The many faces of India

The idea that India is "the rape capital of the world" needs to be challenged but without refusing women's experience of fear and violence.

A University of Chicago student recently wrote about her experience in India on a study trip. RoseChasm (the name she’s written by) recalls “men filming our every move” when she and her friends danced in the Ganesha Festival, “clawing at our breasts and groin”, “the smiling man who masturbated at me on a bus”. She also describes how she lay in her hotel bedroom holding a pair of scissors while the staff member of the hotel who had attempted to rape her friend called her over and over on the phone. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder on her return to university.

It is no doubt a difficult account to read, but for various reasons. It is distressing to hear of RoseChasm’s perpetual fear and experience of instances of violence. It is probably more so because I and most, if not all, women in India can relate to those experiences – getting into an auto-rickshaw and being vigilant to see if the driver is indeed taking you where you want to go, being brushed against and groped in busy buses, trying to hide from staring eyes and so on. But it is also disconcerting to read that RoseChasm assumes that it’s because she’s white that she experienced sexual harassment in India: “I knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize.”

RoseChasm’s contention is problematic because her only view of India seems to be as a white woman. I am not alleging that Indian men do not see white women as different from Indian women; however, ‘different’ doesn’t necessarily imply easy to sexually harass and assault. If anything, the delivery of justice in India in cases of rape, functioning as it does under pressure, has been more of a sure shot for travellers than for Indian women. One of the quickest rape trials to be conducted in the country was that of the rape of a German tourist in Rajasthan in 2006 which concluded in 15 days. By contrast, the trial of the case of gang rape of Delhi student in December 2012, which saw large scale protests in India, is still ongoing eight months after the incident.

Unintentionally, RoseChasm’s narrative obliterates, and paradoxically overstates, violence against women who live in India. It obliterates because she doesn’t mention talking to or sharing her experiences with other women in India (even though it is stated that she wrote this account in hope of spreading “international exposure about what women travellers and residents experience in India”). And it overstates because it quite easily lends itself to the assumption that it must be really bad for women in India if it’s that bad for a female traveller; an assumption that leads to the Chinese Whispers myth that the rest of the countries in the world don’t have a ‘rape problem’.

This very paradox underlies my own dilemma when writing about violence against women in India and, in this specific case, in criticising RoseChasm’s account without invalidating her experiences. It’s the same dilemma I face when I give out advice to friends planning to travel to India - the time they should get back to their hotel by, the people they shouldn’t talk to, and a few Hindi words that could help them manage emergencies - without making them feel like they’d be responsible if some wrong came their way. My issue indeed is not with what RoseChasm has described (which, as I said, I can personally identify with) but with how she’s described it.

Interestingly, a fellow student of RoseChasm who went on the same study trip followed up RoseChasm’s account with her own experience of travelling in India. The only black student on the trip, twoseat (the name she’s written by), writes: “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.” However, she wishes to steer clear of generalisations and emphasises that she met many warm and honest men too while in India. Her account is important because it drives home that travelling in India is, as in any other country, plural in the experiences and interactions it presents.

RoseChasm’s dilemma of how to respond to friends and family when they ask about her trip to India is also part of this story. India still conjures up colonial images of colour, chaos, virile men and oppressed women in travellers’ minds which often seem to inform all those questions about that one trip to India that a cousin or a friend or a neighbour took. This narrative that portrays India as a singular entity, the land of elephants and snake charmers, the rape capital of the world, needs to be challenged but without refusing the experience of fear and violence by women living and travelling in the country.

Protestors chant slogans as they hold up placards during a protest in December 2012. Photo: Getty

Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger and currently works as equality and diversity adviser at the London School of Economics. She tweets as @asiyaislam.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.