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.

FERENC ISZA/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

This is a refugee crisis, and it has always been a refugee crisis

If your country is in flames and your life is at risk, boarding a rickety, dangerous boat is a rational decision. We need to provide safer choices and better routes.

Even those of us all too familiar with the human cost of the present refugee crisis were stopped in our tracks by the profoundly disturbing images of the dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach. Whatever our personal view about the ethics of displaying the photographs, one thing is clear: the refugee crisis on our doorstep can no longer be denied or ignored.

For far too long the political conversation in the UK has avoided facing up to the obvious conclusion that the UK must provide protection to more refugees in this country. Ministers have responded to calls to do more by talking about the aid we are providing to help refugees in the region, by blaming other European Governments who are hosting more refugees than we are, and also accusing refugees themselves by claiming the desperate people forced into boarding unsafe boats in the Mediterranean were chancers and adventurers, out for an easier life.

These latest images have blown all that away and revealed the shaming truth. This is a refugee crisis and has always been a refugee crisis. When the Refugee Council wrote to the prime minister in 2013 to call for the UK to lead on resettling Syrian refugees displaced by a war that was already two years old, it was a refugee crisis in the making.

Many people struggle to comprehend why refugees would pay smugglers large sums of money to be piled into a rickety boat in the hope of reaching the shores in Europe. The simple answer is that for these individuals, there is no other choice. If your country is in flames and your life is at risk, boarding that boat is a rational decision. There has been much vitriol aimed at smugglers who are trading in human misery, but European governments could put them out of business if they created alternative, legal routes for refugees to reach our shores.

There are clear steps that European governments, including our own, can take to help prevent people having to risk their lives. We need to offer more resettlement places so that people can be brought directly to countries of safety. We also need to make it easier for refugees to reunite with their relatives already living in safety in the UK. Under current rules, refugees are only allowed to bring their husband or wife and dependant children under the age of 18. Those that do qualify for family reunion often face long delays living apart, with usually the women and children surviving in desperate conditions while they wait for a decision on their application. Sometimes they are refused because they cannot provide the right documentation. If you had bombs raining down on your house, would you think to pick up your marriage certificate?

The time to act is well overdue, but the tide of public opinion seems to be turning – especially since the release of the photographs. We urgently need David Cameron to show political leadership and help us live up to the proud tradition of protecting refugees that he often refers to. That tradition is meaningless if people cannot reach us, if they are dying in the attempt. It is a shame that it had to take such a tragic image to shake people into calling for action, but for many it means that the crisis is no longer out of sight and out of mind.

Maurice Wren is the chief executive of the Refugee Council