• On the set of 'Court of Sex', a new web series tackling some of the most taboo issues in India, including menstruation, sex selection and masturbation. (SBS Dateline)
We go behind the scenes of controversial Indian shows which are breaking down cultural barriers by tackling on some of the country’s biggest taboos.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017 - 21:30

Can entertainment change traditional attitudes and bring about gender equality?

India is alongside the world’s top economies, but not long ago it was labelled the worst in which to be a female. Many women are victim to marital rape, acid attacks and forced child marriages, and face educational disadvantages and a steep gender pay gap.

These issues are known, though rarely discussed in popular culture. But this might be changing. In this week’s Dateline, we meet the producers and writers who are trying to fight entrenched cultural norms through unconventional storylines.

One such show is Court of Sex, which uses the setting of a courtroom drama to tackle many of these issues head on. Exploring taboos around menstruation, sex selection, virginity and masturbation, each episode tries to tackle forms of gender discriminationmore broadly. It’s partly educational, but produced as entertainment, and uses humour to navigate subject matter that for years has been considered too taboo and controversial to figure prominently in local TV and film.

Feroz Abbas Khan is the show’s director and says one of his ambitions is to challenge the grip India’s conservative patriarchy has on the country.

“The whole idea for entertainment education is to change behaviour, behaviour towards some social norms and behaviour to those things that are regressive and reassure them a more progressive way that they could emulate into their lives,” he tells Dateline reporter Calliste Weitenberg.

In India, traditions, cultural norms and ingrained ideas around gender roles often contribute to the justification of violence or abuse in the home. In a 2014 study by the United Nations Population Fund, 60 per cent of men admitted to using violence to establish dominance over their spouse, including kicking, beating, slapping, choking and burning. One third of men in eight Indian states admitted to having forced a sexual act on their wives or partners. Crimes against women are on the rise.

There have also been recent calls to outlaw marital rape, which cannot be prosecuted under the Indian Penal Code unless the victim is less than 15 years old. But now there are groups trying to block any moves to change the status quo.

Men’s rights groups are also on the rise, spreading across the country.

Dateline attended the weekly meeting of one such group, who declare ‘Men’s rights are human rights’. They blame feminist media and the other movements fighting against gender violence and discrimination, for turning society against men - ultimately criminalising them.

One of the attendees says he believes 99 per cent of domestic violence cases brought against men at the meeting are false claims, another denies marital rape can exist and that it is an idea created by feminist NGOs.

Girliyapa, a collective of women who produce videos on YouTube, are the kind of feminist media this group is referring to. They have amassed a huge following by making videos about women’s issues in Indian society – many of them attracting millions of views. Like Court of Sex, Girliyapa is using sthe power of online media platforms to tackle societal issues largely swept under the rug.

On the day Dateline filmed with them they were making a scripted video called ‘To Pee Or Not To Pee?’ It explores the disadvantage women face in public toilets, where there regularly aren’t enough toilets or they’re dirty – something that doesn’t affect men as much, as they can stand up. One of the group’s most popular videos looks at marital rape and sexual consent – it’s called ‘How I Raped Your Mother’.

“I think it's speaking to two kinds of female audiences,” says Tracy Dsouza, the channel head of Girliyapa. “One is the people who actually kind of already feel the same way and I think it's also being slightly aspirational for probably, like you mentioned, the rural areas and people…who've not seen things or life the way we have.

“I think it's slightly aspirational for them to feel that, ‘OK we can also do this’.”

While women in India still face serious discrimination in everyday life and significant career barriers, popular culture can act as an inspiration to fight for something more.

Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon, (or I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything), is one of Abbas Khan’s other shows and is broadcast on TV to an audience of around 400 million people – it’s one of the highest watched shows in the world, and is watched as much by men as it is by women.

The show is centred on a successful female doctor and follows her career and life. It’s a simple concept, but something rarely seen in popular Indian dramas.

One of the show’s fans is Ladkuwar Khushwaha, who Dateline met in a small village in the state of Madhya Pradesh. She says Dr Sneha, the show’s main character, has changed her views on what’s possible in her life.

“Just like her family, my family didn’t want me to study,” she says.

“After watching Dr Sneha I felt strong, thinking that I could do what she did, if she can come from a small place and become a doctor, then if I work as hard as Dr Sneha I can also become something.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


The Intern Diaries: Sex, Lies and Soap Operas
Dateline reporter Calliste Weitenberg talks about her latest film, which looks at Indian TV producers tackling sex, marital rape and acid attacks across the subcontinent.
The Indian show confronting marital rape head on
How one Bollywood director is using educational entertainment to bring men into the fold of feminism and gender equality.
Acid attacks are on the rise and toxic masculinity is the cause
Around 1,500 acid attacks are recorded around the globe each year, and 80 per cent of victims are women or girls.
Achieving gender equality in India: what works, and what doesn’t
Discrimination against women and girls is a pervasive and long-running phenomenon that characterises Indian society at every level.
‘How I raped your mother’, Indian filmmakers tackle sexism with edgy videos
From "The Period Song" to "How I Raped Your Mother", one all-women Indian production team is challenging conservative attitudes with no-holds-barred satirical videos that are causing a stir online.


Reporter: Calliste Weitenberg

Producer: Ronan Sharkey

Camera: Benjamin Foley

Local Producer: Simi Chakrabarti

Researcher: Hannah Berzins

Editor: David Potts

Translations: Aesh Rao, Paddy Sarkar


It's a scene that has all the signs of your average courtroom.

FEMALE LAWYER ACTOR (Translation):  Your Honour, my client Asha would like to divorce her husband.

MALE LAWYER ACTOR (Translation):  Objection my lord! This is an affront to the sentiments of men!

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN, DIRECTOR (Translation):  Cut, cut! Fix her hair.

But it's actually a TV set for a melodrama unlike any India has ever seen. In charge today is Feroz Abbas Khan, a famous Bollywood director.

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: The soap is a popular format, so we are trying to replicate that, so we'll be able to reach a large audience because they were actually coming thinking it's like a regular courtroom drama. And once they come in, they get something which they were not, they were not expecting.

He wants to use soap operas to tackle some of the country's biggest taboos, a huge mission in a deeply conservative society.

REPORTER:  And is this format risky, do you think?

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN:  Whether this is or not we don't know, I mean you know, it's only in the prospect of failure that perhaps something new can happen. Roll cameras, all cameras rolling! Action!

FEMALE LAWYER ACTOR (Translation):  Do you let your wife enter the kitchen during her periods?

MAN (Translation):  No.

FEMALE LAWYER ACTOR (Translation): During that time does she interact with her 6 year old son and 3 year old innocent daughter like she does normally?

MAN (Translation):  No, never.

The show is called Court of Sex. Part entertainment, part education, it uses humour to debunk traditional myths around anything from masturbation to female feticide.

FEMALE LAWYER ACTOR (Translation): Does your wife have permission to entre the household shrine during her periods?

MAN (Translation):  Absolutely not!

This episode is about women's periods.

FEMALE LAWYER (Translation): Why?

MAN (Translation):  What do you mean why? During periods women are impure. They are not pure. They are impure. You are also a woman, don’t you know?

FEMALE LAWYER (Translation): You mean Mr Murti, your wife becomes an untouchable in her own house during periods.

MALE LAWYER (Translation): Objection!

JUDGE (Translation):  Objection overruled.

Feroz is trying to tackle entrenched male points of view that see many women marginalised in India today. Something he wants to change.

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: So the whole idea for entertainment education is to change behaviour, behaviour towards some social norms and behaviour to those things that are regressive, and reassure them a more progressive way that they could emulate into their lives.

DOCTOR, ACTOR (Translation):  This cycle repeats every month. Remember that.

MALE LAWYER (Translation): Doctor, since ages we have believed that the blood flow during periods is impure. Is our belief wrong?

In each one of these scenes is a moment of awakening, a twist in one of the character's thinking, and Feroz is hoping that the same thing will take place in audiences right across India.

MAN (Translation):  Sarita, I love you.

But I can't help but wonder whether change will come this easily. India is a country where women's rights are largely unheard of. It's alongside the world's top economies, but not long ago it was labelled the worst in which to be a female. At risk of acid attacks, marital rape, child marriage and sex selection, women face an entrenched discrimination from birth. So can a soap opera really change people's views?

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN:  This is not done to either titillate or anything of that sort, we want to break those taboos. Topics that are not discussed openly, we want to bring that into open, we want to do it on a, on a, in a space where normally there is a silence.

For Feroz, the ultimate aim of Court of Sex is breaking the powerful grip of India's conservative patriarchy by giving women a voice on TV. I’ve come to a village outside Mumbai, where women's issues are barely discussed. To work, Court of Sex will need to reach places like this if it's to make any significant change.

GITA, TEACHER (Translation):  The blood comes slowly down and discharges and this is called the period.
It won’t be easy. Here, even the most basic education about female bodies is still considered taboo.

WOMAN (Translation):  When I first got my period, I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t tell my mother or anyone, I just changed my clothes and dealt with it myself.

The existence of this class is already pushing boundaries for the village, because old traditions mean periods are considered impure.

WOMAN (Translation):  The older generation followed all the taboos. Not to cook, not to touch the vessels. We are not allowed to go into the kitchen.

NGOs fill the gap out here - with no sex education in schools, they find groups of confused and nervous girls.

GITA (Translation):  You tell me… whatever you can tell me there is no need to feel shy about it. You say something.

Just getting these girls to talk about menstruation is pretty much impossible.

REPORTER:  Why is it embarrassing?

SCHOOLGIRL (Translation):  We have not shared such talks with anyone, so that is why we are a bit scared to say anything.

Breaking this silence is an enormous challenge. It makes Feroz's idea of bringing change through a TV soap seem impossible.

REPORTER: Have you ever seen anything on TV about it?

SCHOOLGIRL (Translation):  Yes, but we don’t know anything about it.

REPORTER: Do you guys have internet?

SCHOOLGIRL (Translation):  No, we don’t have the internet.

In the cities, phones and the internet are everywhere, giving young women access to new ideas about gender equality. Court of Sex is a web series - because the internet is where this new wave of feminist entertainment is really taking off. And online, it's for women, made by women. These girls are YouTube superstars.

SRISHTI SHRIVASTAVA, ACTRESS: So, with our videos we are just trying to tell the guy that “Listen, you are doing something wrong and we won’t shy away from it, we are going to talk to you about it.”

REPORTER:  And in this case it’s squatting.


REPORTER:  We’re looking you in the eye and telling you we can’t go to the toilet.

SRISHTI SHRIVASTAVA:  Yeah, we can’t go to the toilet because it’s dirty, you mother… You can stand and pee, we can’t.

Today they're making a comedy sketch about how difficult it is for women just to go to the toilet here.

TRACY DSOUZA, GIRLIYAPA EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: So, the video is called “To pee or not to pee.” So we are going to try to highlight the whole condition that we as girls kind of sometimes have to face is because the toilets are dirty or there aren’t enough toilets.

VIDEO (Translation):  And before sitting on a dirty toilet seat always, I’ll have to keep hovering for a whole minute and a half. Like… a penalty goal keeper.

DIRECTOR:  You have to do that, you have to put your butt out, up, up up. That, exactly that!

The group is called Girliyapa and their videos get millions of views online.

TRACY DSOUZA: So I think it's speaking to two kinds of female audiences. One is the people who actually kind of already feel the same way and I think it's also being slightly aspirational for probably like you mentioned, the rural areas and people who probably, who've not seen things or life the way we have. I think it's slightly aspirational for them to feel that ok we can also do this.

On a break from shooting, Tracey shows me one of Girliyapa's most successful and controversial videos. It's called "How I Raped Your Mother."


GIRL (Translation):  It’s rape, papa. I am being raped!

FATHER (Translation):  Who raped you? I won’t let him get away with it!

Shot like a sitcom, complete with laugh track, the video is a disturbing look at patriarchal attitudes in the family.

GIRL (Translation):  Yes, papa, my husband Arun, rapes me. Marital rape.

REPORTER: Is marital rape a concept here – is it illegal?

TRACY DSOUZA: No it's not, and I think it's not a concept, it’s not acknowledged.

WOMAN: It’s not considered rape if you’re married.

WOMAN 2: It's supposed to be a woman’s duty to satisfy her husband after he comes back from work, so rape, even without her consent is considered to be her duty.

TRACY DSOUZA:  Consent does not exist here. It's not about ok are you ok with it or no; it's like ok I want to do it. You have to be ok with it.

A recent study by the UN's Population Fund found a third of men in eight Indian states admitted to having forced a sexual act upon their wives or partners at some point in their lives. Often the abuse is explained away as tradition. Men's groups are now rallying across the country trying to undo the inroads shows like Court of Sex and Girliyapa are trying to make.

MAN: In Mumbai, the Twitter army is around 170 people, on Twitter. A woman can do anything in India, the only thing is she requires to be a woman.

Groups like this blame progressive TV shows for turning society against men - and say the programs encourage too many rights and freedoms.

MAN:  Being a woman I can abuse anybody, I can say anything that comes into my mind, I can say anything negative about religion and I can get away with it, but being a man, can you take that liberty? No. Can you do that? Can you have that right or guts or strength, to say something wrong against somebody and get away with it? No.

Every week they meet to support each other in their battles against feminist ideas.

MAN:  Do you think the media is not paying that attention to men’s problems?  Just because they are men, they are neglected.

Everyone here says feminism is criminalising men – encouraging women to lay fake charges against them.

MAN:  How many of us have domestic violence case? Everbody are accused. Anybody has 376…rape case on them?

MAN 2:  Yes, I have. Only one.

MAN 3:  And I also have 377… unnatural sex.

MAN:  Did you commit any crimes, any cases against you before marriage?

GROUP:  No, never.

MAN: So suddenly after doing this marriage, everybody has turned out to be a criminal.

MAN 4:  The biggest crime which we have done is to get married, with an Indian woman.

MAN: Men’s rights are…?

GROUP:  Human rights!

MAN: See you next week.

GROUP: Thank you!

As the group packs up, I realise just how difficult change will be.

REPORTER: Do you think that marital rape is a concept that exists?

MAN: No, I don’t think so, but most feminist NGOs are trying to bring this concept into India.

REPORTER: Are you saying that all of those cases are fake? They're not real?

MAN 2:  Uh, I would say that 99% of all of the cases are fake.  99%, exactly. All of the cases are fake.

REPORTER: What needs to be changed in the media? What narratives?

MAN 3:  All this femini… whatever is in their head. All feminism, that has to be changed, that has to come out.

Because of this feminism, everything is gone.

To really understand just how deep these attitudes run and how far shows like Court of Sex have to go to overturn them, I’m meeting a survivor of a rising form of assault.

KAVITA, ACID ATTACK SURVIVOR (Translation):  In 2009, my husband attacked me with acid. It was 5.30 in the morning when he attacked me. I stayed in the hospital for three and a half months. I wanted to kill myself but as a human being I can’t do what he did to me.

Kavita was just 16 when she was married off to her husband. An alcoholic, her husband felt threatened by Kavita working, grew jealous and attacked her when she was just 21.

REPORTER: Do you think he resented the amount of freedom you had?

KAVITA (Translation):  Yes, he was jealous that I work and stand on my own two feet, it is a man’s world – they are at the centre. They feel it is up to them to provide for women, they don’t want women to work, they feel disrespected. The problem was that I moved around freely, because of his suspicious nature he destroyed my life.

There's so much stigma attached to her injuries, Kavita now can’t get a job or afford to live on her own.

WOMAN (Translation):  Everything is Rs100?

KAVITA (Translation):  Yes, everything. This one is Rs150, but for you it is Rs 100.

Together with her son, she's forced to live with her husband's family. Her son Ritchie is now 11 years old, and she says he doesn’t need a soap opera or web series to teach him how to respect women.

KAVITA (Translation):  My son has seen what happened in our family. He’s not like my husband. God willing, he won’t be like him. My son is different. He’s kind. He has supported me. I’m alive today because of him. 

Kavita's not convinced a TV show will make any real difference.

KAVITA (Translation):  If there are such TV shows as you are talking about, and the men watch it, change is possible. But if they don’t watch, it’s not.

Back on the set of Court of Sex, director Feroz Abbas Khan is pushing on with another episode.

MALE LAWYER (Translation):  If a wife cannot produce a son, then the husband is entitled to remarry. It’s a wife’s duty to produce a son!

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN:  We realise that if the men change, the process of change will be much faster. And that's why our program's also targeted towards men.

By taking conservative fears seriously, Court of Sex tries to reveal just how absurd they really are and help men see that equality isn’t a threat to family values.

HUSBAND (Translation):  A woman has no right to point a finger at her husband, what will happen to the concept of a dutiful wife?

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: Those conservative ideas also come from the fact, they feel that the family is a very powerful unit, and the family can only be together if women are subservient.

HUSBAND (Translation):  Your Honour, I want to apologise to my wife.

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN:  If men get sensitised, they become partners of change, then I think we have a very sensitive society, a more progressive society and that's what I think we were aiming at.

Court of Sex is actually a spinoff of a much bigger soap opera that's already achieving phenomenal success. This show's reaching an audience of 400 million people across TV and radio.

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN:  It's called Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon - "I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything." And that's the woman. And that's you, Meinal? "Can do anything" is the right term. A doctor... Bit of an activist also.

Airing on India's public broadcaster, the soap has just been named one of the world's most watched television programs.

VIDEO:  We were like little birds ready to take off into the air.

The show set up a telephone line asking viewers to call with their own stories about how it had changed them.

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: And it's quite staggering is that the data tells us that almost 50% men were watching. And I think that to me is a huge success of this program.

For Meinal Vaishnav, playing the lead role in a TV soap now comes with serious responsibility.

MEINAL SHEKHAR VAISHNAV, ACTRESS:  I can't be Meinal anymore, I always have to be conscious about maintaining Sneha's image because people are so inspired, they are looking up to Dr Sneha, they want to be like her, they want to learn everything from her, and not just women, also men.

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: Stories are equipment of life, that you somehow get these things from stories, and then you, you sort of absorb it and then you get empowered with those stories, so then you can understand life, and understand relationships and can take it forward.

Some of the most powerful calls lodged from fans have come the heartland of India. Before I leave, Feroz tells me to drop in to a tiny village in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. 22-year-old Ladkuwar Khushwaha is the first girl here to make it to college.

LADKUWAR KHUSHWAHA (Translation):  So Sneha’s story seemed similar to my life story. After watching Dr Sneha I felt strong, thinking that I could do what she did, if she can come from a small place and become a doctor, then if I work as hard as Dr Sneha I can also become something.

Ladkuwar has faced threats from some in her village – for shunning the traditional responsibilities of a girl. But even though they may not be ready for change, thanks to a soap opera, now her biggest supporter is her dad.

LADKUWAR KHUSHWAHA (Translation):  Just like her family, my family didn’t want me to study. In the program the character of Dr Sneha had to struggle a lot and had many difficulties. She had to fight for herself. So I explained to my parents how much a girl can achieve. And with her family’s support she can do much more.

Ladkuwar isn’t alone. Not far from her is Sunil, a musician and father, he's also an avid watcher of Feroz's TV show. He's now turned some of his music towards feminism.

SUNIL (Translation):   I invoke the goddess of earth, so that she comes to everyone as a song, so that men stop thinking that a girl can’t do anything. Men don't understand the difficulty and pain that women go through. Men don’t understand women. She is a goddess and she is the centre of a family.

Back at home, I meet his wife Rajani and she tells me about some small but important changes in their relationship.

RAJANI (Translation):  I used to wonder how I got married to him. Before, he used to get angry and scold me at times. Before he saw the serial he had no idea what a wife means, after watching the serial he understood. I am a woman like Dr Sneha, so I too can do anything. So watching the program has made the situation better.

Sunil's now teaching his daughter to read, which in villages like this is usually something only boys learn to do.

SUNIL (Translation):  This is a horse, where is the horse?  That is a deer and there is the horse.

These may be modest changes, but Sunil's daughter is living proof of how a single positive role model on TV can spark changes that could last for generations.

FEROZ ABBAS KHAN:  It could just be a kind of a spark. It could ignite something in the minds and hearts of the people, so that there is a chain reaction to it. I believe that we are just a catalyst.

calliste weitenberg

story producer
ronan sharkey

benjamin foley

local producer
simi chakrabarti

hannah berzins

story editor
david potts

aesh rao
paddy sarkar

10th October 2017