Sexual abuse is rampant globally and yet, usually, people are uncomfortable discussing it. In some cultures, it is taboo to even mention such abuse; often, to raise a voice against it is considered airing dirty laundry in public. South Asian culture is one such culture. When people choose not to talk about abuse in their society, they become complicit in oppression. The needed response is to collectively raise our voices against systemic gendered violence. That is what the Pooni sisters from Indo-Canadian community in greater Vancouver did: they decided to tell their story. Because We are Girls, a documentary produced by Selwyn Jacob and directed by Baljit Sangra, reveals the horrors of incest and child sex abuse as three siblings come together to fight against their abuser.
I had the opportunity to watch Because We are Girls as part of a documentary film festival, KDOCS, which exclusively focuses on social justice cinema. Centring on the stories of three sisters, Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana, the film charts the journey of the Pooni family from India to British Columbia in Canada. The Pooni family lived a happy life in a small town in Canada until a male relative from India moved in with them and changed the lives of the three young girls forever. The sisters were all sexually abused by this male cousin from India for several years, but they each stayed silent during the years of their abuse and only became aware of their shared experience as adults. When they realized that they were dealing with the same shared trauma, they decided to tell their story and bring the abuser to justice. However, the fight for justice is anything but easy. Even in countries such as Canada which foster an image of equity and justice to the rest of the world, combating sexual violence is an uphill battle. It is widely known that most of the judges, especially male judges, are not trained to deal with cases of sexual abuse and the system tends to place the onus on survivors to prove that they were abused.
The film captures the Pooni sisters’ dealings with the Canadian court systems, the frustrations they face, and the strengths they display throughout their legal conflict. Perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of their fight is the active lack of support from their own parents and certain members of the community who believe their quest for justice merely brings shame to the family and community. Their disappointment at their parents’ failure not only to protect them when they were children, but again to shirk their duties and responsibility as parents of adult women is heart-breaking. Suggestions by relatives that even as young girls aged ten to twelve, they were somehow responsible for the abuse they experienced, is sadly all too common. But the Pooni sisters are committed to their fight not only for their own healing but for the sake of the next generation of girls who will continue to face the abuse and stigma if somebody does not come forward to stop the cycle of sexual violence. In fact, the Pooni women, two of whom are now mothers themselves, feel that they owe it to their daughters to come forward and fight.
The film, as it moves forward building a collage of interviews, photographs, home videos, and scenes from Bollywood films, shows the long-term trauma resulting from sexual abuse. As the Pooni sisters were growing up, their own comprehension of female pride and honour was shaped by Bollywood films. It is no secret that Bollywood films, by and large, uphold Indian social ideals of female purity and chastity. In fact, female characters in Bollywood are too often reduced to stereotypical representation of good woman versus bad woman. Films which have represented emancipated women and explored stories of women’s liberation have been the exception to the rule. The Pooni sisters, through their exposure to such films, and other socio-cultural factors, had developed an understanding that silence was the best tool and speaking up against abuse would be met with resistance. Nevertheless, together they find the resolve to break the silence.
This 1 hour and 25-minute-long documentary is a must-watch for anybody who has been following the recent developments of the sexual abuse cases of Harvey Weinstein and many others and the #MeToo movement more generally. The film is a reminder that the fight against gendered violence is ongoing and that the more women and victims of gender-sexual violence tell their stories, the more the society will learn how widespread abuse is and the more resounding the call to end these oppressions will become.
The Pooni sisters have been accompanying Baljit Sangra, the director, at many of the screenings and speaking about their ordeal. Sangra is a Vancouver-based filmmaker whose films have focused on South Asian communities in Canada. Sangra has to be commended for bringing this empathetic story to audiences worldwide and being a torch-bearer for justice. Needless to say, watching this film is an emotionally draining experience. I would be surprised if many viewers get through the film without shedding a tear or two. On one hand, one cries with the Pooni sisters as they bare their lives for the film’s audience; on the other hand, one cries with sheer joy to see their resilience. One must make a nod to the courage and strength of the Pooni sisters.