The voices of Indian feminists and women activists

I recently attended a wonderful event at Harvard in conjunction with the Harvard College Women’s Center and on campus students and student groups. It was a discussion of the faces of rape and gender violence in South Asia – Bangladesh, Pakistan, India – and it featured the voices of young Harvard students, Ph.D.’s and graduate students from the subcontinent. They discussed many intelligent things — the issue of masculinity & its problematic link with domination in society — the issue of child protection services and lack thereof in India — the history of partition and war, and rape as a tool of mass war crimes and subjugation of a society — the problems with the justice system — the issue of keeping sexuality hidden so South Asian families do not talk about these issues — the fact that we need more open communication, sex education in Indian schools. All such good points. At the end, however, the group decided to form a Task Force to issue ‘recommendations’ to the Indian government in the wake of the Delhi gang rape. To be frank, I didn’t think much of this at the time; I glossed over it as yet another initiative coming from this extremely active university, constantly buzzing with some task force or other.

I came home, and then I saw this response from Indian feminists and activists (please read the rest here):

We’re a group of Indian feminists and we are delighted to learn that the Harvard community – without doubt one of the most learned in the world – has seen fit to set up a Policy Task Force entitled ‘Beyond Gender Equality’ and that you are preparing to offer recommendations to India (and other South Asian countries) in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Not since the days of Katherine Mayo have American women – and American feminists – felt such a concern for their less privileged Third World sisters. Mayo’s concern, at that time, was to ensure that the Indian State (then the colonial State) did not leave Indian women in the lurch, at the mercy of their men, and that it retained power and the rule of the just. Yours, we see, is to work towards ensuring that steps are put in place that can help the Indian State in its implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee, a responsibility the Indian State must take up. This is clearly something that we, Indian feminists and activists who have been involved in the women’s movement here for several decades, are incapable of doing, and it was with a sense of overwhelming relief that we read of your intention to step into this breach.

At first, I was a bit surprised. Then, I looked more closely at the language of ‘issuing recommendations’ to the Indian government. And as I discussed this with others and thought about the phrasing and the response, I came to realize why this response is so important, necessary & correct, and why it was also so important that I completely missed this issue.

Despite talking about women’s rights and development on this blog, and despite constantly reading about these issues – colonialism, development, the ‘white man’s burden,’ – I missed this problem. I accepted the idea of a “task force” originating from Harvard and did not immediately question the institution. This speaks to, perhaps, how deeply rooted these perspectives and biases are. For those of us who grew up in the West (though I was born in India, I can’t claim to be anywhere close to Indian feminists and activists who have worked to end rape and assault for decades), it is natural and difficult to overcome this perception that we have something to offer. Whether it is recommendations, programs, policies or changes to the way things are happening in the global south, we in the West are simply trained from childhood to think this way. My failure to even question the fact that we, a group of Harvard students, were even remotely qualified to give such advice to the Indian government, deeply disappointed me and helped me confront head on my complicity in this system.

I have no solutions to offer — but I hope this incident helps me think twice when I support ideas in the future that have the effect of overshadowing local leaders/activists/experts in favor of ‘experts’ from the West, and that all of us, as a global community, continue to try our best to think critically and ensure that ‘local’ leaders from the global South are taking the front row when it comes to changing policies and addressing social issues in their own communities and countries. And I hope this gives us all courage to speak out, when we notice a problem like this in institutions we are a part of.

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