Off the beat: Encountering patriarchy abroad

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This column is in response to the article on CNN called India: The Story You Never Wanted to Hear about an American student’s experience with sexual abuse in India.

I recently returned from a two-month language-learning scholarship in the state of Punjab in northern India. There, patriarchy acts upon your body: lewd glares, shifty winks, body grabs and strange lips pressed against yours. Those are patriarchy’s hands, lips and eyes, and they threaten you, and all other women, at every turn.

Because you have a hole between your legs, you can be grabbed, prodded, pinched, pulled, pounded and your pain would not even merit a police report. And when you begin to understand fully the consequences of having this body, you no longer want it.

When a professional of the urban, middle class talks more to my male friend than me, when he asks him for his opinions, for his advice, for his time and not mine, it becomes clear that I am not a human, but a woman. I am India. My friend is America. I am a puppet. And the male, the puppeteer.

But I speak from the velvet seat of privilege. I am American-born, university-educated and wealthy. I can use this platform to rant and complain and levy my grievances, while the women of India — who fear their fathers and lock their doors at night, who are raped by drunken men in slums and sold by their parents — cannot. They do not have the social and cultural capital that I do, and this is precisely why their stories are the ones that need to be heard.

I can’t read an article about sexual violence in India that focuses entirely on a bourgeois white woman, containing not a single word about any Indian woman, without rolling my eyes. Because the true story you never wanted to hear is not the story told in the popular news, like a recent CNN article, and it is not the story about the white woman being abused — it is the story about the Indian woman being abused.

According to a 2010 UN report, domestic abuse affects two out of three married Indian women. But the Indian woman cannot describe in detail her story because her community may blame her, shun her, restrict her, abuse her and even kill her for it. The same hand that snakes its hand over her mouth to stifle a woman’s cries of resistance also stifles her testimonies of abuse. And her silence is the knife with which she, herself, is finally slaughtered. Because she cannot speak about sexual violence, it fails to be adequately addressed. The patriarchal structure is built in such a way that her story cannot be told, and so the white woman rants away while the brown one averts her eyes, lowers her head and shuffles quickly by.

These mannerisms — avoiding eye contact, covering your face and head, walking quickly, not stopping to talk to people — are often associated with the stereotype of “the passive Asian woman.” Yet these are not defects, but defense strategies. I remember asking a teacher while in India, “What are some good things to say, if a man harasses you in public?” She told me that usually a woman would ignore a man who did that and not say anything back. I scoffed and, with typical American cockiness, said, “Well, doesn’t that encourage the harassment? If you don’t say anything to the man, he will think it’s OK to continue.”

Her reply to this comment still reverberates in my mind today. She said that if a woman were to yell at a man and make him angry, the next day he might come back with his friends, find her, throw her in his Jeep, take her to a remote place and rape her. There, rape culture is like God, a supreme being — omnipotent, omnipresent, not wholly understood.

About 7,000 female fetuses are aborted in India every day, according to a 2006 UN report. Everywhere you go — on buses, in markets, at home through television and by your parents — you are being told that you shouldn’t even have made this far. In a place where you are slated to die before you are born, of what real consequence is the grabbing of a breast?

Documentary filmmaker and journalist, Daljit Ami, whom I met on my trip, was in the process of filming a documentary about female foeticide at a hospital with a female doctor who was to perform a sex-selective abortion. After rejecting his repeated attempts to speak with her, she accosted him in the hallway one day and asked, “Tell me, why shouldn’t I kill this girl?”

The obvious answer would be: because you would be snuffing out a life before giving it a chance — it’s femicide. But more importantly, why was that question even asked? If an educated female doctor is asking such a question to a male, then perhaps, to her, the possibility of living as a woman is worse than not living at all.