360° Analysis

Orientalist Feminism Rears its Head in India


January 03, 2013 06:10 EDT

The inability of American media to properly understand the sexual violence epidemic in India, and the resort to “cultural” or “national” explanations for these crimes, exhibits orientalism and reductionism.

The brutal rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi by a gang of young men, followed closely by the suicide of a Delhi rape victim who was pressured into marrying her rapist by police, has provoked international criticism of the Indian government and widespread protests across India by a diverse strata of Indian society. In the melee of protests with the government, the Indian state has used tear gas and live ammunition, killing a reporter. Next to the police's horrible management of rape cases, as well as the protests themselves, Indian leaders have produced a litany of insensitive remarks about the case. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked, "Theek Hai?" [Is that enough?]), after giving a short and characteristically emotionless statement of concern about the rape. Many interpreted this comment as belittling of the widespread anger in India over the rape. His comment was followed by a statement by Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of President Pranab Mukherjee, dismissing the protesters as fake, or “dented and painted” (like a used car).

In contrast to the government's abhorrent response to rape, the Indian public has been widely critical. Protests in solidarity with women and demanding justice for victims of sexual violence have erupted up all over India, from Delhi, where the horrible crimes were committed, to Kashmir. The upsurge of Indian anger has poured into the streets. Videos have not captured silence, but a swell of angry men, women, and youths willing to fight with police over  women's right to safety in public and the right to demonstrate itself.

But you would not know it from some commentators, both Indian and “Western.” Instead, they have reduced India's rape crisis to a cultural problem. Men, we are told–specifically, Indian men–are culturally lacking and barbaric. They have no concept of women's rights or equality. They are born and bred to sexually assault and degrade women. This is a familiar phenomenon, and an outgrowth of colonialism. When horrible crimes happen, specifically to women, we reduce the culture, in this case, of about one billion people, to a gang-bang-enabling society of rapists. And of course, by blaming Indian culture specifically, Western sexism is brushed under the table. We arrive at Gayatri Spivak's formula explaining the colonial exploitation of anti-woman violence in colonized societies: “white men saving brown women from brown men.” 

The process of reducing brown men to savages has been all too familiar in recent years. We have seen Egyptian men reduced to “animals” and “beasts” by the New York Post because a mob high on a combination of stupidity and jubilation about Mubarak's downfall brutally assaulted white reporter Lara Logan. We have seen a number of “native informants,” from Mona Eltahawaly to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, tell us that Arab and Muslim men “hate” women. In typical colonial fashion, gender dynamics, including real crimes and acts of brutality, are reduced to “cultural” problems in which we can reduce entire societies to large gang-bang parties predicated on savage men who simply prey on women.

“Native informants”–people who can give us the illusion of authenticity in promoting these narratives by identifying as nationals from the countries and societies in question, such as Mona Eltahawy and Ayaan Hirsi Ali–are key to this narrative. As Oxford doctoral candidate and Rhodes scholar Monica L. Marks notes:

Books by these "native voices"–including Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Irshad Mandji's Faith Without Fear–have flown off the shelves in post-9/11 America despite being roundly rebuffed by leading feminist academics such as Columbia University's Lila Abu-Lughod and Yale's Leila Ahmed.

Indeed, many of their first-hand accounts are “largely inaccurate and guilty of extreme generalizations,” but sell because “tell us what we in the West already know–that there's something inherently misogynistic about Muslims and Arabs.” One cannot, of course, deny the existence of discrimination and crimes like the assault of Lara Logan. However, to assume that Muslim or Arab “culture” is intrinsically responsible–as opposed to context, and political and social factors such as an unequal distribution of power between men and women–is reductionist and narrow-minded.

In the aftermath of the rape scandals taking place in Delhi, we see the same orgy of racism and orientalism in blaming Indian culture, both by Western voices and Indian “native informants.” The angry and widespread demands of Indians, men and women alike, that the police make drastic reforms to protect women in public and to strictly punish–and even execute–rapists, do not seem to challenge these reductionist views when applied to India. Instead, commentators like Rashmee Roshan Lall provocatively suggest that “India has a woman problem,” writing in Foreign Policy. While Lall's account is certainly more nuanced and informative than any of those by Hirsi Ali or Mona Eltahawy, the piece nonetheless exhibits the same orientalist reductionism of blaming “India” as a culture or nation for these despicable crimes.

For one, which “India” is Lall blaming? Does it include the India of the All India Democratic Women's Association, which has actively fought sexism from the local to national levels for over thirty years and claims millions of members? Does it include the “India” of the protesters, who are actively fighting and risking death from Kashmir to Delhi to challenge the police and demand justice? Does it include the “India” of the victim herself? Does it include the “India” of all of those who are disgusted by this horrible crime? Because that “India” does not seem to have a “woman” problem–it seems to have a “government” problem.

But Lall's piece goes further. She gives us a series of statistics that indicate quite clearly how serious the rape and sexual assault problem in India is. One would have to be crazy to deny there are obvious problems that demand serious solutions as per the statistics Lall provides–solutions like the ones that the protesters are demanding, including stricter penalties for rapists. But nonetheless, the raw numbers are arranged together in a strange medley in order to castigate India in its entirety. I am not one to apologize for the Indian state or its variety of national problems. Indeed, the inability, incompetence, and active complicity of the Indian state in the rape crisis is yet another reason why India should not be held up as a democratic utopia. But in her account, Lall combines India's rural child marriage problem, the increasing tolerance of premarital sex among Indians, sexually explicit advertising and porn, and patriarchal and sexist attitudes from men about violence against women in India to conclude that India as a whole has a “woman problem.” In addition, she quotes an analytical study that claims that India is the “worst country to be a woman” out of twenty of the largest economies in the world, predictably being far below the United States. She (rightfully) points out that Indians should not point to India's election of female politicians or the presence of women in the workplace as an excuse for patriarchy.

Of course, this is a distorted narrative. For one, the problems Lall describes are not “Indian” ones. In the aftermath of the highly publicized celebrity beating of Rihanna, about half of Boston's teenagers decided that the pop star, who was assaulted by her then-boyfriend, “deserved” to be beaten.

Likewise, premarital sex in the United States is common, and the United States also has a history of sexual repression. And although child marriage is not a regular phenomenon in the United States, and the USA is far ahead of India in the ranking of women's rights according to the study quoted, the study is misleading. It groups India, an incredibly impoverished country that happens to have a large economy, with some of the wealthiest and most highly developed countries in the world. If anything, the survey is evidence of how GDP does not translate into a higher quality of life–certainly, not for women. But this is a problem of development–not a “woman problem” that is limited to India.

Likewise, depending on where we look in the United States – the military, college campuses, and different parts of the country – we can see rape culture and the blatant degradation of women. Rape statistics in the US military are particularly gruesome, showing that a female soldier is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than to be killed in battle. In general, one in five  American women report being sexually assaulted. Although Lall certainly did not mean to downplay sexual violence in other parts of the world, the danger of reducing incidents of sexual violence to a national or cultural problem is that it inevitably distracts us from sexual violence in other contexts.

Nonetheless, Lall is a serious commentator, and although her piece is problematic for sewing together various crimes against women in India into a “national” problem, it is still informative about various threats of sexual violence in India. But other accounts are far worse. Indian actress Leeza Mangaldas claims:

"Should men not feel responsible then to prevent the occurrence of this crime? Shouldn't men be disturbed that their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters constantly feel unsafe or feel they have to dress and behave in a particular way to avoid getting raped? Isn't it time men educated other men about consent?"

Somehow, Mangaldas' technically accurate comment "rapists are men" has silently shifted to "Indian men are rapists." Mangaldas does not stop at castigating men, but also claims her own unwillingness to address a difficult subject like rape in a film is on par with the "dented and painted" dismissal by Mukherjee (above), and a symptom of India's cultural acceptance of rape. She also points to a Hindi phrase describing rape as a dishonor as more proof for her overall claim: that "We [Indians] are all guilty" of misogyny.”

But that is not the worst of it. In seeing how orientalist feminism works, it is sometimes helpful to see what people write from a point of anonymity.

On aggregate sites like Reddit, the so-called “front page of the Internet,” commentators “upvote” and “downvote” news stories and comments that they agree with. A quick survey of some of the anonymous comments–and the rest of the online community's approval–reveals how deep some of these prejudices go. A self-labeled native informant, with the user name “IndianWoman_”–of course, removing any doubt that the user is actually an Indian woman–writes:

"I am from India [the entire country, apparently] and I cannot even begin to count the number of times when I was groped, was subject to frotteurism, catcalls, lewd looks, and vulgar sexual taunts in public places – trains, buses, crowds, in a university library. I guess I was lucky I got away with only these. Fuck all those people."

1,745 net “upvotes.” She continues, “saying India is full of rapists and molesters is not a stereotype or generalization,” with three net upvotes, “Fuck India and Indians. And I am Indian,” with thirteen net upvotes, and to top it all off, to whitewash of “the West,” she tells us, “I can seriously say that the United States has provided me with a much better living environment and I feel much safer and more at home here,” with nine net upvotes.

Not to be outdone, another supposed native informant, “sceptic_ali,” tells the community:

"i [sic] strongly feel that we, south asian [pakistan, from what my cousins have told me, is no different] men, of all religions and sects, are a weak, insecure,treacherous and cowardly lot who, in most cases, are "brave" only when fighting the weak…how else can one explain a handful of english men ruling over half a billion indians with ease for two centuries." [boldface added]

Sceptic_ali explicitly relates Indian cultural “weakness” to colonialism. He continues, “…i would be remiss in not pointing out that north indians and pakistani men are particularly misogynous; rest are only relatively better, only relatively…oh, and, after the arabs, we are among the most racist people on the planet. and here, too, north indians and pakistanis take the lead”.

Overall, the post receives an astonishing fifty-six net upvotes.

The commentary is not limited to “native informants.” User “Czeris” writes, “I confess to being a western male. I cannot conceive of how Indian men can not be the first ones on the picket line, front and shoulder with their women. Do you not see how this reflects on you?” with twenty-two net upvotes. The user, like Mangaldas, strangely ignores the massive presence of men in the protest. Likewise, “DwarfJesus” writes“Oh the culture is definitely to blame. Have you even seen the amount of rape cases in India?…This is not america…Rape is not as frowned upon in India as it is in the western culture,” receiving six net upvotes. The user continues, asking why nobody on the bus helped the woman (despite that it was a private charter bus and nobody else was present), and points out the police complicity in many of the rape incidents, something the user believed could not happen in America.

The running theme, both with native informants and ignorant Westerners, is that there is something inherently backward about Indian culture. Some users explicitly use colonial justifications to argue their worldview. Others explicitly contrast the United States, sometimes in ways that are false–such as by suggesting rape is not “as frowned upon” in the USA, or that police involvement in rape does not take place, both claims that are difficult to measure and/or outright false. Indeed, even Lall is guilty of these strange contradictions–she herself notes, for example, that US representative Todd Akin made some terrible comments suggesting pregnant women cannot truly be raped.

Overall, would we ever use the combination of rape-enabling comments by Todd Akin, the widespread reporting of sexual assault in the United States, the epidemic levels of rape in the US military, the rate of rapes and apologism for rape on US college campuses, the difficulties in properly prosecuting sexual assault in the United States, instances of mob violence against women, or instances of complete failures of the law to prosecute obvious gang rape in the United States, to reduce rape and violence against women to a part of American culture? Would such an explanation be helpful or meaningful in solving the issue of violence against women? Would it point out where reforms need to be made? Or would it simply be a vitriolic and intolerant justification for cultural hatred? The difference, is of course, quite obvious – when sexual violence happens in the United States, not only do we have a habit of ignoring its root causes, we also reduce it to a “few rotten apples.” But in either case, we do not blame America's “culture,” or the American nation as a whole. The inability to properly understand the sexual violence epidemic in India, and the resort to “cultural” or “national” explanations for these crimes, exhibits orientalism and reductionism. Moreover, it serves to undermine awareness of sexual violence in the West. And perhaps, most importantly, it does not give us meaningful solutions for how Indian society, as it demands justice for the victims of sexual violence, can move forward to protect the rights of women.

*[This article was originally published by Jadaliyya.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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