If you’ve been online in the last few days, you may have seen a piece on CNN’s iReport which describes the extreme sexual harassment author Michaela Cross received while studying abroad in India. Cross was so traumatized by her ordeal that she was diagnosed with PTSD after she came back to America. She is currently on medical leave from the University of Chicago, and unable to attend any classes.
Michaela Cross’s story is but one of many stories that have come out in the last few months about how dangerous it is to be a woman in India. India’s problem with women first attracted the world’s attention with the December 16 rape case, when a young woman was viciously gang-raped on a bus in Delhi. That incident attracted worldwide attention as Indians all over the country rose up in protest of the nation’s rape culture. Since then, more stories have come out from women who have been harassed while in India. We heard about the Swedish tourist who was raped by six men while she and her husband were camping in the woods and the British woman who leaped out of a three-story building in order to escape a rapist. And now we have Cross’s story; the account of harassment so extreme that it sparked a mental illness.
Notice what these accounts have in common? Since the world became aware of India’s rape addiction, the only incidents that seem to raise any hackles outside India seem to be those that target foreign tourists. One could very easily forget that it is Indian women who are the primary victims of India’s rape culture. It is hard to know what the real numbers are — rapes are drastically under-reported in India — but given that 95 percent of Delhi women report feeling unsafe when they leave the house, we can assume that they are very high. A whopping 51 percent of Delhi men admit to committing acts of sexual violence, and 78 percent of men have actually witnessed sexual assault taking place. Of those witnesses, only 15 percent have intervened. The numbers paint a pretty clear picture — but for anyone not yet convinced, talk to any Indian woman, and they’ll tell you about the lengths they go to in order to avoid male attention. Every Indian woman has stories of eve-teasing and unwanted groping received in a public place.
I bring attention to the disparity because there is a vicious tendency, in our culture, to only acknowledge the victimhood of white women, at the expense of women of color. I’m worried that by ignoring what Indian women go through, we continue to reinforce the idea that the experiences of Indian women don’t matter as much as those of white women. A good friend of mine was diagnosed with depression after enduring years of sexual harassment on Delhi buses — where are the legions of men writing to her, apologizing for the vicious behavior of their counterparts? Why do Indian women have to fight to be recognized, when all a white woman has to do to go viral is to make a single post?
Furthermore, when we fail to pay attention to Indian women, we run the risk of only thinking about how to protect foreign women from sexual assault when traveling in India. We begin to offer idiotic solutions to the rape problem: “just don’t go to India,” says an internet commenter. And what exactly are those women already in India supposed to do? Leave?
None of this is Michaela Cross’s fault, of course. She has every right to speak up about her experiences, and it is to her credit that she’s come away with anything positive to say about her trip to India. Still, the burden is not on her to contextualize her own experience with sexual assault — that falls on us, her readers. We have to keep in mind that the situation is a little more complicated than it seems to be in Cross’s article. Not every Indian man is a rapist or an eve-teaser. For every man that gropes or leers, there is another who will kindly give you directions without trying anything funny. We also can’t forget the male allies who came out in force after the Delhi rape case to protest against India’s rape culture. A student that attended the same study abroad program as Cross wrote her own iReport in which she points out that generalization about the “nature” of Indian men leads to racism — and we have to be very careful to avoid it.
Michaela Cross is a victim of horrific abuse, and we wish her all the best in her recovery. But we can’t forget the millions of Indian women who face the same thing, every day.
Jaya Sundaresh lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. Follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation and read her thoughts on her personal blog.