Oh thank goodness, Nicholas Kristof says we aren’t so bad after all.
The beleagured Indian male, under attack since the Delhi gang rape might take some scraps of comfort from the New York Times columnist’s headline: Is Delhi so different from Steubenville?
Steubenville, for those who have not been following that story, is a small town in Ohio where a couple of teenaged football players are accused of raping a sixteen-year-old at a party. The alleged rape happened back in August, but the story got fresh wind recently thanks to the Anonymous hacker collective amidst accusations that town officials tried to hush it up because they wanted to protect the footballers.
Kristof’s larger point is that the West cannot afford to get on its high horse and be all shocked by how they treat women in the big bad Third World.
“Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses,” he writes. “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.”
So Americans can watch the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape “with a whiff of condescension at the barbarity there” writes Kristof, but “domestic violence and sex trafficking remain a vast problem across the United States.”
Mallika Dutt, the executive director of Breakthrough, an NGO based in both USA and India, that talks about issues such as violence against women through popular culture, says some perspective correction is definitely in order.
“I am a little irritated that somehow Indian men are now the poster children of brutality,” she says. “That kind of always racialising, the whole colonial race hangover of creating categories of men gets away from the underlying issue – we are dealing with a patriarchal world where masculinity is completely out of control.”
But she says the media coverage also shows one of the “most exciting shifts around how gender and women’s rights is being talked about in India right now". “We are no longer seeing it as women’s issues but as everybody’s issues because we are all impacted by violence against women,” says Dutt.
In fact when it comes to coverage of the issue, media in India is actually getting some kudos.
“It reports every pinky finger lifted on this case and gives a lot of space to what needs to be done to move the country’s terrible record of violence against women forward,” Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project told Poynter.org. In contrast, US media, she says isn’t doing enough. “Unlike in India, [U.S.] media is not talking about the ‘why’…Why are boys raised to think that sex with an unconscious woman can possibly be considered rape?”
The US media, Poynter alleges, has done what Indian media is often accused of – focusing too much on the victim and too little on the alleged rapists. American media reports rarely fail to mention the young woman was drunk and had passed out. The accused are members of a high school football team described in a New York Times story as a “bright light” in a town beset with economic woes. Television has done many interviews with football parents and boys and football culture.
That is indicative of “a rape culture that seeks to glorify even the potentially tarnished heroes while implicating the victim(s) in ruining the only good thing this town (whichever town) ever had,” writes Katie Heaney in Buzzfeed. It’s as if media in America is loath to admit that a young man can be an excellent quarterback and a rapist all at once says Heaney.
Because of timing we are seeing comparisons between the coverage of Delhi and Steubenville but that Ohio story actually has more chilling parallels with other less publicized rapes in India. A 15-year-old Dalit girl in Dabra in Haryana was drugged, kidnapped and raped for several hours by between eight and 12 men. Like the footballers of Steubenville are alleged to have done, these men also circulated a video of the assault throughout the village. The girl’s father swallowed pesticide and killed himself when he saw it.
After another young woman from Banwasa was imprisoned naked in a windowless house for five days and raped repeatedly by four men who then dumped her on a railway crossing, the girl’s father told the Washington Post he would probably not press charges because “so many people have been coming and urging us to compromise, saying, ‘These are young lads, you should think about their future, their lives should not get spoiled.’” That sounds not too unlike some of the comments about the young football players of Steubenville.
But pointing out parallels should not fool us into sweeping everything into the same basket. Dutt says the cultural manifestations and governance issues are different in different places. Status of women in India comes with its own issues from sex selection to female infanticide to dowry deaths and kitchen “accidents”. The United States has Republicans who have allowed the Violence Against Women Act to lapse.
Delhi, in fact, IS different from Steubenville, says Samita in her response to Kristof on the blog Feministing.
“What sexual assault cases have in common is that they are about power and control of women’s bodies – but that’s often about it,” writes Samhita. “Everything else is different and that difference shouldn’t be forgotten.”
So you have to avoid “universalizing women’s experiences in a way that ignores the way patriarchy works differently across cultural contexts” she continues. At the same time you have to keep reminding readers that “sexual assault happens everywhere.”
And until we grasp that, we run the risk, whether in India or in America, of never getting to the bottom of it all as Erika Christakis points out in Time.
“The underlying attitudes that led to the real (or sometimes only perceived) wrongdoing in the first place – attitudes such as hero worship of high school and college athletes in the US and the widespread contempt for female children in India – continue unchallenged. This can’t possibly help anyone.”
The point is not that one is better than the other, but that they are both terrible, just in different ways. And we’d be fools to get into the treacherous business of grading rapes on any scale whatsoever.