Nandini mostly spends her time talking about things over which she has no control. What else can one do!
On August 18, 2013, CNN iReport published a brief account by a young American woman RoseChasm. Provocatively titled “India: The Story You Never Wanted To Hear,” the narrative put forth a familiar narrative: that “India was wonderful but extremely dangerous for women.” RoseChasm’s account came out during a time when following the New Delhi gang-rape case, the issue of sexual violence on women in India is on the table. Loudly and clearly. And if my own life spanning more than three decades is to lend any kind of historical accuracy, rarely in the history of postcolonial India have the issues surrounding sexual violence on women been discussed in the mainstream media this extensively. Rarely has such a debate involved so many women’s voices, thus moving the discussions on sexual violence from the usual and much-touted “compassion”, “sympathy” and “honor” to questions of social, cultural and historical constructions of women’s bodies, women’s right to access public spaces, and last but not the least, the violent masculinity that thrives on constructing its own identity on rape and sexual assault. As a result, RoseChasm’s article ended up participating, whether intentionally or not, within discussions on gender and sexual violence which were already taking place in the public sphere.
One caveat here though. When I say “public sphere”, I mean primarily the digital sphere, my 500+ Facebook friends, comprising mostly of academics, writers, artists and activists, spanning mostly India and the United States. Given that all narratives, even those claiming to be “objective,” are and can only be partial, I am noting this fact to take into account an important element in the contemporary circulation of news. While digitization has profoundly democratized certain types of information, it has also generated an equally profound polarization. Most of us read news and stories on Facebook (and other social media sites) that our friends, whom we have selected ourselves, post. We ”defriend” people based on how much we dislike the ideological and/or aesthetic contents of the stories they post. In that context, RoseChasm’s story had a particular – a very particular – online life. Circulated by a mostly urban and/or diasporic, upwardly mobile class of professional men and women, the story gained a strange currency amongst that “chic” crowd who claim some kind of connection to India – whether by birth, citizenship, descent, romantic relationship, or scholarly and professional interests.
Beyond that, did RoseChasm’s essay create any ripples? I do not know. Certainly, my lack of knowledge is symptomatic of the very social nature of this public discussion of gender. Even as I laud the proliferation of open discussions on gender and sexual violence, I also cannot help but notice its essential classed and exclusive nature. Classed, and therefore restrictive. When RoseChasm’s essay came out, not only did it participate within a discussion that was already taking place in the public sphere, it participated also within that discussion’s essential classed nature. It also added a few more things into that already classed discussion – race, colonial/imperial heritage, and a First World neoliberal and neocolonial education system.
As was expected, almost immediately after RoseChasm’s original article came out, Facebook pages were inundated with flurry of arguments. Indian men expressed their shame on being Indian. Some others saw in this “bad publicity” for India. India Today floated an online survey titled, “India Should Apologize to Michaela Cross.” Women, by and large, irrespective of their national, racial or ethnic affiliation, expressed solidarity and sympathy. Several other articles, too, were published – some on CNN, some on other websites – in response to RoseChasm’s original essay. The writers of these articles, mostly women, wrote, often in very moving ways, about their experiences of traveling in India, and elsewhere in the world. Thus, RoseChasm’s essay succeeded to incite a public debate about the issues of women’s mobility, sexual violence, and social, cultural and historical constructions of gender. And that is where the real value of the essay lies. The public that it addressed was limited – admittedly. But then, is there really any universal public or public space anywhere?
Now, let me reveal a little more about myself here. As a woman who has travelled alone to places like Mexico City (Mexico), Accra (Ghana), London (UK) and within United States of America, where I have spent the last decade of my life on student visa, and where I still live, I think the world is an unsafe place for women. I mean, the world is unsafe. Period. The world is unsafe because of reasons other than gender – neocolonial military interventions, neoliberal economic genocides, everyday police violence, racial violence, homophobia… I can keep on naming the diseases that plague this world today. So there is nothing surprising that women are faced with violence in this world.
Yet, what is mind-numbing and extremely confusing about the kind of harassment that women face out in the streets (alone, or with others) is its apparently all-pervasive nature: it can come from anywhere. Within a second, a group of working class teenagers hanging out in a street, a cab driver, a hip city intellectual – anyone – and, I mean it, anyone – can turn into a predator. That apparent pervasiveness – that you literally do not really know where it’s coming from – the very uncertainty of it, makes the whole damn thing so mind-numbing, so traumatic and confusing. Within a few seconds, you are transformed – say, from an art-lover, who loves to watch and photograph public art – into a sexual object. And that’s that. To be a woman, is to live under the constant threat of being turned into, and seen as a sexual body. A piece of ass. A pair of boobs. A cunt. A conglomeration of holes. And nothing else. To be a woman, is to walk this planet with the incessant fear of being raped. To be a woman is to walk this ground with the perpetual fear of being physically and sexually violated. To be a woman is to be suspicious of everyone, but more specifically, men. To this extent, I understand what RoseChasm is writing about. The other women who have commented on her piece – in agreement or not – understand what she is writing about. Yet when I read the piece, I am uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable, I am angry. What I am going to write is written from that place of apparent contradiction – sympathy yet anger, compassion yet critique. In other words, I have no easy answers. And I am writing this piece with the explicit aim of making things a little bit messy – to disrupt my and our “easy” understandings of what gender is, what constitutes sexual violence, and our responses to such. If what I am going to write makes you angry, then my work here is done. In order to do that, I will read RoseChasm’s essay a little bit more closely, break open her assumptions, clarify some of the things she takes for granted, and dig deeper into the language and tropes she uses.
Before I proceed any further, let me make certain things clear. I condemn sexual violence in any form, on any one. In the same vein, I condemn any sexual violence or sexual harassment that RoseChasm might have faced in India. Or anywhere else in the world. I am, after all, not one of the “Mera Bharat Mahan” crowd. I condemn the sexual assault on adivasi schoolteacher Soni Sori at the hands of the Chattisgarh State Police. I condemn the everyday instances of sexual assault and violence that Dalit women, adivasi women, women throughout the northeastern states, and women in Kashmir endure – often at the hands of the police, the military, and other state-sponsored or state-approved agencies. If anything, this essay is written with a view to move the question beyond any easy condemnation of sexual violence that resists in-depth political analysis. In other words, I am no apologist of any kind of sexual harassment or violence in any form. Instead, I am interested in initiating a discussion on how social-historical categories and historical occurrences – seemingly unrelated to gender – can contribute to our political understanding of gender. I also want to move beyond the easy understanding that there is a homogeneous social category called “woman.” All women are not exactly the same. Their experiences of this world – including that of sexual violence and its aftermath – are shaped by their other locations in this world. How a woman carries out the task of being a woman in the world is dependent upon class, race, caste, religion, geography, nationality and ideological position.
So Who Is RoseChasm?