Dear Sisters (and brothers?) at Harvard

Letter from  Indian feminists VRINDA GROVER, MARY E JOHN, KAVITA PANJABI, SHILPA PHADKE, SHWETA VACHANI, URVASHI BUTALIA and others, to their siblings at Harvard

We’re a group of Indian feminists and we are delighted to learn that the Harvard community – without doubt one of the most learned in the world – has seen fit to set up a Policy Task Force entitled ‘Beyond Gender Equality’ and that you are preparing to offer recommendations to India (and other South Asian countries) in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Not since the days of Katherine Mayo have American women – and American feminists – felt such a concern for their less privileged Third World sisters. Mayo’s concern, at that time, was to ensure that the Indian State (then the colonial State) did not leave Indian women in the lurch, at the mercy of their men, and that it retained power and the rule of the just. Yours, we see, is to work towards ensuring that steps are put in place that can help the Indian State in its implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee, a responsibility the Indian State must take up. This is clearly something that we, Indian feminists and activists who have been involved in the women’s movement here for several decades, are incapable of doing, and it was with a sense of overwhelming relief that we read of your intention to step into this breach.

You might be pleased to know that one of us, a lawyer who led the initiative to put pressure on the Justice Verma Committee to have a public hearing with women’s groups, even said in relief, when she heard of your plans, that she would now go on holiday and take a plane ride to see the Everest. Indeed, we are all relieved, for now we know that our efforts will not have been in vain: the oral evidence provided by 82 activists and organizations to the Justice Verma Committee – and which we believe substantially contributed to the framing of their report – will now be in safe American hands!

Perhaps you are aware that the Indian State has put in place an Ordinance on Sexual Assault that ignores many recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee? If not, we would be pleased to furnish you a copy of the Ordinance, as well as a chart prepared by us, which details which recommendations have been accepted and which not. This may be useful in your efforts to advise our government. One of the greatest things about sisterhood is that it is so global, feminism has built such strong international connections – such that whenever our first world sisters see that we are incapable of dealing with problems in our countries, they immediately step in to help us out and provide us with much needed guidance and support. We are truly grateful for this.

Perhaps you will allow us to repay the favour, and next time President Obama wants to put in place legislation to do with abortion, or the Equal Rights Amendment, we can step in and help and, from our small bit of experience in these fields, recommend what the United States can do.

Vrinda Grover (mere lawyer)

Mary E. John, Senior Fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi

Kavita Panjabi, Professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata

Shilpa Phadke, Assistant Professor, School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mubmai

Shweta Vachani, Senior Editor, Zubaan

Urvashi Butalia, Director, Zubaan

And many others.

Other posts on this issue at Kafila

Harvard to the Rescue!

What is wrong with this picture?

Unintended consequences of Feminist Action

48 thoughts on “Dear Sisters (and brothers?) at Harvard”

  1. I read the Harvard College Women’s Center’s post and have followed this issue on Kafila. I must confess I find this piece by Professor Nivedita Menon (and signed by many others) to be a gross over-reaction. The HCWC’s post might be criticized for some infelicitous language and maybe even a sense of noblesse oblige – but to accuse it of being Katharine Mayo Redux is definitely an exaggeration.


    1. When I said “I have followed this issue on Kafila” I meant I have read some of these posts. In this specific instance, I have read Carol Vance’s post though not Prabha Kotiswaran’s.


  2. to bring the discussion back to the meat of the topic, i think i would be more grateful if the women’s movement in india actually wrote about why they agree to gender neutrality determined provisions in the recommendations, even when they clearly (still) perceive rape as a gendered (woman raped by man) crime.


    1. Priya, take a look at the posts listed at the end of the first post on this issue (Harvard to the Rescue!), to get a sense of debates on gender neutrality within the movement. it’s not one unified position on this.


    2. Noone agreed to gender neutral provisions in the ordinance as far as it applies to the accused. But we all did agree that the victim can be gender neutral.


  3. There couldn’t be a more civil response to the sheer ignorance and presumptuousness of the so-called Harvard sisters. Providing “recommendations to India and other South Asian countries”? This was the most ludicrous thing I ever heard! I mean, who do they think they are? Maybe the Harvard sisters need some Harvard wind knocked out of them before they can realize how things work “out there”.


  4. Good job Nivedita Menon. There are some of us, in this benighted albeit beloved country, who follow the work of all the above mentioned signatories with much gratitude and quite want to rap the knuckles of the Harvard task force thingie and say “Stop it now. Do your homework and pull your finger out.”


  5. “… we invite members of the Harvard community to contribute to a Policy Task Force titled “Beyond Gender Equality”, convened to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Diane…”
    Two thoughts here:
    1.”Convened to offer recommendations” says it is a deliberate attempt for the purpose.”We invite” is not the student body.
    2. Could be that, like any big establishment, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. I am positive it is not the Harvard admin putting these words on the website…so an e-mail asking them to look into the matter, should get someone talking to the right people in the department.
    The mistake might be in generalizing the Harvard interest here. But someone needs to not make recommendations without going “through proper channel.”


  6. There is no doubting the arrogance of the Harvard group. I do believe that they’ve been informed about the same, and I’m sure some serious rethinking is going into that camp, or at least I hope so :)
    But having accomplished this, I’m wondering beyond that, why are they being taken so seriously? I mean – who really cares about their piddly recommendations? The really serious work now is to make sure this ordinance fails to pass muster. Harvard really does not figure anywhere in this picture – regardless of what they believe. Or am I missing something here?


    1. I agree and in the first post of “Harvard to the Rescue” commented that “Habits die hard” and irrationality of “one size fits all” solutions to world problems.
      All the same one wants to give the benefit of doubt on every variable, when taking a stand across borders.
      After all we dont want to be arrogant and presumptuous. This has happened in relationship with “first world” recommendations on Kashmir couple decades ago.
      We have since seen handling terrorism, respecting local culture on their land, discriminating between friend and foe when you have them integrated on your own soil; isnt everyones cuppa tea.


      1. Could you elaborate? I’m wondering how Indian feminism handled recommendations on Kashmir two decades ago and have to say I fear the worst. Did you tell them “the Indian army is taking care of it and you Westerners can butt out”? Or as Madhu Kishtwar one of th e founding figures of Indian feminism says now “You Kashmiris can shut up and let the army handle this?” Love the hypocrisy.


        1. Sita, if you’re in conversation with Vandana that’s fine, but please don’t so easily conflate the views of a passing commentator on Kafila with Indian feminism. Also, please cease and desist from terming Madhu Kishwar feminist – she hates feminists even more than you do, and has firmly denied being feminist more than once. Indian feminists have taken very strong anti-Indian state stands where Kashmir is concerned, and if you don’t know that, perhaps you should educate yourself before jumping in here.


        2. Sita,
          No. It is not feminism I referred to in relation to Kashmir at all. I am only talking about the trend of external agencies coming in to advise about the right way to handling ‘a local situation/problem,’ in another country or culture without being asked.


  7. When Carol sent an e-mail to some of us on Feb 16th with this text….

    `Moving forward, we invite members of the Harvard community to contribute to a Policy Task Force titled “Beyond Gender quality”, convened to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Diane Rosenfeld, Director of the Gender Violence Clinic at Harvard Law School and Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, will head this group. Their principal task this semester is to produce a working paper that advises on the implementation of the recommendations from the Verma Committee. The committee in a bold move, points out the need to reassess the military powers that are allowed to operate with impunity in conflict zones. Part of our discussion will focus on real reparations and support for survivors of sexual violence, in a manner that allows them to function as integrated members of their communities.’

    I was like, oh well the sex workers movement is used to this. The `real reparations’, `survivors’ and `function as integrated members of their communities’ caught my attention. Welcome to our world. We are constantly told we understand nothing about our lives and that we need help. This is not new. Please refer to the major criticism leveled against sex worker rights groups in the country who are told that we need help from across the seven seas to understand our oppression and solutions thereof. `Save us from Saviors’ has long been the motto of VAMP, Sangli, India, who has suffered the ignominy of being told they `organise to oppress’ by western evangelicals who want to help us with solutions for our sins.!!


  8. This article speaks of ignorance, shallow understanding of globalization processes and it is mean in many ways. It totally discounts the history of the rise of south asian studies and institutes abroad which have been mostly lead by disaporic students and scholars. Calling them neocolonialist and labeling their efforts as white man’s/first world sister’s burden is racist, ahistorical and ignorant. Wish the learned author of this article and the reader commentators would do little research to learn the truth before airing their ignorant prejudiced opinions. Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Director of Research at the Francois Bagnoud Xavier Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and the University Adviser on Human Rights Education to the Provost at Harvard University, who will be facilitating the Harvard discussion mentioned above was born in Mumbai, India and is married to noted postcolonial critical theorist, Homi K. Bhaba. Seems like… though the Indian diaspora in the US contributed to knowledge building in postcolonial theory, Indian scholars within India are mostly busy with postcolonial identity politics.


    1. How is the “married to noted postcolonial critical theorist, Homi K. Bhaba” relevant here? Who cares whom she is married to? mixed messages here.


  9. As a researcher, I have trouble understanding what the outrage is all about. (And I don’t need to be educated on the different schools of feminism/identity politics/neo-colonialism/racism) Why throw dirt at the Harvard committee when they are merely doing what academic institutions do? Go through LSE’s website and look at all their speaker events – most academics discuss ‘recommendations’/’alternatives’/’models’ of different countries and regions because they have research interests in those areas. It’s convenient to frame your response in the same vein as an Achebe vs Conrad argument but the truth is – you’ve spent your precious time outraging over a SUMMARY posted on the Harvard College Women’s Centre website. Do you know the exact content of the actual discussion which is going to take place? Have you looked at the backgrounds of the academics who will be participating in this?

    Such shameful myopia this is.


    1. See you people don’t get it. All we are saying is `Nothing about us without us’.

      I would love to comment on the state of US policy on a number of things especially the `prostitution pledge’ which by the way has influenced numerous policies regarding sex work in my part of the world – sush, BIG bro Sam is looking.

      Wither the space??? even after it affects us the most!! How come this is not discussed in Harvard? if it was why were we not called into the discussion? SANGRAM returned US AID money cause we refused to sign the Prostitution Pledge – we were then called traffickers by the US, appologies from the US embassy here in New Delhi followed.

      No body from Harvard engaged with us. Wither academia interested in issues that directly affected Indian women in sex work?

      I cannot understand the outrage … all because we found it hilarious that some academics think they can `help’ us poor Indian feminists figure out what we need????? Aw come on!


    2. Geraldine, Krishna et al: The outrage of Indian feminists, if ‘outrage’ is the mot juste, isn’t over the HCWC blog post or the student seminar that it highlights. Harvard College is an undergrad school, and I am sure their deliberations will be no less enlightened, insightful and scholarly than undergrad seminars anywhere.

      It’s the mysterious Harvard Policy Task Force that’s piqued our curiosity. Defending the Task Force, an HCWC intern says, “labeling them as “neo-colonialist and racist” actually indicates a deep-seated ignorance about who they are and what they intend to accomplish.” That is true. Other than Bhabha and Rosenfeld, we have no idea who they are and what, if anything, they intend to accomplish. Our ignorance of the Task Force is not merely deep-seated, but comprehensive. Of the composition of the Task Force, we are informed that it is “not simply comprised of Harvard professors, but students who are actively involved in work in India and who hail from South Asia”, which is reassuring. I am sure members of the Harvard community, whose contributions are solicited, have been informed privately of what the Task Force intends to accomplish.

      In the fullness of time, I am certain we will also be told.


      1. Thanks Meena for your reply.

        “I cannot understand the outrage … all because we found it hilarious that some academics think they can `help’ us poor Indian feminists figure out what we need????? Aw come on!”

        *Nobody* is assuming that ‘poor Indian feminists’ need ‘help’ here but a few Indian feminists themselves (and supporters elsewhere). Can we expect unified response from feminists around the world on this matter? No – because as mentioned earlier, we don’t have enough evidence or information on the full composition, nature, intent and purpose of this Task Force. So, is it fair and necessary to wage these virtual wars at this stage?

        I don’t see why you wouldn’t go ahead and comment on the state of US policies on a number of issues – because that is what academic freedom is all about. How does your nationality matter if you are able to make valid, sound points? If your Western counterparts try to ‘shush’ you, tell them to take a hike! You have every right to be heard and be rad.

        And “nothing about us without us” – who is ‘us’ in this matter? Indian feminists, scholars, women? Or Indian feminists, scholars, women in the West? Or Indian women survivors of rape, sexual assault etc?

        Prabha Kotiswaran articulated her thoughts on this pretty well – nothing from her article made me cringe as much as this one did! My issue is not with the intent, but the content. I understand all of us have different views on this and all I’m saying is this – The energy and time being wasted prematurely on some pretentious sounding Task Force (who cares if it is Harvard?!) could be invested elsewhere. We have a lot of work to do in our own backyard.


        1. Valid sound points.
          Be rad.
           Love that challenge. Only problem is qualifying criteria. Who gets to decide that?
             Discussion is open on a common meeting ground of cultural appreciation.
          Let the listening begin. On both sides.
          I guess both backyards need fresh perspectives.


  10. Dear Mere Lawyer and esteemed sisters,

    I for one (I cannot speak for sister feminists, as you well know) would be sincerely delighted if you would assist us in the U.S. by advising our government on matters of abortion rights and the ERA. Heaven knows we need all the help we can get in those areas.

    A. Alliston, Mere Professor
    Princeton University


    1. Indeed, (if I’m pardoned the presumption to speak for fellow feminists) we would be delighted to.

      Mere student,
      Some Indian university


  11. Post colonial critic theorists’ wife.
    South Asian studies by diasporic scholars.
    (Shallow) Post colonial identity politics.
    A simple post on college website.
    Research is what academics do.
    Background of scholars.
    Content of discussion.

    I guess we are all talking about the same thing here. We all care about the same land. We are all searching for solutions.

    The only communication gap is who solicited help and through which agency has this been channeled? If it has been approved through universities or governments on both sides, then this rests the matter.


  12. I ruffled a few feathers by just sharing the first article. The responses (from people well-versed in the literature these posts arise from) included “Indian women have the least amount of actual power to change this pattern”. Why do they continue to assert that we don’t speak even when we do – and when we speak to them directly and in the language that they have read and understand?


  13. Most sexual assaults on women/girls/children are not reported. Those assaults are carried out by Caste Hindus and the assaults are on SC/STs in rural India. The police and army excesses are also not reported. What about your policy approach on it? How could it be tackled? They are alos our sisters.


    1. I disagree. Those assaults are carried out by those who own the means of production and enjoy the fruits of labor. The assaults are on those who work for them and more importantly those who are forced to in some way work for them without wanting to. Caste associations are ‘co-optative’.


  14. i am glad you all did this. it reminds me of lila abu lughod’s piece “do muslim women really need saving.” much work still needs to be done, obviously, in terms of teaching budding feminists located in the west about the perils and complexities of doing transnational work. especially on how not to erase local histories of activism.


  15. Akhila Kolisetty writes on her blog after attending the event at Harvard that set up the task force:

    Despite talking about women’s rights and development on this blog, and despite constantly reading about these issues – colonialism, development, the ‘white man’s burden,’ – I missed this problem. I accepted the idea of a “task force” originating from Harvard and did not immediately question the institution. This speaks to, perhaps, how deeply rooted these perspectives and biases are. For those of us who grew up in the West (though I was born in India, I can’t claim to be anywhere close to Indian feminists and activists who have worked to end rape and assault for decades), it is natural and difficult to overcome this perception that we have something to offer. Whether it is recommendations, programs, policies or changes to the way things are happening in the global south, we in the West are simply trained from childhood to think this way. My failure to even question the fact that we, a group of Harvard students, were even remotely qualified to give such advice to the Indian government, deeply disappointed me and helped me confront head on my complicity in this system.


  16. while it is clear that Harvard overstepped their boundaries in their outreach, it is a shame that in 2013 that women from different nations cannot support one another. Had feminists in America said “we see this plight in India, in these other countries, but we do not want to support our sisters for fear we would insult them” it would incite rage that American or other feminists simply do not care. How sad women cannot simply support other women, and humanity as a whole.


    1. who said there is no violence against women at Harvard or for that matter anywhere in the western world? Acc. to existing reported statistics the rate is higher in the US and Europe, while we cannot also discount the cultural factors of silence associated with family honor in Asian contexts. But, should that be taken as a rationale to silence voices protesting against violence on women anywhere in the world? If I live in India, can’t I protest out loud against violence against women in the US or in other parts of the world? I do protest against violence on women wherever I see them. Indian students & scholars have set up India studies centers in many countries abroad and Indian women have set up community organizations in big cities abroad to look after south Asian diasporic women who face violence abroad. They get engaged in fundraising and invest heavily in NGOs within India. Do we need to nationalize protest against injustice & development activity now in the 21st C interconnected global world where the Indian diaspora across the world are actively engaged with grassroots social movements and development within India? Come on….you gotta be kidding me! Seems like this “us vs. them” debate should end on international women’s day today…..this world has undergone major demographic and power shifts with not just neoliberal economic globalization but also faster human mobility (both physical and virtual around the world) since the days of 19th and early 20th C style European colonialism. As Swami Vivekananda said about the frog in the well…our vision will always remain limited if we remain in the well and think the sky is as big as the diameter of the well. Hope all sisters would be able to leap out of the well and wake up to the new world on Women’s Day! Wishing empowerment and enlightenment for all!


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