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.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times