Hiding Our Shame: Is There Room For ‘National Pride’ In A Debate On Gender Violence?

Posted on May 4, 2015

By Mehernaz Patel:

Generalisation is a plague that affects our global community, mainly because of the fast paced nature of news – relevant today, not tomorrow, has created a culture where we remember the most convenient quips we hear. The matter is rarely discussed any further.

Among these, gender remains the most heatedly debated topic, to narrow it down even further – the question of women’s security in India. Are we indeed a country so thoroughly brainwashed by our own heritage that we refuse to address the issue openly? Or has the global media picked up on one of the current problems plaguing our society and run with it all the way to the bank?

This was the topic discussed by TV veteran Barkha Dutt and Leslee Udwin, the woman behind the banned documentary, ‘India’s Daughter‘, at a session moderated by anchor Norah O’Donnell as a part of the 6th annual “Women In The World” conference.

Two of the statements from the video above piqued the interest of viewers:

Society’s way of coping with the embarrassment, the shame, of what it does to its women is to marginalize [rapists], to try and pretend they’re just rotten apples in a barrel. It is the barrel that is rotten. It is the barrel that rots the apple. It is society that is responsible. We all are responsible.

As a woman who grew up in India and briefly lived away from it, I understand the emotional imperative to defend my home when it is criticised by foreigners. But after so many conversations about India’s treatment of its women—with Indians and also with non-Indians—I’ve come to the conclusion that my role in those two types of conversations is different.

The million dollar question that remains after the debate is- where does nationality fall in this debate, do we have an option or even a right to act in defence of national pride in the light of this debate? Is there even room for pride when it comes to the safety of women, Indian or not?

My own knee jerk reaction is a resounding no. There is never room for something arbitrary when it comes to gender relations, not just rape and women. But like every other knee jerk reaction, it requires a level of introspection.

Take for example the case of an Indian male student being denied an internship at a German university with the professor citing the “rape problem in India”. Granted the German ambassador in Mumbai replied to this in an admirable fashion, but still, that does not negate the fact that regardless of whether an individual has any personal history with gender violence, he or she be judged solely for being Indian. This isn’t so much a defence of our national pride as much as a defence of our own person. In assuming that “our barrel is rotten”, it becomes too easy to blame rape and gender violence as being part of an “internalized misogyny”. It dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrator as part of “a larger problem”. Please note here, that I do not mean that perpetrators are to be excused in any way, what I mean is, the moment we cease to treat each individual case as its own, there can be no justice and no true understanding of motivation behind the heinous act.

To draw a simple parallel, it is almost as offensive as assuming “all Latinas are sexy”, “all Frenchmen are cowards” and not to forget “all Muslims are terrorists”. If you thought that was juvenile, you understand why it is never alright to generalize.

Udwin’s rebuttal –it is never alright to hide our shame, is correct. However, in an atmosphere where one biased idea can set back years of tolerance and understanding, we cannot ever afford to oversimplify. Racism, a topic that’s as hot on everyone’s lips as gender violence, flits in and out of this debate, but with relation to gender violence in India, it has a specifically dangerous connotation. Both abroad and even in India, the image of the lower middle class rapist remains strong – the uneducated working class male who is assumed to be of a darker tone of skin. This is the man spoken with in Udwin’s documentary. Not to negate what he did, but considering how easily associations are drawn internationally, we not only focus our bias on one group of subjects, but worse, we forget that it is an issue that cuts across class and gender – because as we all seem to forget, female perpetrators also exist.

The animator of the exemplary animated feature, “Sita Sings The Blues“, Nina Paley, said that she found it ludicrous that people claimed that simply because she wasn’t Indian, she would automatically possess a very superficial understanding of the nation’s myths. Something similar could be said of Udwin and her efforts to understand violence in India. It is legitimate, irrespective of her own nationality. But neither hers, nor anybody else’s efforts to generalize should ever be given any quarter in my opinion, which I understand could be seen as wrong considering in 2012, according to the NCRB 24,923 cases of rape were reported – that’s one every 22 minutes. And this is only accounting for official reports.

To finish my train of thought, I urge you to go read “The 5 Ugly Realities of Being a Woman visiting India“. Here are some choice excerpts:

For example, I was instructed to avoid making eye contact for longer than four seconds with a man… My wardrobe, under her tutelage, was to consist of long, flowy skirts and shapeless tunics. Keep in mind it was around 110 degrees in the summer

Now, I don’t doubt this happened, but might I add, there are Indians who laugh at this kind of behaviour too, but not for more than four seconds of course, egad!

There is an answer to Udwin, it is not national pride, or even pride at all. There is no room for it, but there is room for a better understanding of what sweeping statements like those mean for innocents abroad and in India as well. Because since there is rightfully no room for a nationalist defence, there is no room for a nationalist blame game either. Nations become obsolete when confronted by these issues, either we deal with them as a global community, or we point our fingers tirelessly at anyone but the one who deserves to be punished.

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