India’s Western problem*

*Originally published on The F-Word

The BBC’s recent India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman documentary follows a familiar pattern when it comes to Western reporting on violence against women in India says Asiya Islam

Content note: Contains non-graphic references to acts of violence against women, with some links containing further details.

When a young student was raped and murdered in New Delhi, India, in December 2012, a wave of protests gripped the country. Simultaneously, perhaps for the first time, the international community sat up and started talking about sexual violence in India. The discussion quickly veered towards India’s ‘woman problem’ – blame was placed on Indian culture, tradition and values for horrific (and ‘non-horrific’) crimes against women in the country. At that point, I found myself facing the dilemma of either siding with or refusing to participate in the problematic culture-specific criticism of violence against women in India.

I was faced with that choice again when I recently watched India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman, a BBC Three documentary on violence against women in India, made in the wake of the uproar following the rape and murder of the Delhi student. Presenter, Radha Bedi says, “As a young British Indian and journalist, I wanted to go to India to uncover the reality of life for women there, six months after a young medical student was brutally gang-raped on board a bus in the Indian capital Delhi.” I am not convinced that a brief stint making a documentary in a country, even one you are familiar with, could “uncover the reality of life for women there”.

Though Radha has spoken to many people, including her own friends and family in India, as well as women who have been victims of gendered violence, the radius of the documentary is limited to Delhi and Punjab, except for one case of a woman who was molested and stripped in Guwahati in north-east India. This is not to say that Radha should have gone all over India but it would have helped if the documentary was then not sensationally titled India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman.

There is also an element of writing and speaking for a particular audience. BBC is not available to watch in India, so the main audience of the documentary is British residents. Some situations portrayed seem to be not exactly invented, but definitely exaggerated. When Radha goes to a market in Delhi, she is warned by her friend to keep her arms folded over her chest because men are walking around groping women. While I don’t want to deny experiences of women being sexually harassed on the streets of India, I have to say that I have been to those markets and I haven’t felt the need to cover or protect my breasts.

Risking being called a cynic, I think there is an element here of “This is what our audience would want to hear, so this is what we’re going to say.” There seems to be a growing appetite in the West for stories of horrific violence and tragedies from the ‘developing world’ but little demand to see what people within those countries are doing, as a collective, to counter social injustice and inequality.

This is evident in Radha’s documentary too. Though she talks to a few individuals who are fighting back, I am very surprised by her lack of interaction with the protesters of January 2013. There is an interview with a woman from the UN, who vaguely suggests that Indian culture needs to change, without indicating how, but none with, say, Kavitha Krishnan, who has been involved in working on the ground level in India against violence against women.

There is, however, some good journalism, particularly in the story Radha covers on acid attacks in India, and I wish there could be a more in-depth account of that. Acid attacks are a very particular form of violence against women in India and are facilitated by the lack of regulation on the sale of acid. I think we all need to hear about it more, with a view to campaigning to regulate the sale of acid as well as to recognise acid attack as a gendered crime and punish it accordingly.

One particularly disappointing aspect of this programme is the unnecessarily long air time given to the lawyer defending two of the accused in the Delhi student rape and murder case. This lawyer has been known to say unacceptable things (including that no respectable woman would ever be raped) but has been widely criticised (and ridiculed) in India. It is therefore surprising that his view is portrayed in the documentary as the general opinion in India!

The other point that has stuck with me is Radha’s repeated assertion of her good fortune for having been brought up in the UK. Not only is expression of such a sentiment insensitive, but it also glosses over the harassment and violence women face in the UK. Such minimisation has already been highlighted in the discussion following the Delhi rape case of December 2012.

India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman certainly seems to have been made with the good intention of highlighting violence against women in India. I don’t want to undermine the work and effort that must have gone into it (especially because it’s not very often that mainstream TV channels screen documentaries on gender issues), but I would say it is a case of more of the same. Violence against women in India is not a new issue; nor, sadly, was the rape and murder of the Delhi student. What is new is the international attention it’s getting.

However, such international attention comes with its own set of problems. The global community’s judgement that India has a ‘woman problem’ not only ‘others’ sexual violence but also undermines resistance within the country. As a feminist, I’m uncomfortable with criticising those who are highlighting the issue, but I’m also uncomfortable with the dynamics of the Western world passing judgement without challenging gendered violence on an international level.

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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.

Modern communication, sexual politics and Indian women

It’s not unusual to read contradictory news stories about India for India truly is a land of contradictions. And its contradictions do not just run at the simplistic level of rich versus the poor but in all of its nooks and crannies, in almost all of its veins.

This week I came across two interesting articles/news stories – one in the Independent about how ‘independent, career-driven, female singletons are the driving force behind a new publishing phenomenon’ in India, namely, the growing demand for Indian chick lit and the second one in the Washington Post about the banning of cell phones for unwed women in an Indian village for fear of these women arranging ‘forbidden marriages’ and elopements via the cell phone.
Both the news pieces apprise us of the growing communications industry in India – be it the publishing or the telecoms industry. And this growing communications industry is coming to shape and define Indian women’s sexuality, albeit in often contradictory and multitudinous ways.
On the one hand is the increasingly independent career driven urban Indian woman whose ultimate goal or topmost priority in life is no longer getting married, having a comfortable home and three children. On the other is the often not-that-well-recognised rebellious rural woman who wants to indulge in pre-marital romance, who wants to take her life decisions in her own hands, who refuses to bow down…and yet is mostly trampled upon in one way or the other – beaten up, murdered, forced into marriage etc.
Not that the two categories are unitary or solid, but roughly they do give us an idea of the wide and far reaching effects communication technology has on women in a developing country like India. It wouldn’t be wrong to assert that Indian women are much more affected by and are more responsive to technological changes in the field of communication as compared to Indian men.
While newer means of communication have equipped Indian women with the tools to express themselves, not only literally but also figuratively, they have also, at the same time (and inevitably so) , got entangled in the web of sexual politics where men regulate women’s accessibility to and use of communications technology and through it, their sexuality.