On reading American student RoseChasm’s terrified litanies of sexual harassment, rape and stalking during her experiences in a study abroad program in India, I was angry and outraged on her behalf, and empathetic based on my own experiences in India. But I was also alarmed that her account creates a deeply racialized “us and them” zone between the U.S. and India (and other countries of the global South). There are 1,000+ responses to her article on CNN iReport, divided between those agreeing that women are under attack in India’s public spaces and those attacking RoseChasm for ignoring U.S. violence and blaspheming India. A tough feminist dilemma troubles me here: We were faithfully taught in anti-violence work to attend to RoseChasm’s harm, to support her courage in speaking out (my distress viscerally compounded by having been faculty leader of a student trip to India), but how can we not also attend to the ways such stories get used and circulated?
There is more than ample evidence to support RoseChasm’s experiences of predatory spaces, narrated in everything from student placards earlier this year to decades of legal testimony to hushed girl exchanges at slumber parties and during school recesses. Few of us women (and often men gendered feminine) who have lived in India do not have battle scars of our own, outrageous stories told with survivor hilarity about neighbors, teachers, relatives, buses, trains, movie halls, markets, police stations. Often these experiences are invisible—such as alighting from gropey bus rides with male friends who have had an entirely unremarkable sojourn. Daily survival checklists help women survive these war zones, as this recent post chillingly tabulates.
RoseChasm’s fellow student, “twoseat,” wrote a counterpiece describing the kind and sympathetic men she met during the trip, as have we all. Many Indian men have eloquently responded to RoseChasm’s story with sorrow and guilt. But that does not mean that these non-predators do not benefit socially and economically from male domination of public space. To notice a sharply gendered world is not the same as condemning people based on race, as twoseat alleges; men are privileged to be largely free of rape culture, whether or not they are rapists.
Then there are vulnerabilities related to age, ethnicity, race or caste. Racialized rapes of women deemed to be from Northeastern India have been rampant. There are a thousand reported cases of rape against Dalit women each year, based on the idea that the women are available for upper-caste men’s sexual consumption. White women (like RoseChasm) are also marked as targets, though it is fruitless to speculate whether their sexual objectification is related to postcolonial retaliation, stereotypes of the “West” or perceptions of the desirable body in global media.
So RoseChasm is not incorrect to feel hunted, but her words unfortunately line up with global power grids. She depicts India as irredeemably patriarchal, with no nod to the long history of Indian feminists protesting against sexual violence in public spaces, homes and by police and military. By default, the U.S. gets seen as a haven of gender equity. We forget that U.S. campuses have four times the number of sexual assaults that off-campus sites do, that domestic violence kills in record numbers and that the U.S. military commits rapes in huge numbers with little impunity. RoseChasm’s testimony may be a terrified survivor’s account, but it reinforces ideas of places like India as primitive frontiers, desensitizing us to violence launched against other countries with the alibi of culture.
RoseChasm wants to be invisible, neutral, “just a person” in India, but the very fact of her presence on a study abroad trip underlines a one-sided privilege: Students on such programs can travel to others’ lives, gawk at them and pretend to live their lives for a brief moment, with little recognition that people may be looking or talking back, sometimes in violent ways. For women on these trips, this becomes a violent, gendered difference from men in their programs, to be sure, but for all it’s a reminder that global inequalities often provoke vicious backlash. And RoseChasm’s U.S. privilege doesn’t protect her from the everyday violence Indian women negotiate. A return to the U.S. provides no protection from gendered violence, either—it only compounds the complete lack of safe havens for women.
Srimati Basu teaches in the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. Presently finishing a book on law, marriage, violence and feminisms in India, she is traveling to India as a Fulbright scholar for the coming year.