Thursday, May 14, 2015

Learning from Responses to India's Daughter

There are many things that could be said in response to Leslee Udwin's recent documentary India's Daughter. First aired on BBC early March 2015 and subsequently banned from airing in India, it has resulted in a cacophony of conversations, critiques, and not a few conflicts regarding both the 2012 Delhi gang rape itself as well as the way this and other rapes have become sensationalized in Indian media.

As a white foreigner from the US who was living in India for research at the time of the Delhi Gang rape, my perspective will be undoubtedly different from many. It is from this perspective that I write this response.

I watched India's Daughter shortly after it aired and have since re-watched it as part of a class I have been teaching on Gender and Religion in Modern India. I have struggled with this film on many levels. On one level it can be seen as an insightful, thought-provoking, and usefully intimate exploration of the details of the case, including interviews with one of the convicted rapists. The scenes at the beginning covering the December 2012 protests skillfully capture the sentiment of the Indian public's response and outcry at the brutality of the rape, preserving an important piece of Indian cultural history.

At times though, the film is perhaps quite starkly sensationalist in its presentation. The focus seems to initially reside on depictions of the victim Jyoti Singh (known more commonly in Indian media as "Nirbhaya") as a hard-working medical student with "good English," information which is obtained from interviews with the victim's parents. This emphasis on Jyoti's apparent innocence and selflessness is effectively contrasted with the atrocious remarks made during the interviews of convicted rapist Mukesh Singh and of his defense lawyers. It is an effective framing to say the least. If this were the plot of a fictional novel, the readers would be undoubtedly side with Jyoti and condemn the vicious brutality of the rapists. Given the visceral scenes depicting unbearable poverty, the reader might even choose to interpret the narrative from the lens of a battle between classes where Jyoti symbolizes the aspirations of the lower-middle class, or perhaps even the aspirations of women more generally, to move up in Indian society only to be beat down whom? Even lower-class goondas? The system itself? It seems left open to interpretation.

This narrowing emphasis on class and/or caste present in the film has been critiqued by anti-rape activists in India, including London-based author Salil Tripathi:
"The film places the enormous burden of the complex narrative of rape in India on the singular shoulders of one incident. It reinforces the idea that if you are a poor, occasionally-employed single man, you are likely to be a rapist. It does not show that rape in India cuts across class, caste, religion and region. It also reinforces the idea that rape happens with strangers, when domestic rape is one of the hidden secrets of India. But none of those reasons are good enough to ban the film."                       
There are many possible interpretations to the narrative structure of this film. For the purposes of this piece however I choose to focus not on the film itself, but rather on the Indian public's responses to it.  So what can we learn from the myriad of responses to India's Daughter?

To ban or not to ban?
The reasons given for banning the film in India are numerous. Some have argued that the filmor at least the way the film was promoted on India news sourcessensationalized both the rape and the interview given by convicted rapist Mukesh Singh. The hashtag #NirbhayaInsulted emerged as a result, which was subsequently picked up by celebrities and politicians in India as a way to publicly protest against media sensationalist accounts of rape.

The choice to ban the film remained a controversial topic within the Indian government for several days after the film's release:
The Rajya Sabha was adjourned for 15 minutes after women MPs led by Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan stormed the well of the house demanding action against Tihar jail authorities for allowing an interview of one of the perpetrators of the December 16 gangrape. The women parliamentarians were later joined by their male colleagues from the opposition. “We don't need your crocodile tears,” Ms. Bachchan said to the BJP MPs in the treasury Benches of the house.
As MP Jaya Bachchan said on the Parliament floor:
“I am very disappointed in what he has done; and what he too is doing. What do you mean by this?! What is meant by this is didn’t you want to accomplish work swiftly? For two days this conversation has been going on. You people reflect [first] and act later. Women don’t want your crocodile tears!”-[translation from Hindi]
In a later interview, MP Jaya Bachchan explained her concern, accusing the filmmaker Leslee Udwin for making the Nirbhaya rapist a "celebrity."

Other film critiques have responded much more favorably to the film. Sagarika Ghose argues that India's Daughter does not glorify rape, but rather that the interviews reveal important truths about "bigoted prejudice and backward views" in India:
There is nothing in this serious film that is either vulgar, offensive or glorifies rape and far from being an "insult" to Nirbhaya is in many ways a tribute to her formidable courage. When the dead-eyed remorseless rapist Mukesh Singh declares "usne haath payr chalaya islilye humne usko maara"[translation: "She was killed because she lifted a hand to defend herself."]- the viewer's heart skips a beat for a young woman who deserves a national salute from every citizen. ...In shocking interviews with defence lawyers M L Sharma and A P Singh we hear monstrous voices that exist in our midst, in the midst of so called "democratic" India, lawyers clad in the black coat of the law, voicing bigoted prejudice and backward views that should force all of us to embark on public introspection....

Others, including activist Kavita Krishnan (who was also interviewed in the film) raised legal objections concerning the case itself, arguing that the film contained information which infringes on the legal rights of both the victim and the accused men. Since Mukesh Singh's final appeal had not yet been concluded, several activists wrote an letter petitioning that the film's release should be postponed:
"...After viewing the film we are of the considered view that the film infringes upon and compromises the rights of the rape victim and the accused men.It must be underlined that the appeal in the case of 16 December 2012 gang rape and murder is still pending before the Supreme Court of India. This film clearly constitutes an obstruction in the administration of justice, and therefore violates the law. The film carries the potential to prejudice the outcome of the legal proceedings. Our objection to it being telecast during this period stems from our deep commitment to defending the human rights of all and upholding the rule of law...." From letter to NDTV requesting postponement of the film

Framing it as a necessary exception to freedom of speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cites this (and other) legal objection(s) as the primary reason for banning to release of the film. In an interview with TIME he said,

"If you look at the issue related to the telecast of the documentary that you referred, it is not a question of freedom of speech, it is more a legal question. It has two or three aspects. One aspect is that the identity of the rape victim should not be revealed which would have happened if this interview was allowed to be telecast. Two, the case is still sub judice and the telecast which features the interview of the person who is alleged to have committed the crime could have impacted the judicial process. Three, it is also our responsibility to ensure protection of the victim. If we had allowed such a thing to happen, in effect, we would have violated the dignity of the victim. So I do not think it is a question of freedom of speech, it is more a question of law and respecting the victim and the judicial processes in this particular case. In so far as freedom of speech is concerned, as I mentioned earlier, there is absolutely no issue. It is something that we greatly respect as an important aspect of our democratic values."

Since the release of the film, others have since called out the defense lawyers for their remarks against women:
The Supreme Court on Tuesday sought an explanation from the two defence lawyers in the Nirbhaya case for allegedly making derogatory remarks against women in the BBC documentary 'India's Daughter'. A bench headed by Justice V Gopal Gowda said the plea of Supreme Court Women Lawyers' Association seeking action against the two lawyers needed "serious consideration" and issued notice to advocates M L Sharma and A P Singh.
However, one objection to the film that is rarely discussed is the issue of PR, or that of preserving the "image" of India. It is to this more challenging issue that I want to focus my response.

Concerns over India's Image: Is India's Daughter a PR problem?

Amidst the concerns over legal violations or sensationalist reporting, one series of critiques levied against the film remain under-emphasized. Many critics have slammed both the film and its director for supposedly slandering the image of India.

The right-wing organization RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), in their propaganda mouthpiece 'Organiser,' published an article criticizing the BBC for its choice to telecast of the film despite the ban in India:

The article states that the documentary is not only "offensive" in its storytelling, but British film-maker Leslee Udwin has by calling India "a country of sick mindset" forced the viewers to question her intentions. 
The " Organiser" article said the documentary "deviates" from the real incident of the December 16 gang rape and "focuses on the rapist's mindset where the victim's family is utilized to enhance the impact of the rapist's account". .."Ignoring the crimes against women in developed nations and by calling India a country of sick mindset, Leslee reveals the double standards of BBC as her documentary is not only exploitative, it seems wrong too," the article says. ...The article also questioned the intention of the film-maker. "Did she intend really to cover the sensitivity of the gut-wrenching crime against a woman or was it being tilted towards the narrative of the rapist to defame India in the global community?" the article asked. ...No doubt sexual crimes against women in India are on the rise but this malaise is equally prevalent in developed nations like the US and European countries among others, it said.
This is not an uncommon response to the rise in reporting of sexual assault in India. By changing the tape to focus on how other countries also have a rape problem, in these types of responses, the blame is shifted to larger world-wide gender-based issues for which India alone can't be 'fairly' held accountable. This concern over public image is certainly understandable, especially given that India faced a 25% drop in tourism in 2013 following the Delhi gang rape. No country wants to be known as having a sexual assault problem. And no citylet alone the nation's capitalwants to be known as the "rape capital".

However it appears to be more than simply right-wing political organizations in India which seem concerned with the potential damage done to India's image. In response to the film there have also been pushes made to change the legal system to prevent similarly critical documentaries from being created in the future:
Officials in three ministries — Home, Information & Broadcasting and the Ministry of External Affairs — have been ordered to keep a close watch on proposals for shooting movies or documentaries, especially by foreigners, that are pending approvals, officials in these ministries have told ET. As part of this exercise, more than 200 permissions granted in the past couple of years will now be reviewed, ostensibly to ensure that these "do not spoil the image of the country".
"There is already a three-layered check in place, but it was circumvented in the case of India's Daughter," said a senior official in the I&B ministry, referring to Leslee Udwin's documentary film on the Nirbhaya rape case of 2012 whose telecast by the BBC earlier this month put an unflattering spotlight on the attitude towards women in India.
Concerns over India's image appear not be be merely centered on gendered issues alone, but also larger issues of poverty and class/caste. In response to the question, "What do you think is behind the ban?", Shweta Singh, Loyolla University Professor of Social Work and Women's Studies, responds as follows:

"Again, I think there are so many layers, Alexandra, the most important piece, I feel, is just like the government before this, the government of India wants to distance itself from the issue of--not rape so much, but--poverty. I think when you look at the movie, the first thing that you..actually strikes you more than, "Oh my god, the rape was so heinous..there were so many gory details" is the fact that look at the background those men came from! There was always an underlying class issue there. And it is so different from the image,new India image,that we are trying so hard to sell and the new government, as we discussed.. it's just, that imaging--no one wants to own it! No one wants to own an India which you can see is poor; No one wants to own an India where there is obvious unemployment; no one wants to own an India where you can see the stark differences between the way men think, between the way women think. I think the objection of the government of India is primarily about the fact that a few of the women have managed to get their paws just barely touching on that imbalance of power. And the men who are sitting on the other side cannot handle it. But I think the ban is more about imaging." --Interview for WBEZ Worldview (7:33-8:44)

This concern over "image"I want to suggestis one that transcends the situation in India.  This concern we see in India over public image is perhaps better considered a global issue, and one that likewise hinders the progress of gendered issues in many places around the world.

Moving towards a comparative lens

The concern over public image created by admitting the problem of gender-based violence is certainly not unique to India. In a recent documentary, The Hunting Ground, writer and director Kirby Dick explores the issue of rape on college campuses across the United States. Following the lives of individual women (and some men) who were raped on campus, this documentary provides a chillingly insightful picture of the ways in which many US colleges and Universities have not only failed to adequately support victims of sexual violence, but have at times increasingly tried to cover these crimes by under-reporting. As the film documents, thanks to the volunteer work of a just a few survivor activists, the first official complaints against Title IX violations were filed with the federal government's Office of Civil rights, which has since resulted in the federal investigation into many colleges and Universities . The numbers reported by the federal government as of May 2014 peaked at 55, however as of January 2015, the list seems to have reached at least 95.  One of the issues raised by The Hunting Ground was the concern University officials had displayed over the public image of their institution. No one wants to be the first university because it means they have a "rape problem." And if they have a rape problem, who will attend their institution? Who will donate money to their institution?

Perhaps in some ways, India is no different. Even though gender-based violence is a global issuewomen are raped, beaten and murdered every day all over the worldIndian officials, not unlike University administrators, are afraid of becoming the focus. Therefore they resist accepting culpability.

The fact that India's Daughter provokes this kind of response over the image of India is an important one. Just as concern over image (or rather the fear of being shamed) may at some point (I hope) motivate colleges and Universities across the US to more effectively and adequately address issues of campus assault and find ways to better support survivorswhich I anticipate The Hunting Ground will amplifyI hope that the outrage provoked by India's Daughter may similarly motivate political leaders in India to strive to make changes.

I want to end with some words, quite eloquently and passionately spoken by Kirron Kher, a member of Indian parliament (and famous actor) during the debates on whether India's Daughter should remain banned:

"[English] More important than whether the documentary should be made, or not made... It is the fact that what those people said is what we need to concentrate on.... [translated from Hindi] ...Are women truly advancing? On the one hand we say, “Daughter, protect yourself; Daughter, advance yourself." A daughter doesn't become honorable until she holds [herself ] back!..... It’s a matter of mindset…  [back to English] We have to tackle this problem right from the grassroots from where the mindset becomes such that you insult women. You do not understand that they give consent. The right to their bodies to give consent is theirs. It cannot be abrogated to somebody else. They need to be able to feel safe at all times!...." 

I hope that can all agree this kind of thinking is an important problem to address, wherever in the world we encounter it. Thank you for reading and as always, if you have any thoughts you want to share, please feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of the University of Chicago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or any of its affiliated faculty or staff members. The views contained therein are solely the opinions of this author and should not be taken as representing the University of Chicago or any of its representatives.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Intervening while traveling

I think a lot about intervention these days: why don't more people intervene when they see injustice, when they see violence? Why does the bystander effect occur?

Perhaps a more direct question to start with is: why should ordinary people concern themselves with intervention? After all, isn't it more dangerous to call attention to ourselves when there is violence (or risk of violence) occurring? Why should we get involved?
One afternoon in Chicago I was on the "L" (train) riding home. The train car was far from empty, but not particularly busy. A man had entered the train asking for money. I noticed that although one middle-aged woman had handed him some money, this man was continuing to pressure her in aggressive and hostile tones, demanding more. The woman (seated), with clear, assertive body language told him firmly, "You have money in your pocket now. I need my money." The man, now barely a foot away from the woman, leaned in closer to her and continued to demand she give him more money. In this moment it became clear to me that this was an act of intimidationnot unlike other forms of gender-based harassmentdesigned to manipulate and take advantage of her. The woman had initially responded assertively, through the tone and intensity of her verbal response, and also through body language (facing the harasser and making strong eye contact). However, when the harasser stepped in to claim her space, her assertiveness collapsed. Without attempting to reclaim her space, she turned her face away in an attempt to ignore the harasser. Seeing this harasser use his physicality to intimidate this woman in this way stirred something in me. I instantly snapped to attention. My stop was next, so I knew my time was limited. I made the decision to intervene. 
I took a few deep breaths to prepare. I then stood up, took a few steps towards the harasser and said loudly and clearly, "Sir, she doesn't want to speak with you. Please leave her alone." I repeated myself twice before my words registered. The harasser was so surprised that he stepped back from the woman and turned half his body towards me, and replied, "You need to mind your own business."
But my intervention had already succeeded. The harasser was distracted from his previous course of action and seemed unable to decide what to do next. He tried to resume conversation with the woman again, but, distracted out of his previous flow, he was no longer able to intimidate her. Realizing that I had disrupted his flow, the harasser turned his face to me again, this time threatening to "knock [me] down" if I didn't mind my own business. Despite these threatening words, my instincts told me I was safe, that all I needed to do was wait out the situation until my stop. Watching the harasser, I realized his body language did not match his words. A couple minutes earlier he had showed himself perfectly willing to use his physicality to intimidate another person. Yet, when responding to me, the harasser neither moved towards me, nor did he completely turned to face me. He was now positioned further away from the woman than before and was no longer leaning in, encroaching her space.
The harasser once more tried to initiative conversation with the woman by announcing that he was exiting at the next stop. She gleefully waved him on his way, apparently grateful for the reprieve. Positioning myself near the door, I quickly exited the train ahead of him, moved up the escalator and informed the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) attendants of the situation. I waited with the CTA attendants until the harasser had completely exited. I then safely exited and headed home. 
For several days after this incident, I second-guessed my decision to intervene. Was it wise for me to intervene in this incident? After all, intervention had (temporarily) redirected his hostile attention to me. Adrenaline was pumping through my body; I felt vulnerable. I was far from "comfortable" in the moment. Recalling my discomfort, I wondered how many others would have made the same choice. Yet despite these doubts, I felt secure in my decision. I had trusted my instincts and succeeded in distracting the harasser from continuing to bother this (or other) female passengers while remaining safe in the process.

Why should we choose to intervene?

Generally speaking, the principles for intervention are the same as for self-defense. When done carefully and mindfully, intervention has the potential to completely diffuse a would-be violent situation. Sometimes just a word is all that is necessary to interrupt, distract, de-escalate, or discourage a would-be-attacker/harasser/abuser. Sometimes the presence of another person is all that is necessary to give a would-be victim time to breathe, think and react, escape if possible, and to encourage them to defend themselves if necessary.  Someday we might be the ones in the situation where we hope that someone will come to our aid, to support us. Even if we are not in physical danger in that moment, we may wish someone else would speak out on our behalf.  

And sometimesjust sometimeswe may be in a situation where we are uniquely privileged enough to help another. What do I mean by that? If someone less privileged than ourselves is being targetedwhether due to gender or perceived gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, class, etc.then it may be the case that we alone have the power, the social capital, to intervene in that moment. 

I would love to see more men intervene on behalf of women who are being targeted for harassment or assault. Likewise, I know many in the LGBTQ community who would love it if more cis-gendered straight people would intervene on their behalf. And so I make an effort to intervene and speak out whenever and wherever I encounter racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, or other hate-based speech or actions.

How can you safely intervene? 

Sadly, there is no hard-and-fast rule for how or if one should intervene, just as there is no hard-and-fast rule for optimal boundary setting or de-escalation applied for oneself. What I can share with you are the principles we use at Thousand Waves, which have enabled me to safely and successfully intervene on behalf of others on numerous occasionswithout ever raising a fist.

When assessing when and how to intervene, the first thing I attempt to determine is whether or not I feel "safe" intervening. Not whether or not I feel "comfortable"which is another thing entirelybut whether or not I can intervene safely. Much of this has to do with body positioning. How far away am I from the attacker/harasser/abuser? How far away are exits? 
One Chicago summer evening I was in my 4th floor apartment. From an open window I heard  a woman yelling "Don't touch me!" Heart racing, I ran to the window, and stuck my head out to see what was going on. For a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of a woman moving away from a man, looking angry and upset, but soon they were out of my sight. The woman continued yelling. From her body language and choice of words, I realized the woman did not know the person who was following her. 
I stuck my head out the window and started yelling back, "Does anyone need help? Would you like me to call 911?" In reply, I heard nothing but the woman continuing to yell at the man following her. I started to hear other voices out the window, from others in their apartments crying out things like "Leave her alone!" Still, nothing in response but shouts from the woman. I called out the window again, this time to say, "I'm calling 911." And did so. 
After I reached the police and described what I could see/hear, I made a decision to check on them in person. I went downstairs formulating a plan along the way.  I was going to carefully approach the apartment building door and if it looked like I could safely allow the woman inside, I would stay with her in the main foyer until police arrived. 
That ended up being unnecessary. As I reached the door I realized they must be far out of my sight. I carefully went outside and saw, nearly a block down, a police car with flashing lights. And a policeman talking with the male aggressor (who was verbally defending himself to the cop, "I didn't do anything!"). Seeing that the woman appeared to be safe and the situation seemed under control, I headed back to the front door. As I walked back to the front door, I ran into a neighbor from my apartment building, who had apparently come out to do the same thing as me! We talked for a few and I discovered she had also called 911. She told me she had heard me shouting that I was going to call 911 and so she did so as well. 
I remained safe. The other interveners remained safe, and both parties from outside appeared to be safe in the end.

So why did I choose to respond as I did? 

At hearing the woman's words, my first instinct was say something like "Leave her alone! Back off!" In fact, I opened my mouth to start shouting these phrases before stopping myself. 

The problem with those kinds of responses is that they are polarizing: they already presuppose who is at fault in a given situation. While sometimes it may be clear who the 'perpetrator' is, other times (such as in domestic violence), it is not always so easy to determine who is 'at fault'. Refraining from polarizing by choosing more neutral questions such as  "Can I help you?" or "Do you need some help?" can help control and, in fact, de-escalate the situation. If the argument or conflict appears to already be escalated in some way, you can also call out either "Do you want me to call the police?" or "I'm calling the police!" And then do so. These can be safe actions, at least in the areas I've traveled around in Chicago. 

Intervention doesn't have to be complicated or risky; it can be as simple as stopping to call the police, yelling to distract a would-be assailant, or even interrupting a racist or sexist comment.

What does intervention have to do with traveling to South Asia?

At this point you may be wondering why I'm writing about intervention situations in Chicago when this is a blog about traveling in South Asia.

I write about intervention because all of us, women and men alike, have the capacity to reduce conflict and protect others from violence, emotional or physical, whether we are in our home town or city, or whether we are traveling far from home. Violence exists everywhere around the world; intervention should too. So I want to end this piece by sharing an experience I had in India.

I should start this story by explaining a curious phenomenon that occurs in India: standing in a "line." I have found that in India lines, or queues as they are called in the Indian-English vernacular, seem to be a curious sort of myth, not unlike Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster: some may have claimed to have witnessed such things, but their existence is highly contested.

In a session on "Travel Safety and Cultural Orientation" I led for a group of fellows heading to India this past June, I brought up the subject of queues. The Indian-American fellows in the group collectively laughed:

 "What queues? There are no such thing!""You mean that fact that there aren't queues in India!?"

I couldn't help but laugh along with them. The inside joke is that what are called 'queues' in India, more often than not, tend to consist of disorderly clumps of people pushingsometimes gently, sometimes not so muchto establish their place closest to the desired location, be it the counter at the local corner grocery or the front entrance to a bus or train. Whenever I am in the US waiting to board a flight to India I always experience a feeling of mirth and nostalgia for India when I see these "lines" beginning to form in the airport terminal. Smiling gleefully, I find myself joining in, creating more clumps. But I digress.
One busy, crowded morning in Sarnath (outside Varanasi, U.P.), I was waiting in line to enter the site where his Holiness the Dalai Lama would be giving teachings later on that day. There were two separate lines for entry: one for men and one for women. As I looked around I saw men and women of all nationalitiesIndian, Tibetan, Ladakhi, Chinese, European, American, and so forthstanding in wait. The lines seemed to stretch on forever. Having experience with queues in India (and queues for Buddhist events in particular), I expected that we would be going nowhere quickly and that many locals would probably push their way through towards the front of the queue. I was surprised to notice that this queue was actually, more-or-less, a proper "line" in the geometrical sense of the word. There was little pushing and little cutting. Looking ahead I soon noticed why. A few meters ahead I saw a grumpy-looking English-speaking Westerner from the men's line, who appeared to take any infringement on the sanctity of the men's line as a personal offense. He was apparently single-handedly acting as martial for the queues, making sure no one would cut ahead of him. I smiled and shook my head. Overhearing some Tibetan women in my queue commenting on this (in Tibetan) with their male compatriots in the other line, I laughed along with them kindheartedly and contributed, "Kyen tsarpo du gah?!" ("Weird, huh?!") Realizing I was in on the joke as well, they smiled, chatting with me. Tension was low in the crowd. 
Ahead of me in the women's queue, I noticed a small group of older Ladakhi women, gently pushing the queue ahead of them as they smiled playfully. I couldn't help but smile. "Of course," I thought to myself, recalling the experience of the previous evening when the gentle pushing of the crowd had somewhat forcibly assisted with my exit from the grounds.  
Then I saw it. An English-speaking western woman turned around to face the group of Ladakhi women behind her and angrily snapped, "Don't push me!" before turning back. Alert, my mind and body snapped into focus. The Ladakhi women, understanding not a word of English, giggled and continued with their play-pushing, unaware that the woman ahead did not share in their fun. Turning around again, she raised her voice and said, "I said, DON'T PUSH ME!" and gave the Ladakhi woman behind her a light shove. 
My instincts kicked in at this moment. Without thinking, I quickly approached them and took up the physical space between the two, separating them. The Ladakhi woman, who I could now see was clearly in her late 70s or 80s, was still laughing, apparently not realizing that this was no longer a game and that her lighthearted response was likely escalating the situation. The English-speaking woman was clearly livid. I turned first towards the Ladakhi woman. I told her first in Hindi, then in Tibetan (hoping it would be close enough to Ladakhi that she or one of her companions might understand): "She's angry because you were pushing her, like this [demonstrating a push]. She doesn't like it when you do that, ok?" The Ladakhi woman repeated my words back to me while demonstrating a push alongside me. She and her companions smiled, nodded in understanding and then laughed, finally understanding the 'joke'that is, why the silly western woman was so upset. I had gotten the message across. 
I then turned towards the Western woman, and in as calm and kind of a voice as I could manage, said, "She didn't understand you. She didn't know that pushing was bothering you. Pushing is what they do." I shrugged in an attempt to communicate that it was bizarre to me too (it wasn't), hoping that solidarity might win me points. Unconvinced, the western woman angrily replied, "Oh, she understood me!  She knew what she was doing!!" Mentally crossing my fingers that it would be true, I replied to her calmly and simply, "Well, she's not going to do it again." Despite remaining angry, the western woman turned back towards the front again. The Ladakhi women continued chatting cheerfully as though nothing had gone on, but remained further away from this woman than before. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to my spot in the "line."
It's likely that not much would have happened had I not intervened. Even at the time I had a hard time believing that the Western woman would have physically escalated the situation beyond thisor at least not with an old woman. But then again, I was surprised to see her push the old woman in the first place. Intervening when I did interrupted the conflict in the moment; it distracted both parties from the conflict at hand and gave the western woman an "out". Sometimes in conflict people are looking for an "out", a way to back out without "losing face." Sometimes a distraction is all that is needed to stop escalation in the moment.

Intervention can do much more than even this.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to remind a woman who has just been harassed that she is not alone. 

"Wow, that was creepy. Are you ok?" 
"Was that guy bothering you?" 
"I'm sorry you experienced that." 
"Do you want to talk about it?"

Sometimes all it takes is one person to interrupt harassment in the moment.

"Hey, leave her alone!" 
"She doesn't want to talk to you. Back off!" 
"Dude, that's not cool. Don't be like that." 
"Seriously, dude. Women don't like that. Don't do it!"

At my karate school, Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self Defense Center, NFP, our new Spring 2014 T-shirts promote this approach to intervention. The first half of the message is on the front of the shirt, and the second half on the back. It reads:

Call me anything....But don't call me a bystander!

I choose to be an intervener. What do you choose? 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Responding to harassment from acquantainces and professional contacts while traveling

In previous posts, I've focused almost exclusively on interactions with strangers, ignoring the quite common form of harassment many women face while traveling in South Asia (and for that matter, wherever they are in the world): sexual harassment by acquaintances, colleagues, and professional contacts made while traveling. 

The risks of 'immersion'

When traveling in a place foreign to us, as I have discovered, it is easy for common sense to fly out the window. There are so many things around that can distract us from our senses and our intuition
our easiest means for judging whether or not we are at risk. And to an extent, as travelers we may want to be distracted. We may sincerely want to feel out of our element so that we can more deeply immerse ourselves in the foreign culture. Or, at least I do. This experience of immersion and distraction from our own views and presuppositions is one of the many reasons I love to travel and meet with new people.  

There is, however, a risk to this attempted immersion. Especially if we are uncertain of the cultural norms, it can be easy to become so 'immersed' that we may ignore the signals that our bodies tell us when something is wrong. We may misinterpret social cues as benign which would ordinarily register as being "red flags", signals that we should pay attention and increase our awareness. For this reason
and for many others which will be addressed belowsetting boundaries for contacts you meet while abroad can be more challenging.

Many who attend our Empowerment Self Defense courses at Thousand Waves in Chicago report that they find boundary-setting more difficult when it is directed toward a friend, colleague, family member, or other intimate person. While many Americans in particularespecially those of us from the South or more rural Midwest—struggle with guilt over coming across as “rude” or “impolite” when conversing with strangers who violate boundaries, there is sometimes an even greater social pressure experienced when people we know push those same boundaries. Setting boundaries for colleagues, friends and loved ones can be more challenging for many people, even those quite adept at setting limits for complete strangers! 

I am one of those people. 

I was raised on the south-east coast of Virginia, a delightfully urban area only a 30-minute drive from the nearest rural areas in the state. I was taught to be polite, wave, and smile at strangers
which I still enjoy doing even in Chicago, to the annoyance of more than a few passersby! Quickly learning that smiling at strangers was far from the norm in India, I saved my smiles and friendliness for those I had a chance to converse with first. From living in Chicago, and eventually from traveling in India, I learned to set limits quickly and efficiently with strangers, both with my voice and body language. The same was not the case for acquaintances. 

When I was a beginning student of Tibetan and Hindi languages, I strove to practice these languages while traveling, by speaking in Tibetan/Hindi as appropriate with scholars, language tutors and other professional contacts, hotel workers, taxi and rickshaw drivers, and with anyone else I had the chance to meet. This practice created for me an incredible amount of opportunities to have meaningful conversations with a variety of persons across the spectrum of gender, ethnicity, caste, class, education, religion, etc. as I traveled throughout India.  This practice has served me well over the years as a grad student and researcher. I have met many incredible people in India, and forged life-long friendships with more than a few. I love traveling around South Asia and have no regrets about my choice to be open and friendly towards potential friends and colleagues while traveling. 

However, one of the most basic facts of Self Defense is that
—no matter our gender, no matter our age—we are much more likely to encounter violence from someone we know than from a complete stranger. And just as gender-based violence from strangers often begins with smaller, and sometimes more subtle forms of violence (such as staring, catcalling, invasion of personal space) and escalates to larger forms (i.e. stalking, attempting groping on through groping, sexual assault, rape, battery, etc.), so does violence perpetrated by people we know.

For me, while I struggled daily with street harassment which threatened to wear me down emotionally on a regular basis, it was the persistence and prevalence of acquaintance-harassment which I found to be the more difficult challenge throughout my travels. 

While this kind of experience may be common knowledge among scholars trained in ethnography (or alternately for those with personal experience traveling and enduring harassment from contacts abroad), this experience is not commonly discussed among academic women outside of private conversations. This post, in part, aims to serve as a beginning attempt to discuss the obstacles female students and scholars face, which socially and perhaps professionally hinder us from addressing these issues.

When a conversation partner turns harasser... 

In one of my research sites, there was a local Tibetan man who worked at a restaurant attached to my guest house. I made it a habit of speaking in Tibetan while in Tibetan-run establishments and in Hindi while in North Indian-run establishments. I will call him Dorjee. 

Our relationship started out friendly and amicable. He would approach my table at the restaurant whenever I dropped by for tea, and strike up conversation, which I enjoyed. It was a relief for him to speak to a foreigner in Tibetan and a relief to me to have someone with whom to practice my Tibetan. Then, gradually his behaviors over the weeks started escalating. 

I was sitting in the restaurant one day. I had briefly chatted with Dorjee in Tibetan while ordering food. After finishing my meal, he returned to chat some more. He joked around with me verbally pretending to mishear me. I had called him “chok tsa po” (funny) which he pretended to mishear as “chu tsa po” (hot water) and so he proceeded jokingly to ask the kitchen for hot water. While his language was playful, something in his tone caught my attention and I began to feel uncomfortable. I played along with the joke anyway, and corrected him saying “No, chok tsa po.” After this exchange however, I started to find him considerably less funny.  

As I left the restaurant Dorjee asked me where I was heading. I answered succinctly in Tibetan “my room. ” He said “ok” and proceeded to follow me closely in a joking manner up the stairs from the restaurant  towards my room.  Confused, I asked him what he was doing. He replied "Going to your room." Realizing he was, in part, playing on a linguistic particularity of Tibetan (my first answer could have also been translated as "[we] are going to my room"), but wanting to set a boundary immediately,  I turned to face him and firmly said in Tibetan "I am going to my room. You are not going!"  He pretended to finally 'catch on' and  stopped following me.  I retreated to the safety of my room and promptly blocked out my reactions to Dorjee's behavior out of my mind. After all, I had more important things to worry about, like doing research for my dissertation!

More disturbing, however, was what happened half an hour later.  I was heading out to go to a coffee shop to do some work. I was on the phone with my partner so I was distracted. Dorjee grabbed my backpack from behind to slow me down and again in his joking manner asked where I’m going. Still not recognizing Dorjee's behavior as harassment, I answered honestly that I’m heading to a coffee shop to do some work. He continued to hold on to my backpack 'playfully'. It didn't feel very playful to me. I was so surprised that I forgot temporarily how to say “let go!” in Tibetan, so said it loudly and firmly in English. I switched to Tibetan and told him just as firmly that I needed to go and that I was on the phone. He then apologized and backed off.  I played it off in my mind as “just playing around” and “harmless” and explained it as such to my partner on the phone who had overheard only parts of the exchange. It wasn't until the next day that I recognized this collectively as aggressive, harassing, and controlling behavior.

A week or so later, on one cold day—a very cold day
I walked into the restaurant for some tea. Dorjee approached me asking me “Tsa po goe”? (Want something hot?) Forgetting the alternate meaning of tsa po in Tibetan (sexually hot or cold), I wasn’t sure what to make of this strangely phrased sentence. I decided to reply with my order of hot chai and momos. He took my order and then returned to my table and repeated the phrase “Tsa po goe”?  I knew at that point that he was trying to tease or play at something but it wasn’t until the third time that he repeated the phrase that I realized he was propositioning me. My initial reaction was embarrassment at the realization that a) I had just missed sexual innuendo in his first statement and b) he was saying something so sexually aggressive to me. Flushing with embarrassment, I made eye contact and glared at him solidly for about 5 seconds to indicate how I felt about his question, said something along the lines of “Not you! Go away” in Tibetan, and pretended to ignore him by burying myself in the book I had brought. Dorjee left me alone for the rest of the day.  I decided to avoid the restaurant after that day. 

I returned to the restaurant only one other time after that incident, about a month or so later. I had decided to move to a different guest house, but one night I had a craving for their pizza (it can be so hard to get good pizza in India), so I went to the restaurant. Seeing Dorjee there, I remained standing by the counter and placed my order to go. I pretended to be uninterested in conversing with him (which wasn't difficult at this point!). He asked why I wasn't sitting down. I politely but firmly replied (in Tibetan) that I'd rather eat in my room. He asked if I was staying at the place next door and I shook my head no, but refused to answer the implied question, again pretending to be uninterested in conversation. When the food was ready, I took it to my guest house room and ate alone in blessed silence, feeling relieved. 

So why did I hesitate to respond in these situations? Those who know me well have probably seen much more assertive (and possibly aggressive) responses from me when I feel my boundaries (or someone elses') are being violated. 

I have spent quite a lot of time thinking through these experiences, and others, recalling what I felt at the time, and in particular, what discouraged me from reacting. One challenge was that my mental energy was tied up, trying to communicate in Tibetan. I was so focused on the immersion experience, on trying to communicate that I lost touch with my body. For me, the process of foreign language immersion made it more difficult for me to be in touch with my body and instincts, which were telling me Dorje's behavior was aggressive. 

In the case of professional contacts while traveling (interviewees, language tutors, scholars, etc.), there is potentially the additional complication of wanting or needing something from that person. There may be some reason why we may feel we need to maintain that professional relationship despite the abusive behavior. Much like harassment experienced in the traditional workplace, we may feel uncomfortable responding to harassing behavior because we perceive the other as having power over us. Others simply fear cultivating a reputation in the workplace for appearing "rude" or "oversensitive."

There is a similar phenomena, I think, that occurs when traveling, especially for those interested in immersion experiences. It is easy to focus so much on showing "respect" for the culture we forget to protect ourselves. Assuming that the behaviors that make us uncomfortable are accepted in the foreign culture, we avoid speaking out, for fear of offense. 

It is easy to forget that just as every American in the moment is not necessarily expressing American cultural values (and may in fact be transgressing them!), the same goes for persons of every other culture. Harassment and violence may manifest differently in different cultures, but that doesn't mean they are accepted by the mainstream culture. South Asian women speak out daily against harassment, so why shouldn't I? Perhaps more importantly, if speaking out is what I feel I need to do to feel safe, then shouldn't I do that anyway, regardless of what I assume to be "culturally appropriate behavior"?   

Over the years I've learned to accept the risk of appearing "rude" towards someone who is violating my boundaries wherever in the world I am. But every once in a while, a new situation emerges—such as this one—where I am just distracted just enough that I don't recognize the behavior for what it is: harassment. And I have to remind myself that I too am only human and will make mistakes on one side or the other as I progress through life. 

Cultivating cross-gender relationships while traveling

I've thought a lot about the gendered aspects of interactions while traveling. Certainly it is more likely in South Asia than in the U.S. that even polite conversation across genders will be misinterpreted as sexual interest (or more accurately, assumed to indicate sexual interest). Should I then avoid conversations with male strangers while traveling—which my male-identified colleagues may not have to do—and thus disadvantage myself as a female scholar? Throughout India, even today it is still more common to see more men in public than women (and to rarely see women in public alone). Should I disadvantage myself by limiting access to conversation partners? As a woman, I am already restricted in terms of safe physical access to public (and private) space. The options many of my male colleagues take advantage of without question (taking local buses in large cities, traveling alone at night, etc.) do not feel like safe options for me. Should I restrict myself in the socially as well by limiting access to professional and/or social contacts? 

Or, perhaps more importantly, isn't even the assumption that I should avoiding interacting with men in public a form of gender-based discrimination? Is it fair to judge an entire gender-identity (even within one country) based on the actions of a few? 

I've endured harassment (and worse) from men I've cultivated 'relationships' with over my travels. But there are countless other men (and women) I've cultivated relationships withprofessional and personalwho have been respectful, supportive and empowering: male scholars who treat me as a professional peer, women who have offered rides without demanding anything in return, men and women who sincerely want to chat and exchange stories about experiences traveling, and men and women who I consider to be my family abroad. 

There are risks in any relationship you cultivatewith persons of any genderwhether at home or abroad. Most relationships will not devolve as mine did. But some might. I share these reflections in the hope that other travelers might feel empowered to cultivate healthy relationships with a variety of people as they traveland feel empowered to weed out the unhealthy ones as well! 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Some Common Misconceptions about Harassment in South Asia

I have created this document as a resource with the hopes that it can serve as a useful guide for female students and scholars traveling to South Asia.  Because a female traveler never knows when she is simply being commented upon and when she is being tested, it may not always be safe to simply “ignore” harassment. Whether ignoring or confronting harassment is the best response will depend on the situation. In my experience, there is no one “right way” to safely respond to harassment. I created this document in part to share some ideas I hope will help women who are preparing for travel.

I base the ‘facts’ and ‘misconceptions’ in part on my personal experiences as well as the reported experiences of many female travelers I have met over the years. The approaches to handling harassment and violence in this handout come from a variety of sources, many of which are based in feminist empowerment-based models for teaching Self Defense popular in many North American women’s martial arts organizations, such as the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation (NWMAF), but also include recent scholarship on violence such as Holly Kearl’s and Gavin de Becker’s writings. This information is meant as a guide rather than a definitive way to cope with or manage street harassment and I take sole responsibility for the information provided.

Common Misconceptions
Facts about Street Harassment
·         Harassment is a compliment. Men only stare when they find you attractive.
Street Harassment is a form of violence. Because street harassment around the world occurs in the context of (a) fear of rape and (b) systematic inequality of women, it often evokes a fear response in women because of the potential lack of safety that could result. Because a woman never knows if a man is intending to simply comment or if they plan to do more, it can be difficult for harassing remarks and actions to be interpreted neutrally.

Harassment, like other forms of gender-based violence, is about power.  Discussions about harassment or assault that focus on it exclusively on it as a sexual act or as relating to the attractiveness, age, perceived sexual “looseness,” or other aspects of the appearance of the victim conflates harassment with complimentary behavior and may obscure the fact that it is a form of violence.
·         Since there is no taboo against staring in South Asia, foreigners will be stared at regardless.
While staring is a common pastime in many regions of South Asia, and any form of staring can be unnerving for many women, harassment is not always expressed through staring; likewise, not all stares constitute gender-based harassment.  The assertion that the two are equivalent is misguided and potentially dangerous advice for female travelers.

·    Harassment isn’t a real form of violence. The best response is always to ignore harassment.
Like all forms of violence, harassment can escalate from irritating (such as stares, cat-calls, lewd remarks), to bullying or intimidating (threatening looks, restriction of personal space, stalking, propositions for sexual acts, lewd gestures, lewd phone calls, emails or text messages) to assault or attempted assault (groping, trying to enter someone's hotel room, trying to pull someone into a car or alleyway, beating, sexual assault).

Attackers go through a process of targeting, testing, and selection of victims. Harassment is typically a part of the targeting and testing process. If the potential victim "passes" the test, the potential attacker might advance to a more dangerous or serious stage.  If you do choose to ignore harassment, make it a conscious choice. Project a sense of confidence and awareness of your surroundings. Note if there is more than one person harassing and try to get as much information as you can about what their intent may be.

·         Harassment can be prevented by wearing appropriately modest or local clothing and jewelry, and by behaving according to socially accepted gender norms in the region (no smoking, drinking, etc.)
The frequency of harassment and risk of assault can be reduced by wearing clothing and/or jewelry appropriate to the region of travel and by avoiding being seen engaging in behavior that is contrary to local norms; however, nothing is 100% effective. In my experience it is unrealistic to expect that harassment is completely preventable. Excessive attention and questions regarding a woman’s behavior and/or what she was wearing at the time of harassment (or assault) is not supportive and may imply the woman is responsible for the violence done to them. 

·         Harassment is a North Indian problem. If you work/study in the Southern regions of India, you won’t encounter harassment.

Harassment occurs in the South as well as the North; it occurs in villages as well as cities. Harassment may occur with greater frequency in certain regions of South Asia, but there is unlikely to be a region of South Asia that is harassment-free just as there are few places in the United States that are harassment-free.
·         If you avoid going out at night while in South Asia, you can avoid being harassed.

While women report greater frequency of harassment at night, harassment also occurs with frequency during the day. Whenever a woman is in public—whether going by bus, train, auto, taxi, rickshaw, or walking—she can be at risk of harassment.
·         If you travel with a male friend you can avoid being harassed.

While traveling with someone--such as a male companion--may keep you more safe from harassing comments, many women report being harassed in public while traveling with a male companion, whether friend, relative, or dating partner/spouse. 
·         Harassment is simply a "rite of passage" that female scholars traveling to South Asia have to face.
While many women do report feeling “stronger” after surviving experiences of harassment (and other challenges) in South Asia, these are generally after-the-fact interpretations of their experiences.  For someone currently experiencing regular or intense harassment, the “rite-of-passage” rhetoric is not necessarily supportive or empowering.  This rhetoric may additionally risk implying that a woman needs to endure verbal or potentially physical or sexual abuse in order to become a better scholar.
·         The "degree" of harassment experienced will determine a person's emotional reaction to it.
Harassment is a very individual and personally subjective experience. Different women will react differently to experiences of harassment. The impact cannot be determined by a specific quantity, quality, or duration of experience(s). Factors that can impact an individual’s experience of harassment may include the victim’s age, race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, previous experience with travel, previous experience(s) of harassment, past experience(s) of abuse, assault, or other forms of violence, availability of support structure in South Asia, among other factors. It is difficult to predict how an individual will react to experiences of harassment or how it will impact them in the future.

How can we support women experiencing harassment while traveling?
  • Consider reaching out to ask female travelers about their experiences abroad; be an active listener.
  • Realize that systemic harassment can potentially be traumatic for an individual as it constitutes violations of safety and of the body in public space.
  • If appropriate, suggest resources for counseling or therapy through your institution’s counseling services
  • Consider sharing resources that you or others have found useful for feeling empowered while facing harassment in the moment.

Bibliography and Additional Resources
de Becker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals thatProtect Us From Violence.  New York: Random House, 1997.
Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012.
Stop Street Harassment!
Traveling While Female: A blog on street harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault
for women traveling to India, South Asia.
Violence Prevention Resources made publically available via Thousand Waves Martial Arts
and Self-Defense Center, NFP:

Author's note:
I originally wrote this first as a handout (which is accessible as a downloadable pdf via my page) in order to provide resources for interested teachers, educators, researchers, administrators and others who advise or otherwise prepare students for travel to South Asia for either study or research/work. While this handout was conceived as a resource to benefit non-South Asians who travel to South Asia, I hope that the information is useful for South Asian men and women as well.  As always if you have any thoughts, concerns, questions, or corrections, please feel free to email me directly via the feedback link on this page.

Erin H. Epperson
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Chicago
Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of the University of Chicago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or any of its affiliated faculty or staff members. The views contained therein are solely the opinions of this author and should not be taken as representing the University of Chicago or any of its representatives.