“Terrible things are happening to women and girls across my country… and the media doesn’t care. It’s only interested in the trans issue.”
Vaishnavi Sundar, an Indian feminist filmmaker, has long been furious at the way women and girls are treated in India. Not only do many of them live in fear of rape and sexual assault, but there is still a staggering gender disparity when it comes to education and workplace equality. This, combined with honour killings; abusive menstruation huts; child marriage and the dowry system, leaves many women longing for a way out.
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When Sundar set up her charity Women Making Films (WMF) in 2015, in response to widespread sexism from male film technicians, she was celebrated as a darling of the liberal Indian elite. “Years before Hollywood paid attention to this issue, I encouraged women to work with other female filmmakers and technicians,” she tells me. Yet in 2020 she became a pariah in the film world for a series of tweets questioning gender identity. One of those was: “There are no identities. There is only sex. Male and female.”
She was swiftly punished for her defiance. The film she had spent three years making, But What Was She Wearing? — which is about sexual harassment towards Indian women in the workplace — was pulled just before its screening in New York in February 2020 because the Polis Project had deemed it transphobic. “To block a screening of a film about an urgent topic that affects women across all social strata in society is obscene,” Sundar says. “And all because I say sex is real, and men in women-only spaces can pose a danger to women.”
Since then, Sundar has been ghosted by several liberal media outlets that once asked her to write. “Friends have completely abandoned me; film friends who used to collaborate with me have all stopped responding to my messages. Screenings of my films that used to happen regularly have all been called off even when the film is not about the transgender issue.”
With the well of donors drying up, Sundar began to crowdfund her work. By January 2021, she had raised enough to write and direct a four-part documentary series called Dysphoric: Fleeing Womanhood Like a House on Fire, which interviewed women who regretted transitioning. It was then that she began to see the spread of gender ideology in India as part of a wider international context, with a universal language and terminology. “I learnt that it is just as pervasive in India as it is in the rest of the world, maybe India was just a few years behind,” she says. “I wanted to shine a light on what’s going on in Anglo-Saxon countries and consider how this might impact developing countries in about five or six years.”
It was while working on Dysphoric, that Sundar started wondering about the suffering experienced by the families of trans women. “I was starting to wonder what it feels like for a wife when their husband announces that they are going to live as a woman, and they are just expected to affirm it.” It was then the idea for her latest documentary, Behind the Looking Glass, was born. The pioneering film tells the story of 18 “trans widows” from Europe, Asia, and America whose male partners transitioned and left misery in their wake. Eight of these women have to remain anonymous because of potential danger from ex-partners. As one interviewee says: “This is the untold story no one wants to hear.”
The story is one of humiliation and sexual abuse. What unites all these women is the sense that the person they had married had disappeared, and been replaced with a totally different individual, with a new name. Some women in the film speak of being pressurised into validating their husband’s “womanhood” and being told they were in a “lesbian relationship”. Then there are accounts of the horror of discovering a male partner dressed in female underwear, and of husbands going outside dressed in “pornified” feminine frippery. “These men often force their wives into unspeakable pornified sexual violence”, says Vaishnavi.
There are notably no Indian trans widows interviewed in the film — but this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. (Instead, the film conveys their predicament through images and voiceovers.) “The regions in India where women experience the life of a trans widow are mostly rural,” explains Sundar. “‘Kothis’ — intact males who live a double life, one with family, children and a home, and the other with a cross-dressing fetish, where they may or may not prostitute themselves — are largely prevalent in rural India.” This means it is more difficult for trans widows to speak publicly about their ordeals for fear of shame and ostracisation. It is also harder for them to get a divorce, as it is considered a mark of shame in rural communities.
Many of the women whom Sundar interviewed feel extremely isolated. Their friends don’t dare to say, “That’s horrible, you should just leave”, because the cost — in terms of social capital — is too high. Instead, they have to affirm the husband’s choice and say: “Your husband is stunning and brave — why don’t you just cooperate and become a lesbian now?”
The overwhelming majority of stories from the widows describe husbands enjoying the act of “wearing a woman”, says Sundar. In other words, they are deriving some kind of sexual pleasure from dressing up as women. But the women she has spoken to are no longer willing to keep up the facade of a happy, progressive married life; they are saying, “No, my husband is not stunning and brave.”
Sundar is also interested in the tragic fate of their children. Some are being forced to call their father “mother”; others have experienced being “breastfed” by them. One woman talks about the pleasure her husband takes in “passing” when he is out and about dressed as a woman and posing as a mother. Sundar believes that what excites these men is the idea of having a child and of “being a lesbian mother” — rather than the child itself. The child is simply an accessory to help realise their fantasy.
Not only has the Indian legal system failed to stop violence against women, but the entire apparatus, along with much of Indian society, appears to have capitulated to trans ideology. In February this year, a man was sentenced to seven years for raping a minor in 2016. But because he had transitioned following the rape, female pronouns were used to refer to him in court, and he was subsequently placed in a women’s prison. “Men are being given even more opportunities and excuses when it comes to rape and sexual assault,” says Sundar. Meanwhile, even though many women do not even have a functioning toilet in their homes, laws and policies are being introduced that allow men to enter the few public toilets available to women.
Meanwhile, in a country where gay and lesbian marriage is still illegal, “upper-class so-called feminists have become fixated with trans and non-binary marriage rights”. “They’ve removed the words ‘same-sex’ from this entire debate.”
The trans lobby’s latest tactic, according to Sundar, is to compare the battle for trans rights to the dismantling of the caste system in India — both being about “freeing individuals from the cage into which they were born”. She says that many trans activists have “very cleverly, actually strategically” bound up the issue with that of caste. Yet it takes quite a leap of logic to compare the two: “Caste oppression is the most sinister form of human discrimination ever.”
Dalit women, previously known as “untouchables”, are among the most maltreated women in the world. Not only are they part of India’s lowest class, but they are also considered inferior for their gender, and so are often raped, beaten and abused by men across all caste groups. And yet, Sundar tells me incredulously, there is now a group named “Dalit Trans Lives Matter”, which claims to be an even more oppressed group than Dalit women.
Sundar despairs at the ideological capture of the LGBT and feminist movements in India, which she would ideally like to be working alongside to achieve women’s liberation. Instead, so-called liberal feminists are busy defending pornography, the sex trade, and trans ideology rather than oppressed women. “These women dare to claim that the campaigns to end male violence towards women and girls are a ‘Western import’,” says Sundar. “These upper-class women ignore the fact that rape and domestic abuse is a fact of life for so many women, and that pole dancing is not going to liberate them.”
In this way, India’s struggle is not dissimilar to the West’s. “Women and girls are dying, are raped, on a daily basis,” says Sundar. “We are in a state of emergency and need a united front to even begin to solve the problem of male violence.” With so much work left to do to improve the lives of Indian women, she doesn’t think this is the moment for a feminist civil war.