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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Is there a ‘right thing to wear’ and what does it have to do with women’s safety?

Comments making a connection between the way women dress and their ‘safety’ are not uncommon. And they come from all quarters – ministers, police personnel, family, friends, relatives, passersby, ‘street Romeos’. This time it happens to be Karnataka’s Women and Child Welfare Minister CC Patil who recently said, “I don’t favour women wearing provocative clothes and always feel they need to be dignified in whatever they wear.”

What’s uncommon is a unanimous condemnation of such comments. This lack of unanimity seems to stem from murkiness around an understanding of what the implications of such remarks are. Some of my friends, who would consider themselves to be ‘progressive’, often respond to my absolute opposition to such remarks by saying that there is a right time and place for everything or asking me if I would wear party clothes to work.
A similar sentiment has been expressed by Anant Rangaswami in his opinion article on First Post on the debate stirred in India by Karnataka’s Women and Child Welfare Minister.

Anant Rangaswami is careful enough, as are my friends, to assert that it is never acceptable to assault a woman because of what she wears. However, they are all missing an important point here – comments like the one made by CC Patil are not merely remarks, they are part of a wider discourse that blame women for violence against them. Anything less than absolute condemnation of such comments is too less.

By promoting the idea that there is actually something as ‘the right thing to wear’, Anant is only adding to the ideology that informs most men who don’t hesitate even for a minute before commenting on the propriety of a woman’s dress. Drawing parallels between smoking and drinking and dressing/clothes is too simplistic. It is almost as shallow as the ‘If you leave your house unlocked, it’s going to be robbed’ argument. It does not differentiate between the assertion of control over a woman’s body and sexuality (in case of clothing) and restriction over consuming certain things (smoking/drinking).

One of the biggest points being missed by those who believe there is a ‘right thing to wear’ and those who talk about ‘dignity of women’ as very easily measurable is that there has been no research to suggest any link whatsoever between a woman’s dress and her ape/assault/molestation.

There are plenty of cases of rape of women in salwar kameez, in sarees, in burkhas, rape of girl children not even aware of their bodies, marital rape within the four walls of the house and so on. To then suggest that women should take responsibility for their own safety by dressing ‘appropriately’ is foolishness.

To go back to my friends’ question – would I wear party clothes to work – the correct answer is not a simple ‘no’. The correct answer is that this question is not relevant in this context. Sure, a mini skirt could cause outrage in Purani Dilli or Virar East but have you heard the story about two men being chased by a tiger?

One of the men sits down to put on his jogging shoes. The other man asks him if he thinks those shoes are going to help him outrun a tiger. He replies, “No, but I don’t have to outrun the tiger, I just have to outrun you.” The moral of the story is there is always going to be a saree pallu too short, a skirt hem too high, a kurta too tight and a salwar too transparent and that the only actual problem is the ‘tiger’.

So let’s hope any further conversation about women’s safety is concerning the criminals and the failure of the state and police to deter crime, not the woman’s clothes, behaviour or presence in a certain place at a certain time.

Why I’ll be joining the London SlutWalk (in the Guardian)

(c) Flickr user creatrixtiara

Back home in a small conservative town in India, it would be considered perfectly acceptable to “Eve-tease” me if I went out in “western” attire (aka fitted jeans and T-shirt). In the capital city of the UK, things are surprisingly not very different – I run the risk of being called a slut if I “dare” to go out alone in the night wearing a short dress. The two scenes might not be exactly the same, but there’s a common thread running through them – you are a slut provoking sexual attention if you don’t conform to male definitions of modesty. And that is exactly what SlutWalk is protesting against.


Read the full article in the Guardian.

‘Facebook rape’ – Insensitivity toward rape or de-stigmatisation of rape?

Facebook raped or ‘fraped’ is part of a rather new (Facebook specific) terminology.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the term ‘Facebook raped or fraped’ is defined by Urban Dictionary as ‘the access of a Facebook account by a third party, unknown to the account’s owner, which alters and adds humiliating or otherwise derogatory words to the account’s profile for the purpose of a prank. The act usually takes place between friends after one leaves their Facebook account logged in’. Examples would include statements like ‘I am coming out on fb – I am gay!’ or ‘My brother is right – I am a dumbass’ or ‘I smell like feet’ etc.

One of my friends recently expressed her astonishment and disapproval at this public and frivolous usage of the word ‘rape’, a grave crime/act of violence. Surely this usage reeks of insensitivity? Doesn’t it show how lightly rape is treated without any concern toward more than 250,000 cases of rape or attempts to rape every year (and the figure counts only the reported cases)? Well, I thought so too. At first.

But on a second thought, more possibilities started swimming and it got difficult to make up my mind on the issue. Is it possible, through such common everyday usage of the word ‘rape’ to rid it of the stigma associated with it, the stigma that makes it the ‘unspeakable’ crime all over the world? Rape remains one of the most under-reported crimes even today – the vulnerability of the situation, the unrightful ‘accusation’ of the victim and thus, the stigma associated with rape are the major reasons for the under-reporting of rape.

The big question then, I suppose, is – does such usage of the word ‘rape’ lead to the ‘normalisation’ or the ‘de-stigmatisation’ of rape? Both the possibilities appear equally strong. I have always felt the need to de-link rape from the ‘honour’ of a woman because it is indeed the terminology and ideas around a woman’s honour being stripped by rape that act as stimulant or motivation for a lot of rape cases and certainly lead to the ‘hushing up’ of the crime.

However, it is problematic to argue that rape should be treated just like ‘any other’ crime because it is not like any other crime for all the reasons that I mentioned above. But then this is a vicious circle that we are caught up in and there has to be a way out.

Whether or not the common usage of the term ‘rape’ is fruitful toward the effort to break out of the circle cannot be decided with certainty. It could be representative of a yet unrecognised but emerging trend of normalisation of rape; does this normalisation imply an automatic de-stigmatisation of rape or an actual increase in incidences of rape? How can then rape be rescued from the ‘stigma’ terminology without making it sound like everyday ‘normal’ crime?

While I churn my mind over it, I would love to know what your initial reactions to the issue are.