of March. Check out the film here. 

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