A Burden of Proof: A Response to “White Woman’s Burden” by Ameya Naik

This is a guest post by AMEYA NAIK

[On the 26th of August 2013, Newslaundry carried a piece by Rajyasree Sen titled “White Woman’s Burden“. This post is offered as a rebuttal of the views expressed in the essay.]

Dear Rajyasree,

Michaela Cross, aka RoseChasm’s CNN blog piece about her experience of India is, as you say, currently unavoidable on the internet. It does seem to be provoking a dialogue on women and safety in India – at least in social media circles. If the result is that Indian girls and women acknowledge and share their own negative experiences, perhaps thereby to make some Indian men re-examine their perceptions and behaviour, it would still be a step forward.

Unfortunately, some responses represent two steps backwards instead. Your writing (“White Woman’s Burden”, 26 Aug, 2013) is one such; it made me profoundly uncomfortable. The gist of your argument appears to be this: Michaela was not suitably prepared, and she *SHOULD* have known better. Indeed, given her account of her actions and experiences, and the trauma she has experienced therein, it is surprising (to you) how unprepared she was.

Did I just read a young, educated Indian woman entrepreneur – from the hospitality industry, no less – say that an exchange student left traumatised after experiencing molestation (and worse) because she was unprepared? I describe myself as a cynic, but surely this is a new low!

What, pray tell, would suggest she was sufficiently prepared? That she came here, had the experiences she did, and considered them “par for the course” in India? Or that she came here aware of (what you call) the skewed psycho-sexual dynamic between Indian men and women in all its rich and diverse forms, behaved in the most conservative and appropriate fashion – only dancing in “safe places”, avoiding public transport entirely, staying only with trusted hosts or in one of Goa’s five star hotels – and left having experienced only milder forms of violation, like the persistent gaze (which she would know to expect)?

This assertion of yours does have one unexpected benefit – it lets us ignore the fair skin debate. If complexion plays no role, she should still be at least as careful as any Indian woman. If complexion does play a role, she should be even more careful! As silver linings go, though, this is pewter on a thundercloud.

How, pray tell, would the students or the University prepare for their visit to the land of the skewed psycho-sexual dynamic? With little docu-dramas of all the kinds of harassment you can expect, and how to be safe at all times? Would you not seed the most pernicious mistrust in your potential visitors? In fact, why would any of them come at all? Surely the University would simply cancel the trip!

And, while you seem to suggest that this is precisely what the “easily traumatised” should do, we would be the first to protest. Already we cry ourselves hoarse over travel advisories saying India is unsafe for women. That, apparently, is an insult to our national pride. And that seems to be the source of this article: “how dare this unprepared white girl write about India this way?” Only Indian writers can suggest that India has a skewed psycho-sexual dynamic, right? (An interesting dynamic which, of course, makes some – but not all – lechers or potential rapists. And on current evidence, I shudder to ask you who these corrupted ones are, and why only they succumb to this taint.) Because Indian women are prepared for such behaviour, and they know – even when they face it abroad – that it is only an aberration.

Too many responses, too many comments, seem to be in this vein. Why this parochial-with-my-fingers-crossed-so-as-not-to-offend-gendered-perspectives reply at all? My thesis is that it is because Michaela’s account makes us ask a few uncomfortable questions. Such as, how many aberrations to make a norm? How much preparation is enough?

Answering those questions is not a White Woman’s Burden – the onus to answer to them lies on us. Discrediting the person who asked them as “easily traumatised” – and really, as someone who says she has lived through incidents enough of her own, how dare you! – is a thoroughly inadequate reply.

[Ameya Naik is currently in a graduate programme in Boston. A psychologist and lawyer by qualification, he worked in New Delhi across 2012-13.]

9 thoughts on “A Burden of Proof: A Response to “White Woman’s Burden” by Ameya Naik”

  1. You could literally write lengthy responses to every single statement in the original article. Out of all the defensive responses to Michaela’s account, this one is by far the most disturbing. I mean really, how DARE she?

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  2. After reading Rajyashree’s article, I think I defer with your views. It is extremely sensible to be aware of the culture you are travelling to and be prepared to face unwanted situations if you don’t. We as Indian women are well aware of our restrictions, even though we may not like them. We can’t educate and reform every single man in the country, so it is best to behave in a manner that doesn’t put us into awkward situations. I am not saying that getting raped is the women’s fault, but many unpleasant situations can be avoided if we are sensible and aware of the dangers lurking around us.

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    1. We don’t need to educate & reform every man in the country.

      But the fact that this is such an expected norm means that reforming even 50% of the wrongdoers would go a long way to fix the “skewed psycho-sexual dynamic” of our country.

      Just because something is hard doesn’t mean we should just give up.

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    2. Sanjukta, first let me refer you to Arvind Elangovan’s response on this debate. He deals, at length, with the kind of preparation involved in this trip: http://kafila.org/2013/09/08/race-too-after-all-along-with-gender-arvind-elangovan/#comment-57566

      Second: What suggestions about sensible behaviour overlook is that they are coming too late. When you say that something is avoidable, you only mean that one can reduce one’s risk of having to face it. As long as the risk exists, such mitigation is definitely a worthwhile effort. But you add insult to injury when you tell someone that their experience was a function of insufficient risk reduction. How do you know? Maybe they took even more precautions than you do!

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  3. Sanjukta, being sensible and arming yourself with precautions doesnot save you from ‘unwanted’ situations. Unless ofcourse precautions include not getting out of the house. All through my childhood, adolescence and youth I was always cautious, dressed modestly, walked modestly, merged into the background wherever I was. But no, it doesnt work that way- its the meek ones who get trampled first. I have experienced each and every one of Rose’s experiences in India- but not once each-many many times over. And when I read idiot Indians saying that this was her imagination, Indian men dont go about pulling their penises out in buses- well I can tell you stories, my children. You may laugh or you may cry- better the former, or u are heading Rose’s way.
    It’s been a long time since that has happened to me now, because I became strong. because I almost stabbed a man on the road, such was my rage I would have drunk his blood. Because I was so sick of these men, and I was so sick of these women, these horrible, self-righteous women like my mother- who would find a way to point the finger back at me . The day I said enough, I will kill the next one- it stopped.

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