Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sexual Violence in India: A Tale of Two Stories... for balance?

Some of us were shocked and outraged the other day when via CNN iReport, user RoseChasm, a South Asian studies student at the University of Chicago, shared with the world the horrifying tale of her harrowing experience of being sexually harassed, repeatedly, while in India.
... looked around to see a circle of men filming our every move?
... men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins?
... man who stalked me for forty-five minutes after I purchased (sandals), until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd?
... strongest memory of (a hotel in Goa) was lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone?
... smiling man who masturbated at me on a bus...
In gut-wrenching detail, RoseChasm brought forth the extent of her physical and emotional violation during her India trip. She wrote poignantly of her revelation:
When I went to India, nearly a year ago, I thought I was prepared. I had been to India before; I was a South Asian Studies major; I spoke some Hindi. I knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize. I was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets. And I was prepared for the curiosity my red hair, fair skin and blue eyes would arouse.

But I wasn't prepared.

There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller's or the tailer's I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women's bodies to be taken, or hidden away.
But returning from India wasn't the end of her nightmare. She was diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was forced to take a mental health leave of absence from her studies to recuperate. Victims of sexual harassment and/violence rarely bounce back to pristine conditions, but instead carry on their shoulders the incalculable burden of painful memories - which continue to victimize them further. It is a testament to RoseChasm's immense strength of mind and courage that she decided to share her experience to serve as a cautionary reminder.

Her horrific experience is, of course, by no means unique to a foreigner traveling in India. Women of the subcontinent know this as a part-and-parcel of their daily life experience. There is public weal, there is expressed intention by the government to deal with the scourge of sexual harassment, there are laws to punish the guilty and to serve as deterrents. And yet, every single day, Indian women suffer from same indignities as did RoseChasm, at the hands of Indian men - some of which make news, but most don't.

RoseChasm's account caused widespread outrage. This is a good sign, perhaps the only silver lining in this terrifying episode. No nation has any kind of monopoly over sexual violence against women - a societal malady. But certain cultures in which patriarchy is deeply entrenched, and where customs and traditions have been exclusively designed to make use of women as chattel or property, do encourage uncouth displays of the said malady. The positively-spun reflections of the same malady in popular media (television and films) certainly don't help. As Indians, we should be justly ashamed of espousing such a culture, and the outrage incited by RoseChasm's account is a sign that there are people, men and women, endowed with a sense of right and wrong, and willing to work towards social justice - indeed a heartening feeling. Perhaps such people will become the catalyst for a tectonic shift in the societal mindset in this regard.

In the meantime, however, women in India continue to suffer. Every single day. It has become well-nigh impossible to open a newspaper and not encounter an incident of rape, sexual violence, the newest fad - attacks on the person with highly corrosive acid, and so forth. Just earlier this week, three women visitors made an official complaint about a similar situation in Maharashtra. The regularity with which these occur is alarming, but at the same time, can truly desensitize people to these evils. That is why the accounts of survivors of sexual violence, such as RoseChasm, are so important, because they remind and exhort us to maintain our focus in striving to work towards an egalitarian society.

This is also why I was rather discomfited by another account which appeared in CNN iReport yesterday, this time from user Twoset, an African-American woman and fellow student of RoseChasm, who had this to say:
I was on the same University of Chicago-sponsored trip to India, but I have something very different to say. I was in some of the same groups that RoseChasm was in; I explored the same temples and caves; and I danced in the same Ganesha festival on my first day in Pune. But I cannot justify the same negative publicity that the article addresses.
Twoset goes on to excoriate RoseChasm's account because she believes that the account is open-ended enough to seek a general condemnation of all Indians for the actions of a few Indian men. I beg to differ. I think that is not what RoseChasm's article did, at all. Drawing attention to a situation based on one's own horrific experience is not a general call for mindless stereotyping. Allow me to clarify further.

RoseChasm and Twoset are different individuals, and therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that their experiences, as well as responses to those experiences, are different. But I think that the difference goes well beyond this one experience. In a way, RoseChasm - a White woman - has presumably experienced a certain amount of White privilege in the US (which has certainly molded her expectations from life), whereas Twoset - a Black woman - has presumably seen the ugly face of racism in the US all too well, and has been forced to internalize that anguish, like many other Black women in the contemporary US. This is what Twoset has written in her account:
I am black, and I have to deal with the fact that even today in America many people characterize my entire race by the choices made by some people who have the same color skin as me. It doesn’t matter that I am an American, and it doesn’t matter that my mother raised me to have good morals. For all we know I could walk up to someone at night in a hoodie and I could be mistaken for someone who will do harm.
The shared suffering of being unfairly stereotyped has made Twoset sensitive and empathetic towards the plight of stereotyped people in other places. I salute her kindness and empathy. But in striving to be 'balanced' and equitable in her approach, she engaged in some magnificent strawmen, thusly:
... many Americans-men and women- use these tools to take inappropriate, malicious pictures of other American individuals. Knowing this, we cannot criminalize Indian men for doing the same.

... We must be aware of the rapes that occur worldwide, but we also need to internalize the fact that rapes in our country happen on college campuses, in cities, and in other unimaginable social situations. And people of many different ethnicities and racial backgrounds commit these acts. So why should all Indian men be subjected to judgment for the rapes that some men have committed?
None of that is what RoseChasm had mentioned in her account. This needs to be emphasized. The fear of stereotyping that Twoset has evinced is more than a bit premature. It is true that painting a whole nation as bad because of the actions of a few men is not warranted. But it is equally true that tu quoque arguments ("happens in the US, too!") are hardly the way forward, and only serve to enable further those who, ensconced within the relative impunity that a predominantly patriarchal society provides, continue to harass, abuse, and sexually violate women in India every single day.

Neither of the two accounts, by RoseChasm and Twoset, invalidates their individual experiences and responses to what happened in India, to be sure. However, I am a little surprised to find Twoset actively minimizing her own deplorable experience while striving to strike some sort of mythical balance. For example, she writes:
... I can definitely say that I had a very unique experience in my program. Men stared at me in India. Women stared at me. Children and teenagers stared at me. All the time. I wanted to become invisible in the crowd. I felt that I stood out even more because I stood out very starkly from the Indian population and especially from my white and Asian peers. I was also targeted with harassment, and I felt violated many times on the trip.

... To address the attempted rapes on the program, I was also very frightened while on the trip. After hearing about the attacks that happened to girls I knew, I also stayed up at night wondering if someone was going to break into my room.
As a woman of color, surely she should have realized that her minimizing her own suffering has the splash damage effect of minimizing and delegitimizing the genuine suffering that someone else has experienced?

Yes, absolutely, there are many, many warm and honest and wonderful Indian men and women who are genuinely good people and do good things unto others. But RoseChasm's account, or the general outrage that followed, or the good men who felt ashamed on behalf of all Indian men - none of those were directed at the good people. The accounts, both RoseChasm's and to some extent Twoset's, are an indictment on a society which - despite all lip service to women's honor and laws and demonstrations of goodwill - has failed to make a woman visitor to the country feel safe. This is the issue all the good folks of the civil society need to come together to address, and that will never happen without the awareness brought forth by the exemplary courage of survivors such as RoseChasm and others.


  1. I have very complicated feelings about both the articles. Because, I feel that they are both right in their own way. On the one hand, I did feel that rosechasm's portrayal of *how* unsafe she felt in India was a bit over the top (forgive my choice of words). But then, I feel unsafe in India *sometimes* and whenever I visit, I am never in an unfamiliar city all by myself. So, I think now that my first impression of rosechasm was unfair. Her white skin also brings an "otherness" to her which I am sure makes her more vulnerable. So, really who am I to judge.
    Twoset's article actually made me more sad and angry. I feel that a part of her experience was due to racism, and not just vaw. I do agree with you that her own victimization has made her more sensitive to the dangers of generalization, and I don't view that as a bad thing. I think its good to recognize that when things go wrong, there are reason propelling them to go that way. There's obviously no justification for the way India is becoming this example of rape.
    I guess, what I'm saying is that I can find a way to reason with and understand the experience that twoset had, but I absolutely can not accept the sexual violation that rosechasm felt. Gah. This comment is just a confusing mess.

    1. I can totally understand your confusion, Rini, because the sheer horrible events described in the accounts are mindboggling. I hope you wouldn't mind if I point out that your initial assessment of RoseChasm's piece was in fact a little problematic, as you have already come to understand by yourself. Whether we like the description or not, it was *her* experience; she, the victim, described the rawness of the emotions she felt - even if it feels OTT to one who has not felt it the same way. This experience, and her responses to that, are unique to her and cannot be denied. That understanding - which came to you - is something I found lacking in Twoset's account.

      Additionally, as I wrote, I found that Twoset minimized her own experience with harassment in India. I can only speculate (not knowing anything about Twoset other than the little she has let out) as to the reasons for that minimization, but there is the potential for splash damage to other victims.

      Imagine a situation in which all victims of sexual violence in India thought about - like Twoset did - and cared only for preserving a sense of 'balance' when trying to describe their horrific experiences; do you think their expression of anguish, sadness and anger would have been just as powerful? Is it ever acceptable to expect the victim of sexual violence to tone down her expression for the sake of some arbitrary balance? Absolutely not, as I am sure you'd agree.

  2. Rini and Atish, this comment is especially for you. Today's New York Times has this report:
    "Life imitated art, startlingly and crudely, in the city of Hai’an, north of Shanghai, when two men rushed the stage and groped the painter and performance artist Yan Yinhong as she danced “One Person’s Battlefield” — her furious comment on sexual violence against women."
    Both Yan and her colleague Ms. Li Xinmo were assaulted on stage. Li spoke of this unsavory incident: “Those three men don’t represent all Chinese men,” she said of the two men who interrupted Ms. Yan’s performance and the one who interrupted her show. “But they are a kind of mirror that shows a face of men, an ugliness, and shows the real experience of women.” -- THIS. It is important to remember this. This is what was missing from Twoset's description.

  3. This is a comment from my brother Atish on Facebook.

    "I agree with your comments about the lack of safety for women in India - both Indian and foreign. There cannot be any debate there. But I do think that RoseChasm made no effort to avoid stereotyping, while TwoSet actually did. Neither did she attempt to minimize her suffering. The mythical balance that TwoSet is striving for, is actually very real. As Indians, yes, we need to fix these issues. Yes, we need to feel outraged. But we do not need to be discriminated against as sexual predators at an individual level."

    1. I disagree about Twoset's piece. If you read her whole description and notice the few lines she spared to casually describe (and sweep aside) her own experience with sexual harassment in this trip, it seems quite striking that a woman would be so matter-of-fact about these incidents. The possibilities are two-fold: either she didn't experience the horrors to the extent that RoseChasm did, or that she is minimizing her own experience in order to strive for that balance. Do read the NYT report I linked above.

  4. This was a comment from Mrs. Indira Chakravorty on Facebook.

    " it is hard for us, especially nice men, to take this information in. it is natural to coil back and think it must be way too exaggerated. but any woman/girl who has lived in india knows not a single bit of what RoseChasm said in her account, what happened and how she felt - were exaggerated. and it is not about just a few men - no way. indian girls grow up knowing they are fodder for mishandles and gropings and teasings and hard stares that see you through your bones and more and more and more... anywhere they go if they are not 'careful'. does not matter who, how, when and where. it is an epidemic that is going on through generations. the fact that white womens/foreigners also suffer the same way in india came to me a couple of years ago from someone who told me of her own experiences as a young traveler who was traveling alone. the fact that it is a stigma in our society for women and they are trained to suffer in silence, PTSD can be random and untreated. in schools and colleges inventive ways of prevention were/are common discussions among girls - one of my friends said she had open safety pins in her hand in crowded buses to ward off predators. we knew we had to be always ready for encounters in surreptitious ways anywhere if/when we go out alone. i have not read Twoset's account, but can believe she may not have encountered sexual harassment that much. you see, she is black and indians hate black people. we think with a few layers of lighter pigments we are better than them and think them as subhumans. this may be why she was not as coveted as a memsahib who was roaming among the predators 'unprotected?' but it will be very surprising if she was lucky enough to not encounter other sorts of violence such as racism, snide remarks, teasings and other insults."

    1. "Indians hate black people" is a generalization that I sorely wish were not true. But experience, especially recent events in Bangalore, speak otherwise. Maamoni, you should read Twoset's account (linked in my post), and judge for yourself. I do salute her sensibilities as a woman of color, and applaud her zeal in trying to bring a degree of equanimity into the discussion of a rather unsavory business. However, balance is fine, but not at the cost of minimizing the pain she must have endured as a victim. That is what troubles me about her account.

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  5. rini, saying rosechasm's article as 'over the top' is, to me, a bit insensitive. we, indian women, are oriented to 'accept' and tolerate much of the sexual harassment we face since childhood - because that is what our society is, because we are told that the responsibility of saving our 'honor' is onto us, and us only - because men will be men [the worst entitled message i have ever known] - and so on. rosechasm came from a society where - even though abuse/male privilege/patriarchal attitudes still exist, and i am not trying to make these societies better than ours in any way - the people are more conscious of not perpetrating open sexual harassment [for fear of punishment if not other things] and women can roam much more freely - they don't expect open and stark sexual harassment everywhere and every time - as we do. she came with rosy dreams about her stay in india [student of south asian studies, isn't she?] and was made to feel to be the worst sexual slave in the eyes of indian men. this can be the rudest shock in a young girl's mind who had the best ideas of india - the last thing she expected was sexual harassment from men anywhere and everywhere! i believe everything she said because i know these things happen. i empathize with her completely because i can put myself in her shoes. and most of all, everything she faced and experienced - each and every incident - is a heinous crime and debilitating mental torture to a woman - period.
    kausik, i will read twoset's article, but it is plain to see she will find less sexual harassment because of the color of her skin. that is not to say that men will not take 'advantage' of her if opportunity permits, but open and all around harassment may be less?