How Will One Student’s Story Define India?

Posted by Betty Zhang & filed under Identity.

photo courtesy of CNN iReports
photo courtesy of CNN iReports

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The emotional personal account of a female student’s semester abroad in India published on CNN iReport has drawn widespread attention and response this week. Michaela Cross, who studied for three months in India through a program at the University of Chicago, is torn by her experience in the country she describes as “a traveler’s heaven” and  “a woman’s hell.”

 

Personally, I am extremely saddened to hear about the traumatic experiences that she had. Studying and completing co-op work terms abroad were some of the most meaningful and memorable aspects of my university experience, as were the accompanying opportunities to travel. While I’ve experienced varying degrees of culture shock and have visited places where, like Michaela, I attracted substantial attention as a very visible foreigner, I can’t imagine what it’s like to feel as unsafe as she did — to be constantly “stalked, groped, masturbated at.”

 

While I feel Michaela’s story of India — a story she thought people “never wanted to hear” — definitely should have been told, I’m left with some uneasy questions. How much of Michaela’s experience should be attributed to her identity as a white woman? She writes that her “red hair, fair skin and blue eyes” provoked attention and that white women were seen as “sexual prize[s].” I don’t doubt that she was aware of the societal differences in India or that she tried to be culturally sensitive, given that she was a South Asian studies major and was prepared by her university before arriving in the country. And what I’m more certain of, is that Indian women face the same issues, and have to deal with the same threats of gendered violence. While as a personal essay her article had its limits, I wish she could have acknowledged more explicitly that Indian women are not exempt.

 

With the flood of reactions to the essay, particularly of Indian men apologizing on behalf of their country, I’m also left wondering how this article will affect other readers’ perception and understanding of Indian men and India as a country. Sexual harassment and and violence against women is certainly not something that only happens in India, nor is every Indian male a threat to women. Although it may not have been her intention, Michaela’s essay implicitly makes an unfair generalization of a country and a people. And like a fellow student on the same University of Chicago study abroad trip wrote in a response article, “when we allow a population to be subjected to a stereotype, we allow people to take action on a person based on the stereotype,” something that we should be weary of.

 

I am glad, though, that Michaela’s story will bring more awareness to issues of sexual harassment and violence against women in India, perhaps reaching audiences that a news story wouldn’t have been able to. Her article joins a growing pool of reporting on the experiences of both Indian women and travelers, bringing to light incidences of rape, acid attacks, deaths resulting from dowry disputes, and the overall gender inequality and misogyny. Following the reporting of a fatal gang rape on a public bus in New Delhi this past December, growing public debate led to the passing of stricter sexual harassment laws. I hope that Michaela’s story, instead of defining India as “a woman’s hell,” will instead contribute to a national conversation that continues to shifts public policy and societal perceptions on violence against women.

About Betty Zhang

Betty Zhang
Dalian-born and Vancouver-raised, Betty finds herself constantly torn between her fascination with the Asia-Pacific and her love for the Pacific Northwest. She is frequently writing, attempting to be trilingual, and tweeting @bettyyzhang

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