In India or U.S., No Safe Haven from Gender Violence

3141155107_0bcbcf4983When you cry “rape,” who can hear you? Should it matter how you are heard?

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.

Photo of women-only train compartment in Mumbai (designed to help protect them from harassment) from Flickr user erin & camera under license from Creative Commons 2.0

 

IMG_0488Srimati 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.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing the exact response I have been looking for. And I am especially heartened to see it penned by an Indian sister.

  2. White malestream media has always proclaimed ‘(male) sexual violence against women and girls is always happening ‘over there’ never in white men’s backyards! Such male supremacist claims are aimed at maintaining the lie that non-white men alone are the ones responsible for committing sexual violence against women and girls. This white male supremacist claim is used to fool women of all ethnicities/races that ‘white men’ are the ‘good guys’ whereas those non-white males are the ‘barbarians.’

    We real Feminists know that these lies are lies and white men utter them in order to maintain white male power over all women. In reality male sexual violence against women and girls happens in horror – white men’s countries as well as non-white men’s countries. The primary reason why men of all races/colours commit sexual violence against women and girls is because they can and because their male created male supremacist systems condone/justify male pseudo sex right to female bodies.

    Now I await cries of ‘not all men are rapists’ – correct but did I say this? I said men from all races/ethnicities commit sexual violence against women and girls and that is not the same as saying ‘all men are rapists.’ However, all men irrespective of their race/colour/ethnicity have accorded themselves male pseudo sex right to female bodies and it is justified by claims men are never responsible for their actions/sexual behaviour.

    Don’t be fooled by white malestream media because the pandemic male sexual violence against Indian women and girls is also happening here in the west and furthermore it is happening in every country on this planet. Male power and male pseudo sex right to females of all ages is the issue and until we real Feminists recognise the male created structures and institutions which support; condone; justify and exonerate pseudo male sex right to female bodies then nothing will change. The usual excuses that upper class men have ‘right of sexual access to lower caste females’ is precisely that – an excuse upper class males created in order to justify their pseudo sex right to female bodies. Those self-same upper class males also commit sexual violence against women and girls in their class. Ergo class is not reason there are innumerable male sexual predators – reason is because men accord themselves this right and whilst not all men enact this right – all men benefit from this male created right.

  3. I write as an Indian woman currently living in the UK. I appreciate your effort to bring some balance into depictions of violence against women in India. I agree that we ought not to generalise, or create ‘us’ v. ‘them’ myths.
    Having said that, I am troubled by your assertion that RoseChasm paints India as ” irredeemably patriarchal” and that this is somehow incorrect. You cite the work of Indian feminists working to protect the rights of women in public spaces. Doesn’t it say something that such initiatives have had a “long history” but are still very much needed?
    I absolutely agree that violence against women is a global issue. Yes, it happens everywhere. But let’s not also pretend that there are few equals for the particular forms it takes in India, where gender inequality is an endemic feature that colors every facet of life from birth to death in *countless ways, big and small*. The violence that RoseChasm experienced is but the extreme manifestation. That extreme manifestation occurs elsewhere too. But to my knowledge, India is unique in inflicting myriad psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical wounds upon women while ostensibly declaring itself to be a free country governed by a constitution that dictates equal rights for all. In this respect, India may not be ‘irredeemably’ patriarchal, but *is* patriarchal *still*, in a very particular way, and has been for much of our history.

  4. while agree with ms basu that sexual violence happens everywhere, and maybe the per capita rape rate may even be higher in the US, but we need to realize, as Ms Tara has said, that violence against the girl in India starts before she is born… USG and other technologies are focussed on eliminating all girls…………….. and this is something that happens here only…

  5. That was one woman’s experience of a common experience in India. There is nothing in that story to be denied. Indeed the bias of where she comes from and who she is informs that experience, but that is true for everyone.
    The “long history” of a woman’s movement should give rise to much introspection. In that history, we need to accept that there is no single agenda that we have completed- be it domestic violence, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, pornography. None. Yes, we have laws ad nauseum- which apart from often suffering at the hands of bad drafting, don’t give rise to any larger political will to think with any degree or innovation or genuine commitment. Still, every chance we get as a “movement” (whatever that means today) we have also not taken time to reflect on how we need to change the way and means with which we seek change. We don’t. Instead, we continue to chase the criminal law path thinking somehow if we do it enough times, someone will listen. They don’t and they won’t. A handful of voices pursue the criminal law agenda as if that is the panacea of all our ills. Yet, there is not single example that this has ever or will ever be so. Because an FIR and “fast track” options do not change a system. Instead, they isolate women from what is a larger systemic issue. But as soon as one mentions “systemic” it’s understood as this long arduous journey that will not happen in our life time. So what, do we not owe something to the lifetimes to come? Someone recently asked me why is it that the “Vishaka” case which raised the bar on how we look at sexual violations by addressing sexual harassment as a constitutional violation (not an individual criminal wrong) was not replicated. I don’t have an answer. The Justice Verma Committee went even further to view all forms of violence through an equality lens and yet who has translated that (in my view historic document) into systemic change. The “us” and “them” which should really concern us isn’t so much the US v India but rather “us” versus “them”. “Us” who have been a party to that “long history” and “them” who have always been in opposition (be it the state, institutions etc.) The “them” will continues to act with impunity and arbitrariness when it comes to framing a law around sexual violence because it is not vested in doing so. “Us” is all about how we have responded to that fixed status quo. That the Criminal Law Amendment Act on specific sexual offenses was allowed to pass and then be hailed by many from the women’s “movement” must surely make us reflect deeply on what we end up settling for. Why have we conceded to mediocrity when in fact after all these years and the efforts you refer to in our “long history” are deserving of excellence? I am told the answer is that “something is better than nothing”. Actually, something is nothing. And I wonder then if Rose’s story (one of many) is the issue at all. She is in recovery. But are we?

  6. As a woman who is ethnically Indian, but still considered a foreigner during visits to India, it places me in the interesting position to witness and experience the treatment of women in India. I have been the target of stares and inappropriate behavior, even when I was a tall 12 year old girl following my family around town (even the family friendly parts, like temples). As much as i would like to say that this type of behavior is present in men all over the world, regardless of race, the treatment of women in India is particularily bad. Understanding the risks, my family takes precautions to protect the women. These are not precautions one needs to even think about in the United States. A single woman can live by herself, without be harrassed, which would be difficult in India.
    I can understand RoseChasms experience and how those experiences have affected her life. Her story is shocking, but it only emphasizes how Indian women have become accustomed to dealing with this type of treatment, while there should be more effort in erradicating it.

  7. Males rape because they CAN. They attack women because they CAN. The culture which should have been raising their awareness against attacking the gender of their mothers , reaffirms their right to to overwhelm the ‘weaker”, I think all women should carry weapons. Long hat pins for example. Something. males understand defense. Billboard and TV ads against this atrocity. A general culture that would NOt equate rape with manhood.
    Manhood needs to be discussed deeply by both sexes.

  8. Lauren Donna Graham says:

    I am a 67-year-old molestation (by my ballet instructor from ages thirteen to fifteen) and rape survivor (drugged and gang-raped at age twenty at a party). Rapes in India are more common because the men are not afraid of getting caught, and if they do, the punishment, if any, is mostly light.
    The apparent attitude of the administration at Yale toward rape is pathetic and tells us that it is really no big deal. A recent nationwide, anonymous survey of college males found that if they were certain that they would get away with it, over seventy percent responded saying they would rape a woman. This was a follow-up to a similar survey done years before, with pretty much the same numbers. We are born with targets on our backs, and the legal system in our country is designed to intimidate us from reporting these crimes by assaulting us again in court, while also protecting the poor little perpetrators’ good names and reputations.
    When I am out in public, I always carry a knife that can be flipped open with my thumb (once I replace the broken spring on my switchblade, I will resume carrying that.) There is a saying; “I would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

  9. re: “responses 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.”

    The problem isn’t India or Indians. The increase in rape stems from the fact that India is rapidly moving toward gender equality as so many opportunities open up for women. Rates of rape often increase in societies when there is a strong movement toward gender equality (for which India should be congratulated) — as a backlash to it. So that should be addressed. But it doesn’t need to be taken personally.

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