It was about this time last year that Steve and I were getting ready for our pilgrimage to India.
We had made the decision to make a cultural journey, rather than what you might call asana-based. We achieved that goal beyond our wildest dreams. I think we came home with a pretty broad but also fairly deep perspective. I saw the temples, yes; but I also learned about local politics, the education system, its economic development, rural life: we spent a good deal of time with locals. Since we got back, we’ve been following the national news in India pretty closely.
While we were there, the media—both newspapers and television—were rife with stories about rape—the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape. Steve, a former newspaper editor himself, wondered about it as a national obsession. On our last day in Mumbai, while we were checking out of our hotel, we watched a TV news story about men supporting women in protest against sexual violence: The men were wearing skirts (Western style) in solidarity.
I said at the time that India was experiencing a moment of consciousness-raising, a pivotal moment—America had its moment as well—when it becomes no longer acceptable to blame the victim. I was lucky enough to be traveling with my husband, but I have traveled before to places where just being a woman alone was a dangerous thing–not in back alleys or dark streets: just sitting on a bus or shopping in a store, when I was alone, I was harassed. And that was a fairly familiar thing: When I was very young, this was still acceptable on the street where I grew up in Texas.
Two radio stories today on NPR and PRI provide some excellent context for the state of women in India one year after its national trauma. The first covers the recent scandal that has brought attention to the conditions of women in India in the workplace.
As India marks the anniversary of the infamous gang rape in New Delhi, it is ending the year as it began: in upheaval over its treatment of women. In a recent series of cases, men in positions of privilege are alleged to have sexually harassed or assaulted female employees. The episodes spotlight the absence of women’s rights in the Indian workplace.
The second provides one woman’s perspective on how far attitudes have come in a year from Rhitu Chattergee, a reporter who has returned to India after living for a long time in the United States.
But today, as India looks back on what has changed in the past year, time and again young women in Delhi tell me one thing: ‘It is no longer acceptable to blame the victim. You may think it’s the victim’s fault, but you can’t say that out loud without being publicly shamed.’
At the same time, the Indian supreme court has declared consensual sex between two adults of the same gender “unnatural,” effectively criminalizing homosexuality. I have gay friends in India right now, studying yoga. Gurus are stepping all over themselves, declaring yoga can “cure” them. There is, I realize, a long way to go.
In our Western appropriation of the beliefs and practices of another country we have to be careful we don’t do what Edward Said termed “Orientalism”: blind cherry-picking of aspects of the culture, romanticizing and retelling the stories in a foreign image. We must be careful to maintain our respect, and recognize the difference between the truth and our projections. When it comes to the role of women and the changing awareness of sexuality in India, a country we have come to love and admire, it’s both encouraging and frightening to watch the process of awakening happen.
Posted by Bobbie