“Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.”― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
In the United Kingdom 400,000 women are sexually assaulted and 80,000 are raped each year (2010/2011). These statistics do not include rape victims who are male, whose aggressors are both male and female. The population of the United Kingdom is 20 times smaller of India’s population. Yet living in the UK and reading its media, one could easily think that rape solely existed in India and that there is only injustice against women in the subcontinent and other ‘developing countries.’ During the past week I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about the twenty-three-year-old rape victim, now nick-named ‘Damani’ (lighting in Hindi). A few of these discussions have proven to be productive terrains for analysing rape as a social problem in the world today. However the majority of these discussions have served as cathartic moments for the Westerner to express her disdain for those ‘other countries that do not respect women’s rights’ while proclaiming her own country’s superiority in this area. Facebook comments as well have replicated this neo-colonial gaze towards other countries and in recent days India has been rendered a monolith in human rights abuses; yet the country in which I am currently living has aided my own country (the USA) to amass over 1,000,000 Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani deaths. (Of course, nothing is mentioned about these women’s rights to live in these countries.) As such, I am gravely concerned by the focus placed by Westerners upon rape outside of their own borders since rape is not a problem unique to India. Violence against women is a global problem that needs to be discussed honestly and without pigeon-holing certain cultures as more culpable.
Certainly women’s rights is an issue to be addressed from society to society and there are often nuances of difference from country to country regarding womans’ roles–both perceived and real–within each culture. Yet, it is also true that these discussions can only happen candidly from within each society. As the good people of India march in the thousands on the streets demanding reforms for women’s and girls’ rights–from the problems of female foeticide to educational access to personal safety on the streets of Delhi–it is imperative that we take Damani’s rape as a call to analyse rape and women’s rights here in the United Kingdom. For while we can make comparisons between societies from the UK to India, this does not change the fact that Facebook is now rampant with postings from women here who use Damani’s tragic story to proselytise about the ‘evils of’ other countries far far away, citing that rape occurs every 20 minutes in India and ‘Let’s not forget Africa. And let’s not forget the women who are raped in warfare.’ The imperative here, of course, is that ‘we’ understand that it is worse ‘over there’. Honestly, I am most uncomfortable with such arrogant brush strokes of judgement, especially made by people whose knowledge of India (or ‘Africa’ for that matter) is often limited to the media or at best, several months spent in ashram, yoga courses in Rishikesh, various beach hangouts in Goa and/or the ‘volunteer’ stints with NGOs which are riddled with all the appurtenances of Orientalism. (And I will not delve here into my thoughts on the vulgar classification of independent African nations under the nomenclature of this monolith ‘Africa’ with zero differentiation made between societies and clearly no knowledge of the actual countries’ names and unique histories and cultures.) What is clear to me is that years after the lesson’s of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized is that in the West we learned very little from the colonial heritage which implores the other to resemble us, to mimic our cultures as we perceive them to be superior. Memmi writes: “The first ambition of the colonized is to become equal to that splendid (European) and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him.” Yet the inverse is also true: that the European expects this disappearance to occur because she sees herself and her culture as far superior to the other and the other’s culture. Hence Western subjects seem drawn to take up the case of ‘women’s rights’ each and every time a travesty is mediatised (not that they don’t happen daily here and abroad) in order to cathect a personal issue onto the world terrain of human atrocity. The neo-colonial era of burqa from 2001 is now transformed to the rape victim of 2012 who elusively escapes all media critique back home.
Yet, if we are to play the statistics game, we might as well do it properly and analyse not the rapes that occurs every 34 minutes in the United Kingdom, but the per capita offences per 100,000 which reveal a quite different statistical field of information. As recorded by the police registries of each country rape offences in India show 1.8 rapes for every 100,000 versus 28.8 rapes reported for every 100,000 in the United Kingdom. Of course we could then analyse what percentage of rapes are actually reported and deconstruct the pool and statistical methods, etc. My point here is to underscore the importance in understanding that these figures are simply terrible when it comes to speaking comparatively for women’s rights in the world today–be it London or Delhi.
In one of my discussions this week about rape, one of my interlocutors questioned me about my experiences living in India and other countries outside Europe and North America asking me if I encountered ‘problems’ while traveling. I was quite honest and spoke of an attack I suffered last Spring on a bus in Karnataka, India, where a man insisted on sitting next to me on a bus that was 60% empty. Given that I had ridden next to groper on the way to the temple, a one hour journey, I decided to inform the man that the empty seat next to me was for women or children only. He immediately started to hit my head and as I put my arms up to protect myself from this drunken human, I was rather shocked that nobody on the bus did anything to help me. I likewise noted to the women who asked if I experienced ‘problems’ that I had experienced the greatest aggressions as a woman while living in the West. For instance, in Montreal, Quebec when 8 months pregnant I was physically assaulted by a man for ‘standing too close to [him]’ in a queue for a public telephone and while seven months pregnant I was not only run over by a drunk driver but to this day I am still fighting for the SPVM (Montreal Police) and the province of Quebec to proceed with an investigation. I was also told minutes after being hit by the car, when trying to press for charges against this drunk driver this: “Madame, you are not hurt enough.” A month later while asking for a report to be drawn up I was told: “Madame, because of your pregnancy hormones you probably imagined being hit by a car.” And quite recently in London, I was stalked and harassed by my landlord during my first two weeks of living in my flat; yet it took weeks of lobbying the Metropolitan Police Service of Tottenham to take seriously the gravity of the threat. Apparently this man’s presence in my life as a landlord was considered a civil issue despite his persistent attempts to enter my flat daily and sending 18 pages of SMS in three days with references to his mental instability (ie. ‘I am losing my mind’). Clearly women’s rights are not as fixed in the West as some of my interlocutors would like to believe and I simply could not claim that I had suffered greater threats to my person as a woman in India, Algeria, or Mexico any more I have suffered as a woman in Canada or the United Kingdom.
Yet in some of these discussions, I felt pressured to jump onto what I refer to as the ‘burqa bandwagon,’ a discursive space where Western women assert their societal superiority and their own country’s excellence in legal jurisprudence. Personally, I am not drawn to such dialectical arguments and neo-colonial spaces since progress is simply not a linear development that begins at A and ends with Z, nor is it a demarcation that can be made from across many oceans to societies that have very specific differences in how women interact with men and other women. I am also far too aware of the media blackout that has surrounded the murders of women, children and men in the past eleven years in this ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan perpetuated by ostensibly ‘enlightened’ and ‘democratic’ Western nations. The innocent dead see none of this democracy. Were we to examine honestly the place of rape in the global sphere, the UK and the US would have to shoulder a huge amount of blame for having rendered unstable these countries they have invaded and occupied lending a greater vulnerability to women and children specifically as the link between women’s rights and economic development and literacy is well documented. As I have lived much of my life in various countries throughout Latin America, the Maghreb, the Middle East and in Asia, I have come to learn how societal inflections on the human experience do not reveal facile notions of oppressor/oppressed. I have witnessed how the oppression of women is often effected–as it is here in the West as well–by other women and that hand in hand with oppression of women is the oppression of men, albeit an entirely different form of oppression. Such discussions that polarise women against men and the ‘modern’ against the ‘backwards’ only end up reaffirming a certain Western superiority and linearity of thought which ends up reaffirming Western paradigms of power and predispositions for framing the ‘savage, misogynist culture of India’ as the backdrop for our paradisiacal projections of a fictionalised equality.
As war crimes in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have highlighted rape over the past fifteen years, so did the pervasive Bosnian ‘Rape Camps’ of the 1990s remind us of the power of rape as a weapon of control in conflict situations closer to home. Yet, rape goes much further back than the US soldiers’ war crimes in Viet Nam of the 1960s and 1970s or the Nanking rapes by the Japanese forces in 1937. Rape is found throughout history as it is well documented and cannot simply be linked to x or y spot on the planet. Moreover, media incursions into post 9/11 Afghanistan have highlighted the need to understand rape in a larger context wherein women are not the only victims: what was uncovered by many journalists post 9/11 is that boys and young men were also the victims of the Northern Alliance. Likewise, revelations such as the Zimbabwe female gangs who have been raping male soldiers has recently come up again in media focus demonstrating the power of women to be sexually violent. When one Facebook poster writes about Damani, stating, “As long as there are men on this planet it will never end…,” I reminded her of the rape of men and the problems facing these men in terms of reporting the violence and of having these reports being taken seriously. The stigma for men to report rape today in any country is most humiliating as these men are basically told that it is impossible for them to physically be raped or that he should ‘consider himself fortunate.’ Recent research into the rape of men is revealing that there are far more male rape victims than previously estimated and that many of the perpetrators are women (most often mothers, aunts, nannies, etc). In the United States of America 10% of all rape victims are men. And in another rape case in India this week which has received far less Western media attention, a seventeen-year-old girl from northern Punjab committed suicide after being gang raped by men with the help of a female accomplice. To demarcate rape as a unidirectional domain whereby only women are raped by men (or that only men can possibly be rapists) is a disservice to undertaking any honest discussion about rape today. Likewise, to discuss rape purely within the confines of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘third-world nations’ is to diminish the reality of rape right here in the United Kingdom and other Western nations.
What is going on with the need for Western subjects to highlight Damani’s death as somehow endemic to India and other ‘third-world’ nations alone? I suspect that there is something much deeper going on in this growing problem of armchair Facebook ‘advocacy’ which reveals myriad humans who click and ‘like’ an article about a truism. For it is self-evident that a tortured puppy or a raped Indian medical student is ‘a bad thing’, yet these are the items of vast interest for people to idle away their days on Facebook. There is a huge disconnect in my fellow Londoners who post about the travesty of Damani whilst espousing the superiority of their own culture. On the one hand there is something incredibly violent about casually posting, sharing and liking an article about a rape without the deconstruction of similar events in our own political landscape. On the other hand, this growing trend of armchair Facebook advocacy falsely simulates a political action–as if ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ such articles is actually doing something other than objectify a rape and a death which is for Damani’s family and community alone to experience. All the rest is cultural fetishism.
Let us learn from India and get off our computers to engage in real political dissent speaking against all forms of rape here and now.
Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org