Let’s leave ‘Indian culture’ aside and focus on the real problem

One of the luxuries of maintaining a blog is being able to write when I fancy it – no filing deadlines, no pressure to publish before the issue becomes ‘stale’. And in my view, the protests that took place in India following the gang rape of the 23 year old student should not be subject to the crassness of time-sensitivity in news anyway. So, this post that I started writing quite some time ago is being published today in the hope that the issue is still and remains very much alive.

I don’t want to cite statistics since I don’t find numbers to be the best indicators, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that sexual violence, including rape, is a daily occurence in India. The saddest part of the recent gang rape of the 23 year old in Delhi is that it’s not an unusual case. What is unusual is that it’s provoked such a response. I won’t go into details of why I think it’s caused such an uproar, I can only be exhilirated by the mass protests, a silver lining in the grim reality that women face everyday. Until now, rape was just something that happened, these protests have made rape something that we can all be legitimately and collectively outraged about. Probably for the first time, the issue of rape in India has been covered so prominently by international (and national) media. While a plethora of excellent articles have appeared in the national press discussing the issue, the debate has taken a slightly different turn in the UK with a question mark over whether India has a specific woman problem.

The question has of course been riddled with much use of the word ‘culture’ with ‘Indian culture’ getting the blame for continued and persistent violence against women in the country. The first I came across the debate was with Owen Jones’ article in the Independent, in which he argues that rape and violence against women are endemic everywhere, not just in India, and with Sunny Hundal’s subsequent response to Owen Jones which he posted on Liberal Conspiracy, entitled ‘Yes, it IS right to point fingers at Indian culture for its rape epidemic’. I had a Twitter conversation about this with Sunny Hundal, but it is difficult to untangle the meaning of ‘culture’ in 140 characters. Following this, an article appeared in the Guardian, in which Emer O’Toole argues that the pervasiveness of rape in the West should not be minimised.

I have been struggling a bit with this debate – firstly, because it seems a bit detached from what’s going on in India, a hugely significant wave of retaliation and resistance, and secondly, because it feels somewhat like a spray painting – a bit about this, a bit about that. So, I’m going to try and clear it up a bit.

Let’s start with this overused word ‘culture’, a word almost inextricably tied with the ‘Orient’. When a rape takes place in the UK, nobody so much as mentions ‘culture’ because culture, in common understanding, is something alien, implying that Western societies are ‘culture-less’. This is why I find it problematic when somebody claims that India’s culture is responsible for sexual violence against women in the country. If ‘culture’ was to be used in the widest sense possible – to mean attitudes, media, education etc. – and not just traditions, ritual, practices and conservatism (maybe even backwardness), it would be much more acceptable. However, that is not the case, hence, the ubiquitous use of the word in dicussions about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and such like, and its absence in the discourse on the West.

When I asked Sunny Hundal if he’d use the word ‘culture’ in a similar discussion about the UK, he responded in the affirmative and cited the oft-used term ‘rape culture’. But surely, he must realise that the connotations of ‘rape culture’ and ‘Indian culture is to be blamed for rape’ are completely different.

This brings me to the second aspect of this debate – does India particularly have a ‘woman problem’, to put it in Foreign Policy’s words. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are, sadly, common occurences all over the world. The protests in India have given us an opportunity to discuss these issues worldwide. To then miss this opportunity and instead focus on whether India is especially demonic to its women, is to miss the wood for the trees.

This is not to deny that there may be particularities specific to such issues in India. For example, I can’t think of a lot of countries where police officers and politicians can openly suggest marriage between the rape survivor and the rapist or where rape survivors are subject to the ‘two fingers test’. Then again, in India it would be extremely rare to come across a school football team gang raping a drunk teenage girl carrying her from party to party, as happened in Steubenville. The point being that some responses to rape or sexual violence may be particular to India and yes, they are indicative of a problem (rather, many problems). But on what scale would we measure this against specific problems in other countries, including, as many would like to believe, the ‘liberated’ West.

The reality is that sexual violence is prevalent all over the world. Statistics may indicate more cases in country X than in country Y. Or that there are more convictions in country A than in country B. But no statistics can lessen the impact of the fear of sexual violence most women live with all over the world. At least in India it’s finally causing outrage – it’s much preferred to the deafening silence we have been used to so far. It’s time to join in without deflecting what the protests in India stand for.


On dressing for sunny London: dilemmas of an ethnic minority feminist

Oh dear, it’s that very short, very rare and very precious time of the year again when London is fully bathed in golden sunshine. Why the dread in my tone then? Because for us wimmin-folk it’s also time to come to terms with our fuzzy legs from winter. The fact that London sunshine hits when least expected doesn’t help – until a couple of days ago, I was quite cosy in opaque tights but today, if some are to be believed, I would have been scorching in them.

So after yesterday’s 26 degrees and prediction of 29 degrees for today, I had to face up to the inevitability of shaving my legs if I wanted to go with a bit of skin show. As always, this put me in the dilemma of having to choose between my feminist sensibility of not buckling down to the pressure to be the hairless female body and my supposition that hairy legs and skirt won’t go down well or would at least make me very self-conscious.

Unfortunately, I’m not as brave as this Vagenda lady who recently wrote about her experience of not shaving and baring it all as it was. It is also unfortunate that this nice sunny time of the year leads me to feeling guilty about my feminist self. It seems to be a circle of having thoughts about shaving, feeling guilty for having thoughts about shaving, and feeling bad about feeling guilty for having thoughts about shaving. It needs to be said that I don’t mind hair removal as much as the pressure to do it – I want to be able to choose for myself whether and when I want to get rid of my body hair.

Of course, there are alternatives available to skirts, alternatives that can cover my legs. When in India, I never put on any leg show even when it was 50 degrees, so obviously I am absolutely capable of wearing leg-covering clothing on hot days. But when I considered doing that, the first thing that came to my mind was – would people judge me if I did that? And by that I mean would people judge me as a conservative Asian looking girl with a Muslim sounding name if I covered up on a sunny day.

Obviously, I never had that insecurity in India, but now that I’ve been thinking about it more, I have been wondering whether self-regulating ‘migrant behaviour’ is a common migrant experience. Do migrants monitor themselves (their clothing, accent, food eating habits etc.) to be able to ‘blend in’? I suppose I was conscious that if a white girl wore jeans on a hot summer day, people wouldn’t form perceptions about her on that basis whereas if I did the same, I would be profiled as ‘ethnic minority’. It would be assumed that I’m not wearing a skirt (or shorts) because my ‘culture’ (yes, I needed to put that within inverted commas) does not approve of exposing legs. I first began drinking because I’d heard enough of ‘oh-you’re-Indian’ or ‘oh-you’re-Muslim’ and wanted to break that stereotype associated with me. I’ve just grown very weary of the whole culture argument that seems to be becoming almost too easy and too common to use.

Anyway, to cut the long story short I decided to ‘go Indian all the way’ and put on a very light cotton kurta and churidar (see picture if you’re not sure what that is). I might have got a few odd stares and a few ‘culture-needs-to-cover-legs’ understanding looks but I didn’t mind it so much because I felt very comfortable in what I was wearing. Which is good but not good enough.

Why not good enough? Because I want my choice of clothing to be a simpler decision, because I want people to not categorise me based on what I wear, and because one day, I want to be able to show my legs as they are.

Just one last thing to be said – the choice of title for this post was deliberate. I bet many people would read that as fashion dilemmas of those whose (cruel) culture doesn’t allow them to expose even on hot sunny days – I hope they won’t think that again so quickly.