The dumb white chick vs creepy Indian lecher debate

A CNN essay about an American woman's experiences of sexual assault in India has sparked a heated debate that relies on futile stereotypes that obscure the real issue at hand.

Lakshmi Chaudhry August 24, 2013 11:47:45 IST
The dumb white chick vs creepy Indian lecher debate

A personal essay by a University of Chicago student RoseChasm has gone viral on my Facebook network, evoking reactions ranging from shame to anger. The account of a young student who suffered a mental breakdown after being "stalked, groped, masturbated at" on a trip to India has become a rorschach test of sorts.  Some see it as an expression of white privilege while others an indictment of Indian patriarchy. [Read it here]

Take, for instance, this compelling passage:

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 tailor'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.

A male colleague knew exactly what she was talking about: "I can see these 20-something people hanging around in public places with hungry eyes even in Mumbai. They just watch people with an intensity that looks dangerous," he said in sympathy. But a young woman friend zeroed in on this very passage, saying it reminded her of the age-old colonial scaremongering about native lust for white flesh a la Passage to India.

The most powerful response to RoseChasm's essay, however, came not from an Indian but from Twoseat, titled "Same India--Different Story." It was powerful for two reasons: one, she is also a University of Chicago student who spent her year abroad in India; two, she is not white. [Read it here]

The dumb white chick vs creepy Indian lecher debate

The problem with the white-woman-as-victim narrative is that it entirely erases Indian women from the picture. AFP

As the only black woman (and individual in general) on the trip, 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. However, in my experiences in India, I have met a solid handful of warm and honest Indian men- men who are also college students, men who also love the thrill of riding on a motorcycle in the busy streets, men who defended me at necessary times, and men who took the time to get to know me and my culture.

Twoseat connects the dots between racist stereotypes in the United States -- the kind that led to Trayvon Martin's death -- and the blanket view of Indian men as sexual predators: "When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism."

The other problem with the white-woman-as-victim narrative is that it entirely erases Indian women from the picture, as happens in this self-righteous and self-absorbed op-ed by Sarah Elizabeth Webb:

I have been patient — tolerant even — of the constant threat of sexual harassment that comes with travelling as a Western Woman. I anticipated it and took precautions by dressing conservatively and even wearing a fake wedding ring to ward off unwanted attention. I am conscious of the norms surrounding gender roles in India; sometimes following them even when I don’t agree, all as a means of preventing the negative interactions with men. But, in all reality, none of it works. I have tried to ignore the harassment, pretending that it doesn’t bother me, or even acting as though I can’t hear it. I have tried to shrug it off, telling myself that not all men act like this; surely most men wouldn’t make these comments. I have been patient, but I have also had enough. The comments — the attitudes — towards Western women are disgusting, degrading and totally unacceptable.

Webb notes the fact that Indian women are no less safe in the passing, but she is too busy feeling sorry for herself to acknowledge her own privilege.

The reality is that the average Indian woman -- many of whom are poor, lower caste or rural — is far more unsafe in our country than any white person. For starters, much of this sexual violence is routine and unreported. When a Swiss tourist is raped in Madhya Pradesh, it makes blaring headlines but the rape of a tribal or Dalit woman or maid may — on a slow news day — get a tiny paragraph tucked away on page 12.  No policeman would think of refusing to file an FIR if a foreigner were to arrive at the thana to file a complaint. And unlike the maid or the farm labourer, the average Western woman has the luxury of choosing safer methods and times of travel. Webb complains about stares and comments, whereas Indian women travel in buses where they are routinely groped and grabbed.

We Indians are no less clueless, however, when we react by blaming Western women for their own harassment. A number of Indian friends automatically assume that white female tourists are assaulted because they are too dumb to either cover up or stay safe — and have said so about RoseChasm. My question to them: Would they call the many Indian women who are routinely assaulted dumb, as well? The fact is that any woman who has to take public transportation, walk on the streets (and not just in the nicer parts of town), or even take an auto to get home at night cannot be assured of her own safety. Then there are the countless village women who have to walk miles to get water or to the field who can hardly afford to "stay safe."

The uglier reality is that while rape may be considered a crime, we live in a culture where sexual harassment is so routine as to be unremarkable. Indian women are so used to the heckling, ogling and grabbing, we accept it as the price of leaving the house. And the privileged among us who preach safety to white women are so accustomed to our  home-car-office-restaurant prison that we no longer notice our gilded cage; we are so inured to the head-down-no-eye-contact existence, we view it as "normal", even "smart" behaviour. Worse, we smugly use this misognystic lakshman rekha as a stick to beat up on tourists who do not abide by its prohibition.

This ugly and entirely abnormal state of affairs is not a "cultural" norm that tourists ought to just lump as price of being in Rome. And let's not use it to condemn all Indian men as lustful and violent, either. Let's see it as what it is: the most visible symptom of a society without the rule of law. As Twoset rightly points out, no culture has a monopoly over patriarchy or sexual violence against women. But some nations have a judicial system that allows men to act on their worst impulses, and to do so with impunity. We are such a country.

Who among us doesn't identify with RoseChasm's stories of "men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins"; "the smiling man who masturbated at me on a bus"; "the man who stalked me for forty-five minutes." The effect on RoseChasm (who suffered a mental breakdown) may have been exceptional, but the incidents in themselves are not.

We all live with a debilitating sense of being under constant siege, an ever-present anxiety that a lewd comment or casual grope may lead to a full-on assault; the nagging worry that this auto or cab or bus driver may turn out to be the wrong one; the paranoia triggered by a slowly circling car filled with men. This, this is the price of being a woman in India. And it is paid by all of us, irrespective of colour, caste or class.

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