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.]
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.]