Nandini Dhar

Nandini mostly spends her time talking about things over which she has no control. What else can one do!

            On August 18, 2013, CNN iReport published a brief account by a young American woman RoseChasm. Provocatively titled India: The Story You Never Wanted To Hear, the narrative put forth a familiar narrative: that “India was wonderful but extremely dangerous for women.” RoseChasm’s account came out during a time when following the New Delhi gang-rape case, the issue of sexual violence on women in India is on the table. Loudly and clearly. And if my own life spanning more than three decades is to lend any kind of historical accuracy, rarely in the history of postcolonial India have the issues surrounding sexual violence on women been discussed in the mainstream media this extensively. Rarely has such a debate involved so many women’s voices, thus moving the discussions on sexual violence from the usual and much-touted “compassion”, “sympathy” and “honor” to questions of social, cultural and historical constructions of women’s bodies, women’s right to access public spaces, and last but not the least, the violent masculinity that thrives on constructing its own identity on rape and sexual assault. As a result, RoseChasm’s article ended up participating, whether intentionally or not, within discussions on gender and sexual violence which were already taking place in the public sphere.

            One caveat here though. When I say “public sphere”, I mean primarily the digital sphere, my 500+ Facebook friends, comprising mostly of academics, writers, artists and activists, spanning mostly India and the United States. Given that all narratives, even those claiming to be “objective,” are and can only be partial, I am noting this fact to take into account an important element in the contemporary circulation of news. While digitization has profoundly democratized certain types of information, it has also generated an equally profound polarization. Most of us read news and stories on Facebook (and other social media sites) that our friends, whom we have selected ourselves, post. We ”defriend” people based on how much we dislike the ideological and/or aesthetic contents of the stories they post. In that context, RoseChasm’s story had a particular – a very particular – online life. Circulated by a mostly urban and/or diasporic, upwardly mobile class of professional men and women, the story gained a strange currency amongst that “chic” crowd who claim some kind of connection to India – whether by birth, citizenship, descent, romantic relationship, or scholarly and professional interests.

            Beyond that, did RoseChasm’s essay create any ripples? I do not know. Certainly, my lack of knowledge is symptomatic of the very social nature of this public discussion of gender. Even as I laud the proliferation of open discussions on gender and sexual violence, I also cannot help but notice its essential classed and exclusive nature. Classed, and therefore restrictive. When RoseChasm’s essay came out, not only did it participate within a discussion that was already taking place in the public sphere, it participated also within that discussion’s essential classed nature. It also added a few more things into that already classed discussion – race, colonial/imperial heritage, and a First World neoliberal and neocolonial education system.

            As was expected, almost immediately after RoseChasm’s original article came out, Facebook pages were inundated with flurry of arguments. Indian men expressed their shame on being Indian. Some others saw in this “bad publicity” for India. India Today floated an online survey titled, India Should Apologize to Michaela Cross.  Women, by and large, irrespective of their national, racial or ethnic affiliation, expressed solidarity and sympathy. Several other articles, too, were published – some on CNN, some on other websites – in response to RoseChasm’s original essay. The writers of these articles, mostly women, wrote, often in very moving ways, about their experiences of traveling in India, and elsewhere in the world. Thus, RoseChasm’s essay succeeded to incite a public debate about the issues of women’s mobility, sexual violence, and social, cultural and historical constructions of gender. And that is where the real value of the essay lies. The public that it addressed was limited – admittedly. But then, is there really any universal public or public space anywhere?

            Now, let me reveal a little more about myself here. As a woman who has travelled alone to places like Mexico City (Mexico), Accra (Ghana), London (UK) and within United States of America, where I have spent the last decade of my life on student visa, and where I still live, I think the world is an unsafe place for women. I mean, the world is unsafe. Period. The world is unsafe because of reasons other than gender – neocolonial military interventions, neoliberal economic genocides, everyday police violence, racial violence, homophobia… I can keep on naming the diseases that plague this world today. So there is nothing surprising that women are faced with violence in this world.

            Yet, what is mind-numbing and extremely confusing about the kind of harassment that women face out in the streets (alone, or with others) is its apparently all-pervasive nature: it can come from anywhere. Within a second, a group of working class teenagers hanging out in a street, a cab driver, a hip city intellectual – anyone – and, I mean it, anyone – can turn into a predator. That apparent pervasiveness – that you literally do not really know where it’s coming from – the very uncertainty of it, makes the whole damn thing so mind-numbing, so traumatic and confusing. Within a few seconds, you are transformed – say, from an art-lover, who loves to watch and photograph public art – into a sexual object. And that’s that. To be a woman, is to live under the constant threat of being turned into, and seen as a sexual body. A piece of ass. A pair of boobs. A cunt. A conglomeration of holes.  And nothing else. To be a woman, is to walk this planet with the incessant fear of being raped. To be a woman is to walk this ground with the perpetual fear of being physically and sexually violated. To be a woman is to be suspicious of everyone, but more specifically, men. To this extent, I understand what RoseChasm is writing about. The other women who have commented on her piece – in agreement or not – understand what she is writing about. Yet when I read the piece, I am uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable, I am angry. What I am going to write is written from that place of apparent contradiction – sympathy yet anger, compassion yet critique. In other words, I have no easy answers. And I am writing this piece with the explicit aim of making things a little bit messy – to disrupt my and our “easy” understandings of what gender is, what constitutes sexual violence, and our responses to such. If what I am going to write makes you angry, then my work here is done. In order to do that, I will read RoseChasm’s essay a little bit more closely, break open her assumptions, clarify some of the things she takes for granted, and dig deeper into the language and tropes she uses.

            Before I proceed any further, let me make certain things clear. I condemn sexual violence in any form, on any one. In the same vein, I condemn any sexual violence or sexual harassment that RoseChasm might have faced in India. Or anywhere else in the world. I am, after all, not one of the “Mera Bharat Mahan” crowd. I condemn the sexual assault on adivasi schoolteacher Soni Sori at the hands of the Chattisgarh State Police. I condemn the everyday instances of sexual assault and violence that Dalit women, adivasi women, women throughout the northeastern states, and women in Kashmir endure – often at the hands of the police, the military, and other state-sponsored or state-approved agencies. If anything, this essay is written with a view to move the question beyond any easy condemnation of sexual violence that resists in-depth political analysis. In other words, I am no apologist of any kind of sexual harassment or violence in any form. Instead, I am interested in initiating a discussion on how social-historical categories and historical occurrences – seemingly unrelated to gender – can contribute to our political understanding of gender. I also want to move beyond the easy understanding that there is a homogeneous social category called “woman.” All women are not exactly the same. Their experiences of this world – including that of sexual violence and its aftermath – are shaped by their other locations in this world. How a woman carries out the task of being a woman in the world is dependent upon class, race, caste, religion, geography, nationality and ideological position.

So Who Is RoseChasm?

It turns out RoseChasm is not RoseChasm at all. Her “real” name is Michaela Cross. (Nothing surprising about that. After all, digital spaces allow us to be chameleons. We’ve all tried that at some point or other. ) An undergraduate student majoring in South Asian Studies at University of Chicago, Cross visited India as part of a study abroad program. What that means, in very mundane terms, Ms. Cross pays a little more than $45,000 as her tuition fee every year for her education (according to the University of Chicago website). Even if she is a scholarship student, undergraduate admission to an Ivy League school like University of Chicago does not come about without lengthy training and expensive preparation. Yes, Cross has “class”, quite literally – the “class” that allows her to travel to India or elsewhere in the world. In other words, and let me be blunt: Cross’ piece cannot be seen in separation from the long and extremely complicated web that has been constructed by colonial social relations and cultural representations, imperialism, postcolonial neocolonialism, neoliberalism, capital, class, race, gender and sexuality. As I write this sentence, I want to emphasize that each and every one of these categories plays a role in this mess. This mess would not be complete without gender and sexuality, but those are just two elements in this complexity. Only two.

How I Feel When I Read Cross… And Why

             She begins her essay with a question: “When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction that over the past few months has torn my life apart, and convey it in a single succinct sentence?” Somehow, without reading another sentence, I know what the rest of the essay is going to be about: how hard it was for her as a woman to travel through India. It is not that I have any supernatural powers of prediction. But after spending more than a decade in Cross’ country of citizenship – much of which was spent inside classrooms teaching young (and mostly white) Americans about race, gender, sexuality, class, cultural representations etc. – you get to know this much. That a certain formulation will be echoed frequently: that India/South Asia/Middle East/Africa is “traditional”, and that to be “traditional” means to be patriarchal. This was true even though I almost never heard my students use the word “patriarchy”. The terms they use are “bad for women” or “not very friendly to women” or some variation thereof. America, on the other hand, revels in “choice.” A woman wearing high heels (or bikini or short shorts) is exercising “choice.” A woman deciding to leave her job and become a stay-at-home mom has “choice.” Cross’ article, without necessarily stating it explicitly, makes use of this rhetoric. She came to India, because it was her “choice.” Because she could. On the other hand, once within India, her choices were thwarted, because as it happens, India is “extremely dangerous for women.”

            And she is supported by the statistics. By some statistical measures, India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women to live in, surpassed only by Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia. In fact, right now, India’s “dangerousness” for women is a pretty thriving global industry. Documentary filmmakers, journalists, media personalities, academics – all of us “creative types”, who put food on our tables by analyzing and representing culture – we all take part. We are all trying to grab the next story, a seat in the next TV debate on the issue.

            Let me be clear here: the statistics and the realities they represent scare me too. They are doubly scary when one is a woman. Nor am I denying the intensity of the violence that women face in India on a daily basis. Yet the emergence of a “women in India” industry scares me even more. Why? Precisely because I know turning women into signs and symbols is an old colonial trick. Because I know India’s elites have been complicit in that game. Because I know wars have been waged in the very recent past by the United States of America on Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of liberating women in those nations. Even as I am writing this essay, the role of women and the ideology of gender remain central elements of the rhetoric in the wars being waged throughout the Middle East, the histories and details of which are too complicated to reiterate and discuss here. That’s why, when I see Cross’s article in a media outlet like CNN, one of the largest media oligopolies in the world, and a key agent in what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky called the “manufacture of consent” for the most vicious forms of American classism, racism and imperialism – I am suspicious.

            It scares me even more when I see the indiscriminate and unreflexive recycling of old imperial tropes in Cross’s essay. In her essay, Cross writes that she and her friends, other American women, were filmed while dancing in the Ganesha festival. She tells us, she was clawed at her breasts and groin. She informs us she was stalked by a man for forty-five minutes. She tells us that while living in a hotel in Goa, she held “a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone.” She tells us a smiling man masturbated at her on a bus.

            I do not question the veracity of any of these incidents. Why? Because all of these – or some version of them – have happened to me and other women I know in India. Based on this, part of me feels sympathy. I want to empathize with Cross. As an older woman, who teaches young American women her age, my heart goes out to her. Yet, if I have to be completely honest, it’s an effort to maintain that sympathy. Because what I spontaneously feel instead is rage. Rage combined with fear and irritation.

            What scares me, and irritates me, and fills me with rage is the language in which these incidents have been written about. The images that she uses to narrate these experiences – the images that are inextricable elements of imperial and colonial writing. More specifically, I associate her language, its imagery and tropes with colonial travel writing, a genre which performed the cultural and ideological labor of rendering colonized peoples and geographies as “exotic” and therefore open for imperial/colonial consumption and plunder. Yes, I am cursed with knowledge. I am cursed by the fact that I have spent ten years of my life reading about colonialisms, imperialisms, their legacies and complex reiterations. And I see those reiterations in Cross’s essay. Consequently, even though I want to provide her with solidarity as a woman, an older woman, an Indian woman, I find myself unable to. Because I do not want to choose between colonial/imperial racism and sexism.


What Categories Does Cross Depend Upon?

 In terms of its essential narrative strategy, Cross depends on creating binaries, clear-cut oppositions. Things which are “good” about India, things which are “bad” about India. More specifically, things that can be easily and casually narrated, and things that are unsayable. In her own language, “half dream, half nightmare.” The bad and the unsayable are constituted by the instances of sexual harassment and violence – the ones I have listed above. What are the “good” and “sayable” things about India then? I will quote directly from Cross to demonstrate:

Do I tell them about our first night in the city of Pune, when we danced in the Ganesha festival, and leave it at that? Or do I go on and tell them how the festival actually stopped when the American women started dancing, so that we looked around to see a circle of men filming our every move?

Do I tell them about bargaining at the bazaar for beautiful saris costing a few dollars apiece, and not mention the men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins?

When people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for forty-five minutes after I purchased them, until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd?

Do I describe the lovely hotel in Goa when my strongest memory of it was lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone?”

Quite literally, the good things she experiences in India are things: “beautiful saris”, “Indian sandals” and “lovely hotel.”  There are no human beings in India worth writing about. There are things, objects – which are “beautiful” and “lovely.” In opposition to all this beauty, made even more beautiful by their reducibility to American consumption, are Indian men. Indian men who also happen to be sexual predators.

            India thus becomes a conglomerate of consumable objects: India exists for the tourist’s consumption. In a way, this is nothing new. India, or for that matter, all Third World spaces have been written about in more or less similar terms in colonial and contemporary travel narratives – blank slates, sometimes marked by lucrative objects, which are endowed with meaning only through the white Euro-American tourist/traveler’s consumption.

            But here is the glitch. Cross, after all, did not have unimpeded access to her consumer desires. Her consumption of India was interrupted – and interrupted by none other than Indian men’s repeated attempts of sexual predation. In other words, those instances of sexual predation disrupt Cross’ narrative of smooth consumption. If there is anything that humanizes, albeit in a deeply perverse kind of a way, Cross’s objectified story about India, it is these instances of sexual harassment. Otherwise, Cross’s India is completely bereft of any other living human beings. No women. No men, or at least no men who are capable of interacting with women beyond sexual aggression.

            And here, even as I write these lines, I have to stop and gaze in awe at the sheer fucked-upness of what I am observing. Like a lot of other political options available during our times, this is also one where the question is one of neither-nor, and not one of either-or. I am not yet prepared to think of sexual violence as a form of resistance to a colonialist tourist fantasy. I am similarly reluctant to provide any unconditional solidarity to any account of gendered sexual violence interpreted through a colonialist, consumerist lens. Yet this is what I am confronting here, and I cannot but help feeling scared at the sheer magnitude of the messiness.

Why Is This Fucked Up?

Because there is an actually existing patriarchy in India (and elsewhere) – almost mind-numbing in its sheer scale and capacity to do violence on women’s bodies and minds. On the other hand, the critique and condemnation of this violence is often steeped in philosophies of neoliberal consumption, class privilege, and global white supremacy. Such critiques routinely recycle longstanding cultural and ideological tropes. In the case of Cross, her categories came straight from nineteenth century colonial textbooks, travel narratives, and imperial fiction. Any collective efforts to understand and eradicate sexual violence cannot ignore this reality.

            For example, Cross frames a significant part of her argument on the notion of “entitlement.” She writes,

”There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailor’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took

For three months I lived this way, in a traveler’s heaven and a woman’s hell. I was stalked, groped, masturbated at; and yet I had adventures beyond my imagination.”

And I would agree with her. The kinds of violence and harassment that women experience in public spaces are predicated upon forms of male entitlement. Male entitlement that survives on classifying women’s bodies solely as sexual objects, as spaces and sites that exist primarily, if not only, for male sexual pleasure.

            Yet there is something else going on here that needs further explanation. Pitted against the male Indian entitlement that Cross writes about so eloquently, is her own First World-American, tourist/traveler entitlement. Staying faithful to her own tourist entitlement, Cross describes India as a “traveler’s heaven”— a site for her to realize her “adventures beyond imagination.” Here, I have to stop and ask, just what in hell is a “traveler’s heaven”? But I think I understand. Undoubtedly, it is the sacred right of the tourist/traveler to transform a place into one that exists solely for the sake of realizing his/her adventures. And that’s exactly what Cross is hinting at when she uses that particular coinage.

            What Cross does to India is not that different from what she describes her harassers doing to her. Just as a female body comes to represent nothing other than a space of sexual aggression to the street harasser, India becomes an empty space to Cross – her “traveler’s heaven.” Interestingly enough, what pulls her out of her tourist reverie are the instances of sexual harassment. In a strange kind of a way, it is precisely those acts of sexual violation that reveal the fact that another India exists – an India irreducible to her own notion of a tourist fantasy. It is precisely through those acts of sexual violence that Cross recognizes that India is peopled by living, breathing human beings, who are capable of throwing back her First World tourist gaze back at her.

            When I think of tourists, I invariably think of photographs. After all, what sums up the tourist’s entitlement more than his/her propensity to take pictures? Isn’t that what we all do when we travel to other places? To be a tourist is to transform a space into an object. But that wasn’t exactly what Cross experienced. Instead, she was herself filmed, and she makes it a point to write about those precise moments. She recognizes she is not the only one who is doing the work of  looking. She is not the only one who is filming and photographing. She is also being looked at. Cross uses the word “staring,” to describe that experience. Not only that, when asked what was most disconcerting in all of her negative experiences in India, it was this “staring.” In other words, what we see here is a battle of entitlement – Cross’s own tourist/First World entitlement vis-a-vis the Indian male entitlement she complains about. What is interesting and significant is that while Cross can write eloquently about the latter, she takes the former for granted. There isn’t a single instance where her narrative questions her own sense of entitlement or her own privilege.

            As a result, there is no attempt on Cross’s narrative to reflect on the essential inequalities that constitute the global economies of tourism and traveling.What does it mean to travel? Who gets to travel and where?  And more specifically, who are those who never get to travel? Instead of asking such questions, Cross’s narrative assumes a fundamental right on which much of the Euro-American liberal thought stands – the right of an individual to travel to other places in this planet. In my decade-long stay in United States, I have observed time and again how a large section of the American middle-class, especially its “creative,” “liberal” section – scholars, academics, artists, writers, intellectuals – see travel as an essential element of their own attempts to broaden their cultural horizons. For example, during George Bush’s presidency, sometime around 2003, an acquaintance of mine – a fellow student and poet– in her attempts to show her discontent with the Bush administration and especially George Bush himself, claimed, “One of the biggest problems of this administration is, they are highly insular. They don’t know anything about the rest of the world. I doubt they have ever traveled anywhere in the world.” As she continued to pontificate on how traveling through South Africa and India has changed her perceptions of world civilization significantly, I sat silently, thinking – if traveling had the power to change things like an empire engaged in an imperial conquest, how do we understand such basic historical realities as trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism? Systems founded upon white folks traveling to “unknown”, non-European territories? And systems without which the West would not be the West it is today?

            The thing is, it is not just this acquaintance of mine. The easy notion of travel as a form of cultural exchange forms the cornerstone of American liberalism and neoliberalism. Such an understanding is founded upon a wide-scale ignorance of the complexities of colonial history, and one’s own implication within that history. Ignorance is, after all, bliss. Not only is it bliss, ignorance can also lead to an avoidance of the task of self-critique – taking stock of one’s own racial, colonial, neo-colonial, class privilege. Cross’s narrative shows zero awareness of her own multiple privileges. What allowed her to be in India in the first place? How do her own racial, class and citizenship privileges (she is, after all, the citizen of the mighty US Empire, which during the time of her visit had been drone-bombing the hell out of another nation on the subcontinent) compare to those whose “entitlement” she complains about?

Race and Sexual Harassment: White Women In India

The idea of race is foundational to Cross’s essay:

”I knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize. I was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets. And I was prepared for the curiosity my red hair, fair skin and blue eyes would arouse.

But I wasn’t prepared.”

Here she is explicitly writing about her whiteness. Whereas I cannot claim any in-depth research or personal experience in terms of how white women are typically read in India, I don’t have any essential disagreement. Indeed, white women are predominantly read as “promiscuous” and “sexual prizes” in India. Yet such perceptions are also tied to a long history of colonial relations, tied to complex and highly contradictory ideologies of race, gender and sexuality, to the cross-national export of different kinds of media texts, and to a global construction of a certain kind of whiteness as the foundation of the most sexually desirable form of femininity. In other words, whiteness, globally, has been and still is inextricably linked to genuine economic, cultural and political power.

            In Cross’s narrative, by contrast, whiteness comes across not as a site of power, but one of powerlessness and marginality. As if to emphasize this association, the image that accompanies her story shows a young white woman (a little bit of Googling revealed, Cross herself), half-smiling into the camera. In the background are two Indian men – undoubtedly poor – towering over her. When confronted with this picture, it is hard not to think about the string of late nineteenth and early twentieth century British novels about India that were constructed on the rape of an Englishwoman by Indian men – Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott, Flora Annie Steel’s mutiny novel On the Face of the Waters (1896) and a host of others. There is a strange ghostliness in the snapshot. Cross is wearing a white shirt, thus creating an impression of an excess of whiteness spilling over the frame. Reminiscent of other popular constructions of sentimental Victorian heroines – always delicate, always innocent, always white, always ultra-feminine – Cross’s hands are inside her own red hair, and her half-smile and half-gaze perfectly embodies the impression of powerless whiteness that she actively creates in her story.

            Cross is not alone. Erin Epperson, a PhD candidate in South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago (the same institution, incidentally, where Cross studies) has a blog called “Traveling While Female.” The sub-title of the blog is even more symptomatic: “A blog on street harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault for women traveling to India, South Asia.” Without trivializing the reality of sexual harassment and the need to write about it, both in India and elsewhere, I will reiterate something I stated earlier. All things gender-related and India are big right now: it’s become a damn industry. In her blog, Epperson has an entry devoted specifically to race. More specifically, it is an entry devoted specifically to whiteness in India. In a post titled “Sexual Harassment of White Women In India,” Epperson writes:

”As when I lived in Jaipur, I now cover my head – not out of convention, for this is not a Muslim area – but out of an attempt to minimize the obviousness of the pale color of my hair and skin. In short, I try to hide my whiteness in order to avoid being singled out. But while this may help me and a few travelers who choose to dress locally, does this help the many thousands of other white females who visit India who wear ‘appropriate’ clothing but don’t try to hide their whiteness? What about the double standard of clothing? When I walk down the street I often see Indian (and Tibetan) women wearing Western clothing less modest than me.”

Every time I read this paragraph, I have to stop to process the intense adversity of it. Frankly, I do not feel much sympathy or solidarity for these white women. Why? Because I am aware of the long and ongoing history of white women’s complicity with colonial missions and imperial racism, both within the US and outside of the US. This complicity is often expressed by making whiteness invisible. This is done by making whiteness the default, “universal” position. Liberal, mainstream feminist movements are not immune to this complicity either. Consequently, whiteness becomes an issue, something to talk about, only when that sense of default universality is disrupted. In both Epperson and Cross’s cases, that is precisely what happened in India. Violently. And instead of questioning the complexities of that disruption, they were astoundingly quick to claim a position of whiteness as a site of marginality. It is hard to have much sympathy or solidarity for such convenient and selective use of the idea of racial marginalization. In other words, what Epperson and Cross are doing, by bringing up the very idea of race, is complicit with the racial-sexual politics that Euro-American colonialism and racism have generated over the course of centuries.

            One can argue that these women’s gender identities – their  identities as women – necessarily disrupt the smooth reproduction of the narrative of whiteness as power, and this isn’t completely untrue. But gender alone does not trump the immense amount of privilege they embody. In their location, even the disadvantageous position of being a woman carries with it complex forms of power. It is an indirect, perverse form of power – but power nonetheless. No discussion of sexual harassment of white women in India can ever be complete without a discussion of such forms of perverse and indirect power, which necessarily brings us to a discussion of the interrelationship between race, class and contemporary forms of transnational economic expropriation. In other words, gender needs to be understood as intersecting with other categories – race, capital, and multiple forms of imperialism.

            So what are Cross’s multiple forms of privilege? She has the privilege of US citizenship, the privilege of her skin color, the privilege of her class, and the privilege of her ability to travel across oceans and continents to other nations. The men Cross is complaining about, an overwhelming majority of them, will never come to United States for an exchange program or any such thing. Even though we accept the truth of the incidents she reports, even though we feel sympathetic to her plight as a young woman, it is impossible not to overlook the absence of any kind of reflection on the huge discrepancies in power between herself and her alleged harassers. It is, after all, Cross’s voice that has reverberated throughout the digital world – and in the pages of one of the most powerful global media corporations on the planet. Not those of her harassers, whose names and faces are indistinguishable in the generalized descriptions that Cross employs. Incidentally, this is consistent with her overall narrative strategy of being simultaneously blind to and silent about her own privilege.

            In the absence of any critical self-awareness, what she creates are decontextualized, de-historicized representations of Indian masculinity. Creating such decontextualized representations has long been one of the most potent instruments of colonial and imperial forms of power, which based their rule on racism and racialized ways of thinking. Voluntarily or involuntarily, Cross is participating in the recreation and recirculation of perceptions of Indian/brown/Third World masculinities which have existed for centuries. Not that any of this is ancient history: the country of her citizenship has launched entire wars based on such perceptions, and not so long ago, either.

            This is why Cross’s narrative reeks of a kind of sexualized racism which has been pointed out by none other than one of her travel companions. Going by the name of TwoSeat, she points out,

”I want to address the consequences that arise from writing that lends itself to careless generalizations. The problem that this article has is that it ends up blaming an entire population for the actions of some. Many comments in response to RoseChasm’s article consist of Indian men and women shaming themselves because of what some Indian men have done and are doing. There are Indian men apologizing for being Indian men because of the message in this article. My goal in this response is to create a better overall attitude toward Indian men.

As the only black woman (and individual in general) on the trip, I can definitely say that I had a very unique experience in my program. Men stared at me in India. Women stared at me. Children and teenagers stared at me. All the time. I wanted to become invisible in the crowd. I felt that I stood out even more because I stood out very starkly from the Indian population and especially from my white and Asian peers. I was also targeted with harassment, and I felt violated many times on the trip. However, in my experiences in India, I have met a solid handful of warm and honest Indian men- men who are also college students, men who also love the thrill of riding on a motorcycle in the busy streets, men who defended me at necessary times, and men who took the time to get to know me and my culture. And that should not at all be surprising.

Men took pictures of me. But we must think that the same thing happens in America. We seldom stop to think of the abuse that Facebook or even Snapchat can hold in regards to people’s images. We are privileged with tools, and many Americans-men and women- use these tools to take inappropriate, malicious pictures of other American individuals. Knowing this, we cannot criminalize Indian men for doing the same. This does not at all justify any malicious use of people’s images – we just cannot attribute this crime to generally Indian men.”

She continues,

”So why should all Indian men be subjected to judgment for the rapes that some men have committed? RoseChasm does not address the fact that there are warm and honest men in India. When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism.

I am black, and I have to deal with the fact that even today in America many people characterize my entire race by the choices made by some people who have the same color skin as me. It doesn’t matter that I am an American, and it doesn’t matter that my mother raised me to have good morals. For all we know I could walk up to someone at night in a hoodie and I could be mistaken for someone who will do harm.”

Another woman, Polly Hwang, who self-identifies as Korean-American, writes:

”Although I’m sure this was not Rose Chasm’s intention, the majority of Westerners/Americans are going to read her report and conclude that ALL Indian men are rapists/pigs etc. This is very wrong and untrue. By implying that every man she met in India is a pervert and by not giving any examples of good decent Indian men, she is indirectly stereotyping Indian men in a very harmful way.

Please do not generalize Indian men or indeed anyone. I know from personal experience in India and outside India that a lot of Indian men are decent good people. Please don’t slander or pre-judge them. I speak especially to my fellow Americans who love to stereotype and generalize people because it makes it easier for them to compartmentalize and file away groups of people in their mind. Unfortunately, there are many ignorant Westerners/Americans who will believe in stereotypes and use it to harm groups of people.”

It is not surprising  that even as both TwoSeat and Polly Hwang express their sympathies to Cross and acknowledge the existence of street harrassment and other forms of sexual violences in India, they identify the language of racism through which Cross has explored the issue. Most likely, their own experiences as women of color within the US have equipped them to do so. TwoSeat is especially eloquent about inserting her own blackness into the discussion. Yet even here, an understanding of racism’s politics of generalization does not necessarily entail any understanding of the colonial, neocolonial or neoliberal ideologies upon which Cross’s article stands. Hwang’s suggestions are especially interesting:

The Indian government needs to wake up to this issue. The best action we can do as foreigners is to stop visiting India and cancel all vacation plans in India. Once the Indian government starts losing billions of dollars in tourism revenues, it will wake up and be forced to do something.

The valence that Hwang puts on tourism as an operative force is politically significant. In that regard, her article does not flinch from suggesting a bigger policing of the locals in order to transform India into a tourist paradise. And a cursory look into these accounts – of white women in India– reveals this move as hardly uncommon. For example, Erin Epperson writes in a similar vein:

As I think more deeply about it, I wonder if this isn’t much like other kinds of ethnic- or sexual orientation-based profiling that many American minorities experience on a regular basis? Such as the harassment and threats that gays and lesbians often receive? Or phenomena such as “driving while black” or other racist presuppositions. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Indian men for their treatment of white women. Perhaps the stereotyping of white women in India isn’t all that different from stereotyping or certain minorities in the US. Maybe all that differs is the details. But regardless, this lack of respect towards white women in India is highly problematic for a nation that aims to be developing. It is bad enough that touts will routinely follow westerners for blocks, trying to convince them to buy this or that thing or that rickshaws will often try to charge anywhere from double to five times the going rate. But if white foreign women are not afforded the basic minimal respect shown to most Indian women, then how can Indians expect female tourists and students to want to come to India to learn about Indian culture, let alone spend foreign tourist money in India? It is a problem that as a female scholar researching on India I feel compelled to address, though it is far from my topic of research. As a white foreign scholar I am an ambassador of sorts. I hope that through the remainder of these six months in India I have the opportunity to make a difference, no matter how small, in how foreign women are treated.

Undoubtedly, Epperson is trying to understand what is going on. She is trying hard. But what is absent in her efforts is an understanding of the complex intersections of capital, international travel and tourism, whiteness (global white supremacy, dare I say?), colonialism and empire. Consequently, she does not have the means to grasp her own position within India or the world system at large. As such, I am inclined to believe that Epperson lacks an adequate understanding of what it truly means to be a “minority” (whether racial or sexual) in her country of citizenship either. Hence, her attempt to equalize her position in India to being a racial and/or sexual minority in United States. Lacking the tools, she falls back an easy and mainstream notion of gender – a notion which fails to see the implications of gender within other categories of social and economic existence, and vice versa. This concept of gender has been criticized by numerous feminist scholars and activists for the last thirty years or so, both globally and even within USA. Reading narratives like Epperson’s makes one wonder: did these women ever read anything written by bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua and the many many other feminists of color? Did they every read working class feminists who have written in-depth criticisms of positions like Epperson, from within the heart of the US?

            But what is astounding to me is the way in which Epperson’s prose – much more thoughtful and refelctive than Cross’s – writes about spending “foreign tourist money” in India. Her entitlement (and sense of power) that comes with the ability to buy services is breathtaking. It is even more breathtaking because it is written with an underlying naivete and honesty and ignorance that is completely uninformed about her own privileges – those of economics, of citizenship, of her First World location and of race. Still, the bottom line is not hard to understand – India exists to satisfy First World tourist desires. The issue of gender and sexual harassment ends up being appropriated by the desire for a tourist paradise. Some explicitly acknowledge this appropriation, as in Polly Hwang’s account. Some less so, as in Epperson’s.

            Yet anyone familiar with the creation of “tourist paradises” in the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands – many of which are US colonies in the most literal sense of the term – would know what cultural, economic, and environmental disasters this appropriation has generated and continues to generate (think Bikini atoll). This essay is not the place to go into such details. Suffice to say that Cross’s essay emerges from within a larger culture which not only arrogates the right to engage in tourism for granted, but also survives on a blindness of the power dynamics inherent to international tourisms. Indeed, tourism possesses a complicated relationship to hospitality, not least because it uses its language. No one invites a tourist to one’s home, as one does a friend. A tourist walks in uninvited. What takes the place of an invitation, is the ability to buy services. Tourism is impersonal in its very essence. It negotiates the lack of a personal invitation with a commodified relationship to a space. In other words, it is a philosophy of consumption.

            Then how we are to understand Cross’s article? As I perused the digital world right after her account came out, including the Facebook pages of my friends, I saw two distinctive patterns. The first was a tendency to read Cross’s piece in terms of its “Orientalist” fantasies. I would not necessarily disagree. But I would argue that the term Orientalism, useful as it is to understand certain forms of colonial cultural representations, has lost its political sharpness. I will use a different sets of words instead – colonialist, neocolonial, neoliberal – for reasons I will explain in just a moment. The second tendency was a resistance, amongst Indians and non-Indians alike, to identify this piece as embodying a problematic politics as regards to questions of race, colonial categories or an emerging neoliberalism. Instead, the emphasis was on interpreting this piece as essentially testimonial in nature, a traumatized woman’s account to recount what has happened to her.

            “She is after all a victim of violence,” a friend of mine, an Indian woman – a scientist – asserted, as if there could ever be an unmediated account of one’s trauma. “We should not expect objectivity from her,” my friend reminded me. If the most popular and commonsensical antonymn of “objectivity” is “subjectivity”, then I am inclined to ask: what does it mean when a trauma victim’s description of her own trauma can only be expressed using a language that is steeped in categories of racism, consumerism, colonialism and neocolonialism? What does it mean for those of us who would like to see a world beyond patriarchy and all of those other things, and consequently, refuse to choose between one or the other? As a writer who is concerned about the politics of language, and the political and ideological uses to which language can be put, I am not willing to give Cross a pass so easily. This is partly because I don’t think there is any unmediated language of trauma. All stories of trauma are narrated in some language or the other, and by being narrated, they are steeped in ideology. Language is irretrievably ideological and political.

            Secondly, I do not believe that just because a woman is narrating a story of sexual violence – sympathetic as we might be to her cause – that all other ideological aspects of her story should be ignored. I do not believe that gender and patriarchy are the only forms of oppression. Certainly, they are not always the most vicious forms of oppression, even for women. Gender, patriarchy and the spectre of sexual violence rarely, if ever, stand alone. They manifest themselves in a context, they are wrapped up in other forms of systemic oppression – capital, class, colonialism, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, caste, religion. I could keep on naming categories, but I think you get the point.

            In fact, this idea – that Cross’s account be read as a testimony and nothing else – runs fairly deep. Epperson writes something similar:

These events that she details in her report form a cohesive narrative about her travel experiences. While RoseChasm had many pleasant and positive experiences, the memories of (at least some of these) is tainted by the traumatic experiences that followed. She reports the tension she faced when friends and family asked her about her travels. This is a tension I think many of us who travel face, though perhaps to lesser degrees. For me, travel more generally is a complex series of experiences, not all of which are positive. If your experiences include intense forms of harassment or other potentially traumatic events, the complexities are even greater. It can be challenging enough simply to process the complexities of travel experiences, let alone create narratives to be consumed by friends and family. Yet when I return from travel (to the US), I find I am bombarded by people seemingly wanting to live vicariously through me, wanting to experience all the joys of my travel (but none of the sorrows) and so it appears I have little choice. Everyone expects an exciting, happy story. But what happens when, like RoseChasm, you don’t have one to sell? This in part, is what to me is compelling about RoseChasm’s piece. It reminds us of the burden of responsibility we often place on travelers to come back and report happy travel stories. […]

If what we hope to find in RoseChasm’s piece is a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of gender-based violence in India, then there are certainly plenty of problems with her account. But I find it highly unlikely that this was in fact RoseChasm’s intent. From my reading of her piece, RoseChasm’s iReport is a testimonial of her personal experience in India, written in response to all the friends and family members who demand exciting, happy travel stories from someone whose experience didn’t allow her to generate them. As RoseChasm herself says in the closing line of her piece: “This is the story you don’t want to hear when you ask me about India. But this is the story you need.” Because of her traumatic experiences, RoseChasm could not fully participate in that ritual so many of us feel obliged to endure when we return from a trip — the sharing of travel stories. Because no one wants to hear a downer. Rather than shutting down and avoiding discussing her experiences, she chose to make it fully public and open to critique from others and eventually released her real name to the media.

In spite of Epperson’s acknowledgment that “there are certainly plenty of problems” with Cross’s account, they share a common premise. That premise is the identity of a woman traveler in India. It is predicated on certain privileges taken for granted – the ability to travel to places that cannot be called exactly one’s own, the right to construct narratives about that place, and to take part in a bigger culture of consumption of a place and a culture. In other words, the privileges that come with being a tourist. These are the privileges that come with the ability to buy one’s mobility: whether as a traveler, a tourist or as a scholar. It is a consumption that is complex, multi-faceted, and has developed over the years in ways that are often times beyond the grasp of those individuals who participate in it – and therein lies its power.

            When Epperson or Cross even feel the need to participate in this construction of travel narratives about India, they participate in a process of making authoritative stories about India. These stories are constructed primarily for outsiders – foreigners, so to say. In this narrative about India and Indians, constructed by foreigners and for foreigners, actual living, breathing, flesh-and-blood Indians have almost no role to play. When they appear at all, they appear as disruptions. And sometimes that disruption assumes the form of sexual harassment. This is not a narrative meant for them after all.

            The word “foreigner”, in a world ripped apart by the ongoing histories of colonialism, conquest and occupation, is a loaded word. No well-meaning desire for cultural and scholarly exchange will ever change that. Neither will long accounts of one’s endurance of sexual harassment in India. What does it mean when “foreigners” like Cross and Epperson – whose white bodies are, even in the context of their countries of citizenship, unwitting beneficiaries of the violent legacy of settler colonialism –  persistently use gender and sexual violence to obfuscate their very own privileges and positions of power?

But But But… She Is Traumatized…

            A friend tells me, I’m expecting too much. She tells me, Cross  is traumatized. And all these questions I keep asking can only come after her “trauma subsides.”  So I want to ask: what does it mean for  Cross to use the language of trauma. For example, these lines:

”The student counselors diagnosed me with a personality disorder and prescribed me pills I wouldn’t take. After a public breakdown I ended up in a psych ward for two days held against my will, and was released on the condition that I took a “mental leave of absence” from school and went to live with my mother. I thought I had lost my mind; I didn’t connect any of it to India – I had moved on. But then a therapist diagnosed me with PTSD and I realized I hadn’t moved a single inch. I had frozen in time. And I’d fallen. And I’d shattered.

But I wasn’t the only one, the only woman from my trip to be diagnosed with PTSD, to be forced into a psych ward, to wake up wanting to be dead. And I am not the only woman who is on a mental leave of absence from the University of Chicago for reasons of sexual assault and is unable to take classes.

Understanding my pain has helped me own it, if not relieve it. PTSD strikes me as a euphemism, because a syndrome implies a cure. What, may I ask, is the cure for seeing reality, of feeling for three months what its like for one’s humanity to be taken away?

 But I thank God for my experiences in India, and for my disillusionment. Truth is a gift, a burden, and a responsibility. And I mean to share it.”

            I read these lines, I stop: I have grown up in India. I have faced similar instances of violence all my life. As I have said before, it’s not just in India. I have faced similar forms of violence everywhere else I have worked and visited. But I never ended up in the psych ward. My friends, the girls and women I have grown up with in India, have all faced similar episodes of violence their entire lives. To the best of my knowledge, none of them had to go to psych wards for the street harassment they faced. So what is going on here?

             My friends – both Indian and American – tell me, it is possible that I am desensitized. I ask myself the same thing. I try convince myself that yes, that’s all it is. I must be desensitized to all the street harassments I have faced. Why? Because I tried – and am still trying desperately – to give Cross’s narrative some valence. As a woman, I want to stand by her. And guess what, on her Facebook page, Cross tells me the same thing: “I think as an outsider I have the privilege and the curse of not being desensitized towards these issues.”

            But am I really? I mean, I never really failed to identify an act of street harassment as an act of violation of my humanity, an act of privilege and entitlement that patriarchy grants to men, irrespective of their class and other forms of marginal identities (although that does not necessarily make such acts of violation classless – but that’s another story). The same is true for other women (and men) I know. Where possible, I have raised a ruckus, confronted it. So have the other women I have known. No, we are not desensitized. Indeed, street harassment has long been a significant element of feminist public discussion in India. Personally, I find much of this discussion to be classed, extremely urban, and therefore, exclusionary – but that’s a different story. The fact is, such discussions do exist, have existed inside and throughout India, among women who venture out into the world. But there is something terribly wrong when we are told – by a white American woman, no less – that we are desensitized. Because it implies that we Indian women are incapable of locating patriarchal violence. It implies that we Indian women are incapable of reading patriarchy. By saying that it is both her “privilege and curse” not to be desensitized, Cross performs a kind of white woman’s (feminist) burden, thereby replicating all the problems of racism, colonialism and imperialism of First World liberal white feminisms.

            So how can we begin to untangle this complexity? Let’s start by admitting that “trauma” is a complicated concept, a loaded word, with a long and interesting history in modern Western intellectual history. Like many other words and concepts which have become integral elements of our everyday vocabulary, we use the terms “trauma” and “traumatized” casually, erasing the complexities that were part of this word’s contentious history in sociological, cultural and psychiatric thought. But if we take it at its most popular and prevalent definition, trauma involves an overwhelming feeling of disruption of one’s “normal” everyday life, often accompanied by a sense of loss of one’s language through which to describe and explain what one is going through. Cross does not belong to this category, because she is perfectly capable of putting what she has gone through into language.

            To what extent Cross is traumatized or not, we cannot know. What we can say for sure is that she is using a language of trauma, a trauma-rhetoric, so to say, to construct her argument. This strategy has a long and complicated history within the histories of modern social movements. Constructing a notion of one’s traumatized self, an account of one’s violation has long been used by the marginalized to construct a sense of independent agency and subjectivity. Think nineteenth century slave narratives, or Dalit autobiographies in modern India. However, this very strategy is predicated upon a duality, an inherent contradiction. Cross’s account inhabits that space of contradiction. On the one hand, she takes up the position of one who has been traumatized. That position absolves her of any ideological and political responsibility for thinking through representations of India or her own identity. On the other hand, using trauma rhetoric also potentially frees her from scrutiny vis-a-vis the ideological implications of the language she uses to write her trauma. Just as gender and sexual violence become sites through which racial, colonial, First World/Third World inequalities and power relationships are obfuscated, a trauma rhetoric potentially exculpates her from any and all accusations of racism and colonialism. Not only from fellow white Americans, but from many liberal-minded Indians as well.

            However, I would take a slightly different view, even though I am aware that this is not the most popular of views right now. I would argue that if someone is using language to write an account of one’s experiences in a way that holds together grammatically and logically, that account is also subject to ideological examination and critique. As I have said before,  I don’t think there is any language that exists outside of ideology. In the same way, I don’t think there is any trauma narrative that exists beyond ideologies. So, I will reiterate the question I asked before – what does it mean when someone, in order to write one’s sexual trauma, falls back unreservedly on racist, colonialist and consumerist tropes?

            Yet as I write these lines, I am aware that Cross’s feelings are acute. They are acute, precisely because of the reasons with which I began this essay – that “casual”, everyday sexual harassment makes a woman feel dehumanized. It reduces her to a sexual object. Even while I feel sympathy for Cross, I must also emphasize that our feelings do not exist in a vacuum. They emerge in social and historical contexts. They are expressed  within and through socially and historically available means and languages. Consequently, the very act of expressing feelings is never innocent or automatically benign. Indeed, quite the other way round – expressions of feelings are intensely political, as well as subjective. Therefore, when we look into feelings, especially those expressed in highly public places, as Cross has done, we also have to look into some of the other questions that surround such public expressions. How are these feelings expressed? To what end? Who gets to express one’s feelings during a specific historical period, cultural and geographic space? What are the socially and historically acceptable modes of expressing those feelings? Who isn’t allowed to express their feelings? What are the feelings that we are asked to suppress? And when, and how?

            In this context, Cross is expressing her feelings using language and tropes that are not only acceptable during our present moment, but have gained both coinage and legitimacy through the long history of Euro-American colonialism and imperial racism. And here, I have to stop for a moment. I have to stop as a writer and scholar who has devoted some time to studying imperial cultural and literary representations. I don’t understand why Cross chose to  build up her narrative around this idea of silence. I mean, the sexist non-white man – isn’t that one of the most overly used of imperial cliches, reified again and again by Indian/South Asian immigrant writers, e.g. the likes of Bharati Mukherjee and Monica Ali and numerous others? So let’s dig deeper than a platitudinal “oh, she was so traumatized.” Let’s think about the political implications of the very word “trauma”.

            Cross writes herself as a delicate white woman – the flip side of the sexist man of color trope. A delicate white woman is invariably upper class, shielded from the hard labor that characterizes her working-class counterparts, both white and non-white. Because she is shielded from this hard labor, she does not undergo the emotional hardening that supposedly accompanies regimes and schedules of hard labor for working class women. Cross, consciously or unconsciously, performs that delicate white female persona. Just consider her digital name: RoseChasm. With its invocation of a delicate feminine sexuality, embodied in the very word “rose”, the name suggests a very a specific kind of sexualized white femininity. Remember the chant Indian feminists used to recite back in the day? “Hum aaj ki nari hain/ phul nehi, chingari hain?” (We’re today’s women/Not flowers, but sparks of fire). When Cross devotes long passages to her PTSD, and I don’t mean to trivialize either the acuteness of her feelings or the dehumanization that street harrassment entails, she also unabashedly performs a position of (hyper) privilege. Let us not mince words: who can afford to go to the psych-ward and claim all this trauma because of street harassment?

             That is why,  even though we can recognize the intensity of her emotions, we need to contextualize Cross’s account within a broader framework that is not only cognizant to the politics of colonialism, imperialism, racism and capital, but also acknowledges the ways in which such systems frame gender – one could go so far as to say, the way they survive on a continuous appropriation of a certain kind of trauma  rhetoric. Even as we give a certain kind of valence to Cross’s trauma –  the sexual  trauma of a young woman visiting abroad – we need to ask, during what specific time was Cross  writing her account? What about her account appealed to the imagination of so many Indian left-liberal men, for example, that they felt compelled to apologize to her on public digital forums? What about her account appealed to my leftist-feminist professional Indian women friends that they felt that it is “unfair” and “dangerous” to demand an understanding of racism, colonialism and capitalism from Cross? Is it because it is somehow more comfortable to think of  sexual violence as a category that stands outside of the circuits of race, colonialism/imperialism, class and capital? If we provide an unconditional kind of solidarity and support to  Cross precisely because she is writing about sexual violence, what are the other kinds of stories of sexual violence that we are not paying attention to? And why? The fact that Cross  is writing an account of sexual violence should not deter us from asking the hard question: what exactly are the forms of social and political structural violences which Cross is participating in and perpetuating by her sheer presence in India?


            I am willing to believe that Cross is well-intentioned, as is Erin Epperson, the other American graduate student whose blog I have quoted extensively in this essay. I am also willing to believe that Cross’s account did not emerge from a conscious understanding of the complex processes I have described here. In fact, both Cross and Epperson’s discussions reveal a remarkable absence of any complicated understanding of capital, colonialism, imperialism, empire and race. Consequently, none of them shows any understanding of the global cultural and political valence of their own whiteness. It is precisely that lack of conscious understanding that makes their account so much more dangerous. Naivete and ignorance are, after all, markers of privilege. Neither naivete nor ignorance, especially when expressed within highly visible public spaces, are innocent, and consequently demand political and ideological readings.

            In closing, I would like to ask a question. When  Cross speaks about sexual violence, her default place of belonging becomes the language of a colonial-imperial racism which has long survived on turning “delicate” white female bodies into symbols and allegories of the empires. This is not to say that it is Cross’s fault that she is white and American. But at the same time, such identities bring with them an incredible amount of privilege. If Cross (or Epperson or anyone else) wants an honest  discussion on issues of patriarchy and sexual violence in India – one that addresses the issue in all its complexities – they will have to begin by questioning their own whiteness. They will have to begin by resisting the allegorization of their own white femininity, instead of participating in that allegorization. Last but not least,  they need to question what makes it possible for them to be in India in the first place. They will have to question how their academic projects, their research interests,  their scholarships, are implicated within a long history of colonial and imperial violence and expropriation, something that needs a separate article in itself. Last but not the least, for us – as “progressive”, “left-leaning” Indians – it is important to recognize the actual reality of street harassment for these women, the fact that such harassment is indeed a violation of their humanity. Yet this recognition should not prevent us from pointing out that these conversations of gender, sexuality and sexual violence need to move beyond the language of consumerism, racism and imperialism. To speak of unconditional solidarity would be turn our discussions of gender and sexuality, and all the emerging social movements around those issues, into ”handmaidens” of imperialism and neoliberalism.

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